Corbett speeds up permit process
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HARRISBURG -- A vague one-paragraph state government policy change intended to speed up permits for some businesses has sparked concerns that environmental and other safeguards could be bypassed in the process.
In a paragraph touting the need for a "friction-free" regulatory process for companies, Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal stated that he would authorize the Department of Community and Economic Development secretary to help smooth out permitting backlogs.
That Cabinet official, currently C. Alan Walker, who is awaiting Senate confirmation, "is empowered to expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted," according to the proposed budget.
DCED spokesman Steve Kratz said that means Mr. Walker will serve as "chief liaison" across agencies, to make sure applications move in a timely fashion.
The secretary will not be authorized to override an agency's permit decision, Mr. Kratz said. All applications still will be required to go through the agency approval process required in statute.
"Basically, his role is to make sure that red tape and bureaucracy don't hold up job creation," he said.
That goes for any type of permitting, from gas drilling applications in the Department of Environmental Protection to requests through PennDOT to install a driveway to a business off a main road.
But some lawmakers, as well as environmental advocates, say that the delays in the permitting process are built in for a reason.
"Another word for friction is regulation," said state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery. "It's not like regulatory agencies and the industries they regulate have a personal problem with each other. They're trying to make sure the industries they regulate follow the law."
Environmental advocacy group PennFuture voiced a similar concern about the governor's change, saying it "could render our regulators toothless."
"What [the administration is] not saying out loud is that they think regulations are burdensome and sometime inappropriate, therefore they need to be minimized or swept out of the way for progress to be made," said PennFuture CEO and President Jan Jarrett. "That's kind of where it seems to be going."
Certain parts of the regulatory process, however, can be unnecessarily cumbersome, said Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. A business owner may have to wait two months for a DEP permit before he can head to the back of a three-month line for another approval process at PennDOT.
Without coordination between departments on a project, the chain of requirements can drag on and on, he said.
"One thing I've heard from those who create jobs is, the bureaucracy and the time that costs is real money," Mr. Scarnati said.
A January DEP report showed 432 oil and gas drilling permits were under review at that time, and that 353 of those had been waiting for fewer than 60 days. Forty-six had been in the agency queue for between 60 and 195 days, and another 33 had been waiting longer than that.
An average DEP permit wait time was unavailable Friday. An agency spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Leach said he was aware of some backlog issues with the agency's permit processing, but said those hold-ups were due to budget cuts and a shortage of personnel.
Permit fees from drilling applications have allowed the agency to add 68 additional inspectors last year, but they also lost 138 employees, 5 percent of the workforce, as a result of the 2009-10 budget.
"They just didn't have the manpower," Mr. Leach said. "Hire some more people, and then you can process the permits faster."
Mr. Leach also questioned why the DCED secretary would be given the authority to seek faster permitting for projects. He said any change that an agency requires of a company that would have an additional cost could affect their hiring decisions.
And the choice of Mr. Walker's department raised a separate concern for Mr. Leach, given the acting secretary's background as a coal company executive, a role in which he was cited by DEP for violations.
"He has not complied with environmental regulations in the past, and we're turning over state government to him on the assertion that something affects job creation?" asked Mr. Leach. "It looks like an attempt to overrule a whole series of laws."
Questions about DCED's new role in permits likely will come up during Appropriations Committee hearings, Mr. Scarnati said.
"In lieu of having opportunity grants and other funds, this is a way to help businesses," he said. "I don't think cutting through the red tape means circumventing laws."
First Published March 12, 2011 12:00 am