Aaron Bernstine: Pa. budget proposal hurts local environmental projects, bipartisan consensus | TribLIVE.com
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One of the things that gets forgotten in Harrisburg is how powerful it can be to work across the aisle to move Pennsylvania forward. While bipartisan agreement is rare right now, one of the few programs my colleagues on both sides of the aisle support are environmental funds that drive tax dollars back to local municipalities and out of Harrisburg.

Even Gov. Tom Wolf campaigned on supporting government that works; yet last month, the governor proposed a $78 million cut to environmental funds that have supported thousands of projects across Western Pennsylvania.

The Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund (Keystone) and the Environmental Stewardship Fund (ESF) were established by bipartisan consensus in the 1990s to support local projects that reinvest in our communities, heal environmental damage of the past and preserve our environment for generations to come.

The Keystone Fund and ESF owe their success and longevity to their direct support of community-driven projects. The dedicated funds empower local people and the private sector to address problems at their source, not from Harrisburg. Few programs provide benefits across the state and across the aisle the way the Keystone Fund does for community reinvestment. That program alone has leveraged more than $1 billion in public/private partnerships to complete nearly 5,000 projects.

Keystone and ESF come nowhere near to meeting present demand. Roughly half of all project investment proposals have to be turned away. In the case of Keystone Fund investments, 46 percent of projects are already rejected for lack of sufficient state funds.

The governor’s proposal suggests taking Keystone Fund and ESF money committed to community projects — money that is presently secured in state accounts until the communities apply for reimbursement for their project expenses. (Capital projects, by their nature, can take a few years to complete.) The notion is that this won’t hurt community projects, because the state can reimburse them with money out of future state budgets.

This doesn’t work and here’s why: If the state were to redirect any of this committed money into other operations, the state would in fact be un-committing to local projects. Under future budgets, the state could recommit funds to those projects, but, in the meantime, communities would be required to foot the bills with hope, but no guarantee, that the state will come through with money in the end.

This is a huge risk to put on local people. But if Harrisburg decides communities must take on the risk for these projects, the money to be freed of commitment should at least be redirected to clearing the large backlog of unfunded and underfunded Keystone and ESF projects.

The governor’s budget proposal threatens to upend decades of bipartisan consensus on the Keystone Fund and ESF goals of investing in projects that deliver today and will continue delivering for future generations. I implore the governor to rethink his administration’s irresponsible strategy. I know I will be working with my colleagues in the General Assembly to ensure these key funds stay in our local areas, not in Harrisburg.

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