Shale drilling fee high on to-do list for governor, Legislature

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HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett is putting the finishing touches on a welcome-back-to-session gift to lawmakers: his plan for overseeing and charging a fee on Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

That draft legislation is one of the most highly anticipated proposals this fall in the state Capitol, where senators will return Monday to tackle unfinished business. The House reconvenes Sept. 26.

Which policy issue leads the achievable section of their to-do list depends on whom you ask: Privatizing the state's liquor stores? Crafting a school-voucher program? Redrawing the state's legislative boundaries?

While shale legislation is competing with other issues for his attention, the governor's pending proposal shows that updating the state's rules for drillers -- and assessing an impact fee -- has risen high on his agenda.

Mr. Corbett, who asked lawmakers earlier this year to pause their debates over drilling until his shale panel offered its views in July, so far has given only sparse clues as to what regulatory updates he believes are needed.

More details may be available in a week or two, when he said legislative leaders will get to see what his staff has been crafting.

"We will work on an impact fee," the governor said during a Philadelphia radio show. "The primary amount of money -- a huge amount of money -- will go to the counties, and let the counties work with the municipalities."

While they've waited for the governor to weigh in, Senate Republicans have been preparing a shale measure based on the fee proposed earlier by Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. That fee starts at $40,000 in the first year of a well's production and drops annually after that.

The fee portion of that Senate plan hasn't changed drastically over the summer, said Drew Crompton, Mr. Scarnati's chief of staff. But the proposal has broadened since the governor's shale commission report -- it now includes provisions on safety and other issues in that bill.

House GOP leaders so far have focused more on promoting natural gas use than on the need for regulatory updates. But there appears to be interest in that chamber as well to gain some closure on the issue that has been the subject of three years of debate.

"We certainly are open to improving safety for our citizens and the environment in a way that's balanced and allows for growth of the industry," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.

Public polling shows significant pressure on the General Assembly to move a drilling fee into law alongside any rule-tightening. A Franklin & Marshall College survey in late August showed 65 percent of Pennsylvania voters favored assessing a levy on gas drillers.

"There will be people incited to be angry if we leave here in December without some of these shale issues nailed down," Mr. Crompton said.

But disagreements on the details of a gas levy have halted previous attempts to put an assessment on drillers. That history makes the internal discussions between the Corbett administration and legislative leaders vital in determining whether a shale bill will be approved.

"The fact that the governor is now prepared to engage in details of that legislation, to set a framework for that industry, is a good sign," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. "We've already done a great deal of work, and I'm optimistic that we can reach agreement."

While Marcellus Shale has hogged much of the spotlight, the issue will be battling for attention against a handful of other big-ticket proposals.

For Mr. Corbett, the fall agenda also includes approving private-school vouchers and charter school reforms, finding billions in sustainable funding for infrastructure projects, and considering whether to privatize the state-owned liquor stores, said his spokesman, Kevin Harley.

A voucher plan began to move through the Senate earlier this year, though it was stymied as uncertainty grew over whether the administration backed that particular version and whether House Republicans would take up the proposal.

Republicans from both chambers say they're supportive of school choice, though Democrats say finding billions in transportation funding -- as another of the governor's commissions suggested -- should be higher on the agenda.

"We're supporting programs that are going to put Pennsylvanians back to work," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. "We're not concerned about wine-and-spirit shops or school vouchers or electoral votes."

The House GOP push to privatize the state-owned liquor stores also shows a point of division among Republicans.

Mr. Turzai says it still leads his caucus' list as a way to promote private-sector growth, though Senate Republicans have questioned the timing, and the governor's staff says it is waiting on an independent report regarding the best way to move liquor store licenses into private hands.

Meanwhile, there are legal deadlines that the Legislature must meet when it comes to redistricting. A preliminary map of legislative districts must be presented by mid-November, and a congressional map also is needed promptly so candidates can circulate petitions in January.

A new proposal from Mr. Pileggi to change the way the state doles out its electoral votes has somewhat complicated those maps. Democrats fear that the plan to award electoral vote by congressional district -- instead of issuing all to the presidential candidate with the most statewide votes -- would make redistricting a more partisan process.

That to-do list also doesn't include finding assistance for the city of Harrisburg, which teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. Or a bevy of less high-profile items such as outlawing certain types of distracted driving, determining whether to require a photo identification card to vote, and strengthening the state's oversight of abortion facilities.

But which of those will come first is anyone's guess.

Asked what visitors would see going on in Harrisburg over the next few weeks, Mr. Turzai simply replied: "Lots of activity."


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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