Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gas Pains Cloud PA State Budget Deal...

Some House Democrats push for a tax on natural gas drilling.
GOP pooh-poohs the plan.

October 1, 2009

HARRISBURG - After months of debate, the fate of the 2009-10 state budget could well be decided by the way lawmakers handle an odorless, colorless gas trapped hundreds of feet beneath the ground.

Battle lines are drawn in the House over whether Pennsylvania should expand natural gas drilling in state-owned forests, raising $60 million a year, or join more than three-dozen other states and impose a ''severance tax'' on the extraction of natural resources.

In Pennsylvania's case, that's the natural gas-rich layer of rock known as the Marcellus shale.

About 30 House Democrats see the extraction tax as a stable source of revenue that would ensure oil drillers bear some of the responsibility for the environmental toll their activities would take.

''Anytime you prepare lands for drilling,'' said Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, ''you are eviscerating natural resources.''

The expansion of drilling leases is part of a compromise $27.9 billion budget reached by Gov. Ed Rendell, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and top Senate Republicans. But taxing the drilling is not part of the deal.

A leading Senate Republican says even a House vote in favor of taxation won't recast the budget compromise, because Senate passage is highly unlikely no matter what the House does.

The fuss over taxing gas is ''a non-issue,'' said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre. ''They can [vote for it] if they want to, but it won't be part of the final agreement.''

A House vote could come as soon as today on an extraction tax proposal, said Brett Marcy, a spokesman for House Democrats. A vote had been scheduled for Wednesday, but Marcy said lawmakers wanted more time to discuss the issue.

The vote is seen as an attempt to mollify restive Democratic lawmakers who, by withholding their votes, could derail the budget deal.

''We're discussing what the best options are,'' said Rep. David Levdansky, D-Allegheny.

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