‘System is rigged,’ Pa. lawmaker says of gas industry’s ability to block extraction tax

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – For the third straight year, Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing an extraction tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers.

For the third straight year, Republican leaders in the Legislature are balking.

“You’re taxing job creators,” an incredulous Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said moments after the governor’s budget address. Corman said gas prices are depressed and drillers are antsy.

“How adding a tax on top of that would incentivize them [drillers] to create more jobs and incentivize them to create more investment in Pennsylvania is beyond my comprehension,” Corman said.

On Friday, Wolf was asked if the third time will be the charm for an extraction tax.

He smiled. “I have no idea. I’m hoping.”

Don’t hold your breath, governor, says Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware/Montgomery).

“Every term I’m thinking, of course it’s gonna pass this year. This makes total sense and it never does,” Vitali said Friday as he gave a PowerPoint presentation in the Capitol Media Center.

He blames money in the pipeline for the lack of an extraction tax. Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without an extraction tax.

He said his staff and Common Cause Pennsylvania have analyzed campaign finance reports, lobbying disclosure and ethics statements and it shows why, in his estimation, gas drillers have gotten favorable treatment in the Legislature. He used the old Watergate saw, “follow the money.”

Vitali says in 2016, the gas industry made $883,181 in campaign contributions to the Pennsylvania Legislature. House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) got $78,700 of it, the House Republican Campaign Committee collected $56,800 and Sen. Joseph Scarnati (R-Pro Tempore) $51,500.

“The money goes, frankly, to those people who are in a position to control the flow of legislation,” Vitali said.

There’s also a geyser of lobbying at the Capitol. Vitali’s analysis shows there are currently 203 lobbyists working on behalf of the gas industry in Pennsylvania. He notes wryly that’s equal to the number of state representatives. He says that since 2007, the total spent on lobbyists is $62,639,327.

“I think that’s startling. That’s a lot of money.” He also quoted former state senator Clarence Bell who said, “People who give money to politicians are not philanthropists.”

While there’s lots of money flying around, there’s too little oversight, according to Vitali. He points to 2016 when lobbyists report spending $79,743 on gifts, hospitality, transportation and lodging for lawmakers.

“Although there’s a lot of spending, a lot wining and dining, everyone knows that not a single lawmaker’s name appeared on any lobbyists report for the year 2016,” Vitali said. He added that only five of 253 lawmakers reported receiving gifts, hospitality, transportation or lodging from the drilling industry.

“Where did the money go? That’s the problem,” he said.

He insists that campaign finance laws and lobbyist disclosure laws are too lax and oversight too difficult. He thinks there should be a gift ban and dollar-one reporting on anything received. Currently, lawmakers don’t have to report any gift valued under $250 or any transportation, lodging or hospitality under $650. His suggestions aren’t new but, like an extraction tax, aren’t likely to pass anytime soon.

It should be noted that the gas drilling industry is well within its right to lobby and to contribute to campaigns. Vitali alleges no illegality. His criticism is directed more at the system.

But as the former chair of the House Environmental Committee, he has been a frequent critic of natural gas drillers and they of him.

Marcellus Shale Coalition spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright released this statement to ABC27 News following Vitali’s presentation at the Capitol.

“We’re not particularly surprised by Rep. Vitali’s efforts today aimed at generating a few headlines. He’s always been a harsh critic of the tens of thousands of hardworking men and women across Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry. While this anti-natural gas activist has raised a number of highly suggestive and inflammatory questions the facts are as clear his motives. Our organization provides critical, fact-based information to key stakeholders and the general public, regarding safe, job-creating natural gas development. Accordingly, we follow the letter of the law and are abundantly transparent about our educational and advocacy efforts.”

There are, no doubt, lots of hardworking Pennsylvanians in the natural gas industry. But the fact that there’s no extraction tax or stronger regulations, Vitali insists, is because of the industry’s hardworking lobbyists. By pumping dollars into Harrisburg’s ruling class, drillers avoid pumping more dollars into Pennsylvania’s treasury.

Online: Marcellus Money and the Pennsylvania Legislature

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