As state budget hearings kicked-off on Tuesday, calls to increase the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) general fund appropriations were again voiced, this time by the agency's Citizens Advisory Council.
The DEP's job has only intensified in recent years with growth in shale gas development. Thousands of wells have been drilled and as operators recover from the downturn, the agency's workload isn't likely to get any lighter. The advisory council, which has a mandate to represent the environmental rights of the state's residents, warned that the consistent cuts to DEP's funding over the last two decades have reached an "unsustainable level."
"Over the last 14 years, DEP has diligently done more with less funding, less staff and less resources while fixed costs have continued to rise and unfunded mandates, both at the state and federal level, have also sharply risen," wrote council chairman William Fink in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee chairs Patrick Browne and Vincent Hughes. Fink noted that DEP's general fund appropriation has decreased steadily from a high of $245.6 million in 2002-2003 to the $152 million proposed in Gov. Tom Wolf's fiscal year (FY) 2017-2018 budget. The proposal would increase funding by just $1.2 million compared to FY 2016-2017.
Fink's message is nothing new. Over the last two years, former DEP Secretary John Quigley bemoaned the agency's budget, warning lawmakers during hearings that it was severely underfunded and understaffed. He resigned last May after sending a questionable email to environmental advocacy groups expressing frustration with delays in implementing an overhaul of environmental regulations for oil and gas producers. But last March he told the House Appropriations Committee that over the last decade, as the average state agency lost about 6% of its workforce, the DEP lost 14%.
Fink said in his letter the DEP has looked to the regulated community for increased permit and annual fees to cover the gap in its funding.
"The best way to increase DEP's ability to review permits in a timelier manner to improve economic development is to increase the general fund appropriations to DEP," he wrote. "The alternative is to continue down the path where the regulated community shoulders all of the burden through permit, annual and inspection fees, which may make certain business activities unobtainable for many small to medium businesses and industries currently in distress."
The DEP receives about 22% of its funding from the state general fund, 28% from federal funds and another 50% from fees and fines, Quigley told lawmakers last year. In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned the DEP that its staff has fallen below adequate levels to retain primacy of the Safe Drinking Water Program, which could imperil direct federal funds.
Fink's message comes as the state faces a projected $3 billion budget deficit. Wolf also announced a hiring freeze for unfilled positions in December to help save more money. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled legislature has sparred with the DEP in recent years over new regulations for shale drillers and emission reduction proposals for the industry.
Wolf has proposed a $32.3 billion budget for the next fiscal year, or 1.8% more than the 2016-2017 budget. The DEP's first budget hearing is scheduled before the House Appropriations Committee on Monday (Feb. 27), while its hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled for March 9.