HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett on Wednesday opened the door to imposing an impact fee on natural gas drillers, signaling that he may be easing up on his strong opposition to any levy on the industry.
The governor said he would consider allowing municipalities to impose such fees on drillers as long as the money generated stayed in those communities.
He was clear, however, that he would not discuss any proposal that included sending even a portion of the dollars collected to the state's coffers. Corbett has steadfastly opposed taxing the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.
"Money that goes into the general fund? No. Money to the locals? Money to the counties? I would sit down and listen to that," he said at a news conference at the Capitol.
He added: "I understand that there is an impact to the local communities, and I believe that in some way, shape, or form, we need to address that impact."
Afterward, his spokesman, Kevin Harley, noted that Corbett had made similar statements in the past, including on the campaign trail.
Still, since Corbett took office in January, he and members of his administration have struck a rather hard-line stance, saying they believe new levies would only hurt an industry that has created jobs across the state.
Consider this recent statement from Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who chairs the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. Corbett assembled the panel this month to ensure land and water are protected as the state helps the gas-drilling industry grow.
Asked if the panel would consider the need for a tax or impact fee on drillers, Cawley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "I think the governor made it very clear . . . no means no."
Republicans who control the state Senate have been working for several months on an impact-fee plan to help communities shoulder some of the public infrastructure costs associated with drilling, such as damage to roads from heavy truck traffic. There are no details yet on how such a fee would work - or who would impose it.
"We are encouraged by what the governor said today," said Drew Crompton, legal counsel and chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), whose GOP caucus last year argued for a 1.5-percent tax on gas extracted when then-Gov. Ed Rendell was proposing a 5-percent tax.
But Crompton said his caucus had concerns that a kind of bidding war might occur among municipalities.
"There is a danger with having it levied locally because the last thing you want is to have local governments deciding not to levy it, and trying to court other businesses to put wells in their county," said Crompton. "Could it be mandated on the county level? Yes. Could an independent authority mandate it? Yes? These are all things that are up for debate."
Another wild card is the House, where the majority Republicans have historically opposed any new tax. Spokesman Steve Miskin said Wednesday that "our focus remains on an on-time, no-tax budget."
Proponents of a "severance tax" on natural gas point out that all other major drilling states have such a tax. They argue that a local impact fee would not go far enough.
Sharon Ward, executive director of the liberal-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said a local-use-only fee would be shortsighted. "The impacts of drilling don't stop at local boundaries," she said, noting that any problems associated with wastewater from natural gas drilling could affect communities far downstream.
Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Montgomery), who is pushing a severance-tax bill, said an impact fee would do nothing to solve the state's pressing budget needs and could be a tough sell in the counties around Philadelphia.
"If you ask a suburban Republican legislator to tell their constituents, 'Yes, we're going to let your kid's tuition at Penn State go sky-high, we're going to let your property taxes go sky-high, and yet we're not going to tax the drillers,' I don't think those constituents are going to like that," he said.