Lawmakers in Harrisburg have wrapped up budget hearings and are now working on a spending plan for the next fiscal year.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s final budget proposal calls for a $5 million increase to the Department of Environmental Protection to hire new staff.
Republicans in the state legislature have long complained that DEP is too slow to process permits for companies attempting to build or drill in the state.
Democrats have complained the agency is underfunded, and so can’t adequately enforce environmental regulations.
Heading into the next fiscal year with a budget surplus, Wolf is proposing adding 41 positions to DEP. They would be focused on water quality and dam safety inspections.
DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell warned the agency could lose people soon, because it has had to rely on overtime work to reduce a permitting backlog.
“At any given moment we’re one resignation, one retirement away from being right back in that backlog,” McDonnell said.
He said the DEP needs the funding boost after several lean budget years.
“When we have a General Fund reduction, that overwhelmingly affects our water programs,” he said, adding that the agency’s air and radiation programs are funded through federal dollars or special funds.
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Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Wolf’s budget is projecting a deficit going into the 2023-24 fiscal year.
He and other lawmakers said that would make the added staff temporary because there won’t be enough money to keep the positions into a second year.
“Are we serious about this or is this just public relations?” Saylor said.
Preliminary projections from the state’s Independent Fiscal Office show Wolf’s budget as proposed would leave the state with a nearly $3 billion surplus at the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year and a $1 billion deficit at the end of the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Asked to reconcile the projected deficit with adding staff, McDonnell said, “Whether or not that is an appropriate amount is, first, something to be decided by this body and the governor and then, second, how that continues forward is not something I would presume, particularly in the last year of this administration.”
The 2022-23 fiscal year starts July 1.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.