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Budget-cut protesters occupy Tom Ridge's offices

HARRISBURG - A three-story brownstone where former Gov. Tom Ridge has offices for his lobbying firm became ground zero Wednesday in the fight over Pennsylvania's proposed new budget.

HARRISBURG - A three-story brownstone where former Gov. Tom Ridge has offices for his lobbying firm became ground zero Wednesday in the fight over Pennsylvania's proposed new budget.

About 250 advocates from organized labor, environmental groups, and social services carried out a surprise ambush on Ridge's firm, which represents companies drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale. They delivered this message: If the proposed budget will slice education funding, then it should also make big drilling companies pay taxes on the natural gas they extract.

Clutching signs and chanting slogans, most of the activists swarmed into the Ridge Policy Group, just a block from the Capitol, shortly after 2 p.m. They poured through the unlocked doors and began packing rooms on the first and second floors, demanding that someone from the lobbying firm come speak to them.

With their stomping feet causing the floorboards to creak and groan - and likely breaking fire codes - they finally got the attention of Mark Campbell, a partner in the firm and Ridge's onetime chief of staff. He talked briefly to organizers and promised to tell his clients that activists wanted to speak with them.

"We'll be back," the activists warned as the group finally left about 15 minutes later with chants of "No Free Pass for Oil and Gas." They left a mock invoice for the millions in taxes they say could have been collected from an extraction tax.

The scene at Ridge's firm epitomized the near-instant polarizing effect produced after Gov. Corbett unveiled his $27.3 billion spending plan Tuesday.

In doing so, the governor stuck to his campaign pledge to not raise a single tax - including no new levy or fee on natural gas extraction. At the same time, he called for layoffs, wage freezes, and some of the deepest cuts in memory for public schools and colleges. That prompted Democrats and some interest groups to accuse him of balancing the budget on the backs of students and the middle class.

The legislature now starts the arduous task of sorting through Corbett's 1,184-page budget proposal, and protests like the one Wednesday are expected to become more the norm than the exception in the Capitol.

Despite the noise, Corbett will still have the wind of politics at his back - both legislative chambers are controlled by members of his own party. That bodes well for the new governor as he seeks to implement his agenda.

Still, some top Republicans in the Senate have signaled that there will be, at the very least, a debate as they negotiate the budget on whether and how much to tax natural gas extraction.

Other lawmakers, led by Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), are pushing legislation for a three-year moratorium on additional state forest land being leased for natural gas drilling. Vitali thinks a three-year moratorium would allow the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to study the environmental effects of the process that drillers use to extract gas from the shale before any more wells are bored. His proposal does not affect existing leases and does not apply to privately owned land.

The governor has said repeatedly he does not want to scare off the industry with new levies. He has also said he intends to lift the moratorium imposed by his predecessor, Ed Rendell, late last year on new state forest drilling.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition said the industry already contributes to the state's tax base. Travis Windle referred to a Pennsylvania State University study that showed Marcellus Shale drillers generated $785 million last year in taxes, including corporate taxes paid directly to the state as well as income and sales tax paid by people they employ.

In his budget address, Corbett called the Marcellus Shale formation "not just something new to tax," but "a resource, a source of potential wealth, the foundation of a new economy."

"Let's make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural gas boom," he said. "I'm determined that Pennsylvania not lose this moment."

Environmental and other activists pointed out Wednesday that Texas is among many states that impose a so-called "production tax" on natural gas.

The groups protesting in Ridge's office included several locals of the Service Employees International Union, as well as a number of environmental groups, such as Clean Water Action.

The group first held a rally near the Capitol, then began marching to what it earlier described as an "undisclosed location" to deliver the invoice.

The location ended up being Ridge's firm, which was hired last summer to lobby for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which advocates for oil and gas companies.

Altogether, Ridge's firm in Harrisburg and a separate consulting firm in Washington are being paid $900,000 for a one-year contract as the coalition's strategic advisers.

Campbell, one of the Ridge Group's partners, said he was caught by surprise by the protesters, who spread through the brownstone's narrow first floor, even taking over a rec-room in the back with a pool table.

Asked whether he would consider locking the front door in the future, he said: "It may not be a bad idea."