Pennsylvania Lawmakers Target Water Commission Over Fees

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By Leslie A. Pappas

An interstate agency overseeing Susquehanna River water quality is under fire by a group of Pennsylvania State House Republicans who accuse it of regulatory overreach and have vowed to reduce its power and funding.

The House State Government Committee will hold a public hearing on the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) in Shrewsbury, York County, on June 26, the second of two public hearings on the agency.

At an earlier hearing June 12 in Selinsgrove, Snyder County, Rep. Dan Moul (R) of Adams County, accused the agency of abuse of power, saying it is gouging small businesses and municipalities in his district with exorbitant fines and fees despite the agency’s $40 million surplus.

“We felt that there was a serious abuse of authority and we question the authority that they have taken,” he said.

The hearings are part of a wider effort by Republican legislators in Pennsylvania to assert more power over state regulators, reduce regulatory burdens, and scale back on environmental funding, a lobbyist who is a former state environment official and an environmental advocate told Bloomberg BNA. The same committee also is holding hearings on what it calls “regulatory abuses” by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. And in the House’s proposed state budget, funding for the SRBC and other water quality agencies has been slashed by 50 percent.

House State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) did not return Bloomberg BNA’s call requesting for further comment.

Lawmakers also are proposing a bill that would give them more control over other regulatory bodies. House Bill 911, sponsored by Greg Rothman (R), would stipulate that any regulation with an economic impact exceeding $1 million would require approval from a majority in both houses of the legislature and the governor. State Sen. John DiSanto (R) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 561.

Empowered by Washington

Legislators in Pennsylvania have been empowered to cut back on environmental funding and regulations by what they have seen in Washington, D.C., according Ezra Thrush, campaign manager for watershed advocacy at PennFuture, a statewide environmental group based in Harrisburg. Lawmakers look at interstate agencies like the SRBC as powerful bodies that spend a lot of the state’s money without justification, he said.

As for the alleged abuse of authority by the commission, “there is no overreach,” Thrush told Bloomberg BNA in a phone call June 22. “These legislators don’t seem to understand what the SRBC does or why it was created.”

Formed in 1970 to protect water resources within the 27,500-square mile basin, the commission is jointly administered by Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and the federal government. It takes on numerous projects throughout the basin to improve water supplies and water quality, Thrush said. The commission’s work to improve water quality in the basin is especially important given that Pennsylvania is falling behind on its cleanup goals for the Chesapeake Bay, Thrush said. About half of the Chesapeake Bay’s fresh water comes from the Susquehanna River.

Not Listening

Over the past three years in response to community concerns, the SRBC has reduced municipal permit fees by more than 40 percent, streamlined its regulatory processes, and created a Public Water Supply Assistance Program to provide technical help and reduce fees for small municipal water supply systems, the commission’s executive director, Andrew Dehoff, told lawmakers at the June 12 hearing.

Lawmakers fighting the SRBC aren’t listening, said David Hess, a former state Department of Environmental Protection secretary who now works at Crisci Associates, a lobbying firm in Harrisburg.

“These legislators have a hold of this issue like a dog with a bone and they won’t let go,” he told Bloomberg BNA in a phone call June 22. “No answer from the SRBC satisfies them.”

Lawmakers insist that the commission doesn’t have the authority to charge fees or regulate within the basin, but the compact clearly gives the agency that authority, Hess said.

Tensions between interstate agencies and Pennsylvania’s small local governments is nothing new, Hess said. In the case of attacks against the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, though, “what’s unusual is how the legislators have chosen to ignore facts.”

The scrutiny started about two years ago by legislators from rural districts, and started to gain steam, Hess said. More recently, lawmakers are introducing legislation to take whatever money they can away from the agency.

House Bill 922, for example, would cut new SRBC employees out of the state employees’ retirement system. Sponsored by Will Tallman (R) of Adams and Cumberland counties, the legislation would have “de minimis actuarial cost impact” on the pension plan, since there are only 65 active members, according to a fiscal note accompanying the bill. The House passed the bill 114-80 June 7 and it remains in Senate committee.

And the House’s proposed budget cuts the SRBC’s $473,000 appropriation by $236,000, he said.

The cuts to SRBC’s funding will do little to help constituents back home, Hess said. In fact, it could force the agency to raise fees.

If lawmakers “really wanted to deal with these fees, then they’d give SRBC money so they could reduce the fees on small municipalities,” Hess said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Leslie A. Pappas in Philadelphia at LPappas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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