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Pa. Dems cry foul over Republican Scott Wagner's comments on natural gas tax

Tony LaRussa
| Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, 2:21 p.m.
Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner is running for governor.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner is running for governor.

State Democrats are accusing a GOP candidate for governor of conspiring with fellow lawmakers to block a tax on natural gas drilling so it hurts Gov. Tom Wolf's chances of a winning a second term next year.

The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown reported Saturday that Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, told a gathering of York County residents last month that he urged Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, to fight a gas drilling tax proposal because it could help Democrat Wolf win a second term.

Saylor is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which is a key player in the state budget talks.

Wagner's Sept. 14 comments were recorded by a state Democratic Party tracker following him on the campaign trail.

In the audio recording, Wagner says:

“I went to school with Stan Saylor. And I told Stan at a meeting three weeks ago…you cannot let this severance tax get through … because if that happens the governor is going to get reelected. Stan, you take that to the bank.”

Wagner's campaign manager, Jason High, dismissed the recording as nothing more than “campaign talk,” saying the lawmaker has opposed a severance tax in Senate floor policy speeches that have nothing to do with politics.

“He's been pretty vocal about that for a long time,” High said.

Through a spokesman, Saylor declined comment on the specifics of his conversation with Wagner.

“The chairman doesn't allow political conversations to affect his views and votes on policy items,” Saylor spokesman John O'Brien said. “Stan has a long record of opposing a severance tax. It's nothing new.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokeswoman Beth Melena said Wagner's comments about the shale tax point to a political conspiracy.

“Republicans in the Legislature conspiring with their gubernatorial candidate to block a shale tax for electoral gain is Harrisburg at its very worst,” Melena told the newspaper.

A severance tax was one of the 2013 campaign promises Wolf made in his campaign against incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

In each year of his term, Wolf proposed charging a severance tax on natural gas drillers on top of the impact fee on wells they now pay. And each year, the Republican-controlled Legislature has rebuffed the governor.

This year, however, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that included higher sales taxes on utility bills and a severance tax that also carried regulatory changes for business.

Wagner voted against the bills and the GOP-controlled House rejected the measures.

Wagner's Republican opponent in the May primary is Paul Mango, a Western Pennsylvania businessman.

Wolf is unopposed on the Democratic ticket.

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-772-6368, tlarussa@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TonyLaRussaTrib.

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