WE HOLD TO the myth that people elect lawmakers to represent their interests, or at least the interests of the common good.
When that myth confronts money, as it does with increasing frequency, an uglier truth emerges: Special interests override the common good.
That's especially true when it comes to this state's sorry history of the natural gas industry. That industry began blossoming in 2005, when the first gas was extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation that lies under the state. In that short amount of time, billions upon billions of cubic feet of natural gas has been produced by a technology called hydrofracturing - or fracking.
The state's gas boom should have been transformative. That new and lucrative industry should have created a gold mine for the state. Instead, because of the short-sighted vision that kept the industry from being taxed for the gas they extracted - called a severance tax -state lawmakers have scrambled every year for ways to fund the state budget.
This year's battle is a perfect example: Lawmakers are unable to agree on how to cover the $30 billion budget, including fair funding of education. Lawmakers still resist imposing a drilling tax - unlike every other state in the country that has natural gas drilling. Instead, lawmakers first talked about raising the sales tax, and now want to expand the sales tax to include more items - a regressive, short-sighted and unfair move that pushes the burden to all, in order to protect a select few. Need we point out that the natural gas industry has poured millions into the campaign funds of lawmakers . . . and tens of millions more on lobbying?
Ed Rendell tried and failed to get an extraction tax imposed. Tom Corbett didn't bother, since he was well-funded by gas interests. Tom Wolf became governor by campaigning, among other things, on his intent to impose a 5 percent drilling tax. And yet, it remains a no-go from Republicans in the General Assembly.
What possible justification could they have? They claim that if a tax were imposed, companies would move out of the state, which is so absurd as to be insulting, since the Marcellus Shale formation is here, in Pennsylvania. They can't go elsewhere - and if they did, they would pay an extraction tax.
Instead of taxing the industry, they'd rather we pay.
And we're not just paying for necessities, like education. We're paying in lieu of the drilling tax, which means we're paying gas companies to make money by exploiting a natural resource that should belong to us all. And yes, drilling companies pay fees and corporate taxes, but the total is relative pocket change. In fact, a recent report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center found that as gas production has increased, the impact fee paid for gas produced in 2013 alone made for an effective tax rate of less than 1.9 percent. They also cite Department of Revenue data claiming that the corporate income tax payments from the industry have fallen to below 2008 levels.
Lawmakers' insistence on giving away the store - or, rather, the state - to a single industry not only defies logic and reason. It also defies the fundamental reason they have their jobs to begin with: to represent the interests of all.