Pennsylvania

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Corbett proposes DRBC funding cut as gas drilling stalemate continues

A view of the Delaware River where it separates Northeast Pennsylvania on the right with New York State on the left.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A view of the Delaware River where it separates Northeast Pennsylvania on the right with New York State on the left.

The agency that oversees issues from drinking water to flood management in the Delaware River watershed stands to loose about 20 percent of its funding if Governor Corbett’s new budget is approved. It is the latest controversy amid an ongoing stalemate at the five-member commission over natural gas drilling.

The Delaware River Basin Commission, or DRBC, is run by the federal government and the governors of the four states that share the watershed – New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. But they don’t all pay the same amount to support the commission’s work.

Under an agreement, Pennsylvania is responsible for 25 percent of the funding. Corbett’s spending plan calls for a $500,000 cut, which would amount to more than half of the state’s current share.

“The Governor supports the Commission, but recognizes that this is a multi-partner entity and that all parties must step up to the plate so that the taxpayers of Pennsylvania do not bear a disproportionate share of funding,” Corbett’s Energy Executive Patrick Henderson said in an e-mail.

New York’s contributions have declined in recent years and the federal government has only paid its full share once since 1997.

This chart shows the funding from the five members of the Delaware River Basin Commission over the last five years.

Courtesy of the Delaware River Basin Commission

This chart shows the funding for the Delaware River Basin Commission from the four member states and the federal government over the last five years. Click on the chart to make the image larger.

A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which represents the federal government on the commission, said its funding comes from Congress and with other programs competing for the same dollars, “annual funding is typically insufficient to support every requirement.”

Corbett’s proposed cut is raising the ire of some watershed advocates and democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger.

“The fact that the federal government or other states perhaps haven’t done the right thing… is not an excuse for Pennsylvania not to pay its fair share,” said Delaware Rivekeeper Maya Van Rossum.

Van Rossum believes the cut is less about saving taxpayer dollars and more about political retribution. In a statement, Hanger, who is a former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, called the cuts “retaliatory.”

Natural gas drilling has been on hold in the Delaware watershed for more than four years as the commissioners have struggled to agree about how to regulate it. That has frustrated Governor Corbett who wants to see the regulations passed and allow drilling in the watershed counties that sit above the Marcellus Shale.

DRBC Deputy Executive Director Bob Tudor said he was surprised by the cuts and feels the agency has been singled out. Corbett’s budget proposal keeps funding flat for two other watershed commissions in the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River basin.

“Sometimes if there aren’t votes on key policy issues the way the governors can make their positions known is through the budget process,” Tudor said.

Over the last five years, Pennsylvania has been fairly consistent in its funding to the DRBC. In 2012, the state paid $400,000 less than usual due to a mid-year budgetary reserve. Last year, Pennsylvania paid more than its fair share to make up for the shortfall.

“That’s why the 50 percent reduction came as a complete surprise,” Tudor said.

Energy Executive Patrick Henderson said funding has nothing to do with the delay over the natural gas drilling rules.

“I have never had the impression that funding levels were an issue in the inability to resolve any of the policy issues; rather it was simply a lack of consensus on the policy outcome,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Henderson noted that the governor’s proposed budget is merely a “starting point.”

Tudor says the commission staff will begin meeting with lawmakers to address the potential impacts the cuts may have to programming, including a specialized service that monitors groundwater and stream levels in the Philadelphia region to protect fish and other aquatic life.

Otherwise, the staff has little recourse when commissioners decide to reduce their funding levels or even when they don’t pay at all.

“There is this law and it has provision in it that says they should fund…the institution and they’re not adhering to it,” Tudor said. “But it’s not good business to be suing your bosses when they don’t pay.”

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