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Commentary: Marcellus money and the Pa. legislature

There are 203 lobbyists registered as working for the natural-gas industry in Pennsylvania - coincidently one for each state House member.

Rep. Greg Vitali
Rep. Greg VitaliRead moreAP

There are 203 lobbyists registered as working for the natural-gas industry in Pennsylvania - coincidently one for each state House member.

The gas industry spent more than $7 million last year and more than $60 million since 2007 on lobbying in the commonwealth.

Despite this spending, not a single Pennsylvania legislator was listed on any natural-gas industry lobbying expense report as being the recipient of a gift, hospitality, transportation, or lodging in 2016.

These are some of the findings of a report my office recently completed: "Marcellus Money and the Pennsylvania Legislature: An Analysis of the Most Recent Pennsylvania Campaign Finance Reports, Lobbying Reports and Ethics Statements Relating to Natural Gas Drilling."

Extensive research by Common Cause of Pennsylvania and the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania was the starting point of this report.

In addition to the large sums of money spent on lobbying, the natural-gas industry also made significant political contributions to the General Assembly. In 2016, the industry gave about $900,000 in campaign contributions to legislators. Most went to House and Senate Republican leadership, who control the flow of legislation in Harrisburg,

It is not surprising that legislation and regulations opposed by the gas industry stalled again last year in Harrisburg.

The natural-gas severance tax was first proposed by Gov. Edward G. Rendell in 2009. It would provide much-needed revenue for the commonwealth. Despite overwhelming public support, the legislature failed to approve it yet again last term.

Pennsylvania will lose approximately $153.4 million in 2016 by not having a natural-gas severance tax according to the state Department of Revenue.

Pennsylvania remains the only major natural-gas producing state without a severance tax.

In addition to costing taxpayers money, the influence of the gas industry has also put public health and the environment at risk.

Conventional drilling regulations (12 Pa. Code Chapter 78) were proposed almost six years ago. The Independent Regulatory Review Commission found these regulations to be "in the public interest." Yet they have been repeatedly stymied by the drilling industry.

These commonsense regulations would, among other things, protect water-quality standards and require the quicker and better clean-up of spills. Unfortunately, last year the General Assembly passed legislation blocking their implementation (Act 52 of 2016).

The severance tax and conventional drilling regulations are just two examples of the drilling industry's undue influence on the legislature. This will continue until Pennsylvania revamps its lobbyist disclosure and campaign finance laws.

In addition, the commonwealth should enact a total ban on gifts to legislators from lobbyists. We are only one of 10 states that allow this.

Pennsylvania should also set limits on the amount of contributions given to elected officials. We are just one of just 11 states that do not have contribution limits.

Improving Pennsylvania's antiquated campaign-finance website would be the easiest reform to implement. Upgraded search capabilities would allow easier tracking of political contributions. Gov. Wolf could do this right now.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) represents the 166th Legislative District. Read his report at