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PA ‘restore’ effort needs bipartisanship

In June, as Pennsylvania lawmakers were working to put the finishing touches on the current 2019-20 state budget, legislative Republican leaders indicated that consideration of Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Restore Pennsylvania” proposal would be put on hold until the fall, at the earliest.

Judging from activity in the state capital since legislators returned from their nearly three-month summer break, it could in fact be much later than that.

When the governor revealed the $4.5 billion proposal aimed at improving the state’s infrastructure, benefiting municipalities in a number of ways and expanding broadband availability, the state’s chief executive emphasized that the improvements program would not be tied to the state budget.

Instead, he wants the program to be financed through borrowing as well as implementing a controversial severance tax on the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry.

The severance tax is the biggest sticking point to what Wolf is proposing, as evidenced by the fact that the GOP-controlled Legislature has rejected his calls for that levy throughout his gubernatorial tenure.

Good points have been made on both sides of the tax issue. Wolf has emphasized numerous times that other Marcellus Shale states impose such a tax and that Pennsylvania is losing millions of dollars by not imposing the tax here.

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers have expressed fears that imposing the tax would cause drillers to flee the commonwealth since they already pay a state-mandated impact fee and the state corporate income tax.

Building upon the GOP’s position last May, state Reps. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, and Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, said a Marcellus severance tax would amount to an unfair “third taking” from that one industry.

The opinion is reasonable, although Wolf’s position about the state’s current financial loss due to the lack of such a tax can’t really be judged as irresponsible, since Marcellus drillers aren’t moving out of the other states where the tax is in effect.

It also can be said that places such as Altoona, Johnstown and Huntingdon will be losing for as long as inaction on the governor’s program continues based on the severance tax controversy.

Rather than delay any form of consideration indefinitely, lawmakers opposed to the proposed tax should be exploring other options for financing at least some of what the governor is proposing.

Regarding Altoona, during a visit to the city on May 29, Wolf was shown several large, blighted buildings that he said Restore Pennsylvania could help rehabilitate through what he termed “patient capital” — loans with delayed payback schedules.

In an April 1 press release about how Restore Pennsylvania would benefit municipalities, Wolf said the four-year program would be driven by local input about community needs.

“Restore Pennsylvania is the only plan anyone has to pay for critical infrastructure repairs,” he said. “I have yet to visit a community that would not benefit greatly from this proposal.”

It is not unusual for a proposal of such large scope to encounter both skepticism and disagreement over how to finance it. However, simply ignoring it will accomplish nothing.

A bipartisan mission needs to be launched to find reasonable avenues for making at least some of what the governor proposes possible.

There are other priorities in Harrisburg this fall, but there also is room for consideration of this Wolf plan that houses possibilities for Altoona, Johnstown and numerous other communities committed to getting improvements underway.

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