State Republicans are promoting a raft of bills, collectively called "Marcellus Works," that use tax money to spur consumption of natural gas lying within the state's Marcellus Shale formation. Marcellus Works would spend $60 million on initiatives like building natural-gas refueling stations at Turnpike rest areas, and requiring transit agencies to purchase natural-gas powered vehicles. Backers say the industry is experiencing "a chicken-and-the-egg problem," in which no one buys natural-gas vehicles because there are no refueling pumps -- and no one installs the pumps because there are no natural-gas vehicles to use them.
Some environmentalists, who note that natural-gas burns more cleanly than oil, favor the proposals. And Republicans insist Marcellus Works "won't cost the taxpayers a dime" because the money "will be generated from tax dollars collected from the Marcellus industry." But the budget for other state programs is being cut drastically, and many other employers pay those very same taxes ... without having the money earmarked for their own benefit.
City Paper has, in fact, learned that numerous special interests are copying the Marcellus industry's lead, proposing bills that would rob Peter to pay, well, Peter. Here are some of the bills insiders say are in the offing:
HB 1432 The Clean Air Act of 2011. Though Pennsylvania has long taxed cigarettes, it has never taxed smokeless tobacco. The chewing-tobacco industry, we're told, has agreed to accept such a tax ... provided that proceeds are used to subsidize merchants who sell the product, and to provide spittoons at highway rest areas. After all, the chewing-tobacco industry notes, while smokeless tobacco may foul soil and water, it emits less air pollution than cigarettes. Some public-health advocates are said to be in support.
HB 1507: The City Paper Reimbursement Fund. A portion of Allegheny County's drink-tax proceeds will be added to the paychecks of alt-weekly newsroom staffers, to help pay their bar bills. The bill is supported by a broad coalition of former music editors -- and by the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, which originally fought the drink tax. Explains one industry lobbyist, "It's as close as we're going to get to a drink-tax refund."
HB 1526: Establishing the Conrad Volz Memorial Fund. This initiative is named after the public-health professor who recently resigned from the University of Pittsburgh, citing internal disagreements over his anti-Marcellus advocacy. Under this bill, every time a university gets rid of a high-profile industry critic during budget season, the state will restore $10 million of cuts originally proposed by the governor. Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg is said to be lobbying on behalf of the measure. He's also said to be spending his lunch hour outside the Pitt Environmental Law Clinic, rubbing his stomach and smiling widely.
SB 1054: Transit Funding Restoration Act. This measure reflects a recognition by the Port Authority of Allegheny County that if it wants more state funding, it needs to increase its lobbying firepower. In a proposal backed by the Pennsylvania Coal Association, the Port Authority is pushing for a measure under which state taxpayers would cover the cost of operating light-rail vehicles, provided they are powered by steam locomotive.
SB 1097: The Public-Private Partnership Job-Placement Act. This measure guarantees a taxpayer-funded job in the Corbett administration for every corporate exec who contributes at least $50,000 to Republican campaigns. Backers are sensitive to ethics concerns, but argue that the measure will save money in the long run. "Unless we intervene and try to have a positive impact on these lives now," one co-sponsor tells City Paper, "too many of these executives are destined to end up in state prisons, all at taxpayer expense."
SB 1128: Insurance Premium Relief Act. While Republicans oppose "Obamacare" reforms, they are anxious to do something about spiking insurance costs. This bill, accordingly, would create a special fund financed with payroll-tax revenues. To reduce red tape, however, the money will be transferred directly to the insurance companies, in hopes that some of it will be used to offset premiums.
SB 1249: Sustainable Energy Support Act. Even environmentalists who don't like Marcellus Works see it as an opportunity. In this bill drafted by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, they request additional funding for their favored technologies -- like taxpayer-funded electric charging stations at gas stations across the state, complete with solar panels. Borrowing Marcellus industry rhetoric, they point out that electric cars would sell better if there were more recharging stations. As this issue went to press, however, the measure lacked a Republican co-sponsor. Supporters have reportedly been told that after all, government meddling in the free market amounts to socialism.