The Real "Special Interest" Problem in PA

Commentary

Everyone loves to hate "special interests."  They spend millions of dollars in electing and lobbying public officials in order to gain political or legislative favor. 

So it was no surprise when groups like PennFuture and the Keystone Research Center's Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center joined with Common Cause PA and the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters to attack individuals affiliated with the natural gas industry for giving $2 million in state campaign contributions over the past 10 years.  Nor was it surprising that they called for a severance tax to punish this "special interest."

But someone forgot to tell these organizations living in glass houses that they ought not to throw stones.

Indeed, the $2 million in contributions given over 10 years by natural gas interests is dwarfed by the contributions of the labor unions that run the Keystone Research Center's Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (KRC/PBPC). Union political action committees gave $27 million in state races in 2007-08 alone and $60 million over the last three election cycles.  Of course these special interests expect special favors in return for their "investments."

PennFuture, the organization started by Secretary of Environmental Protection John Hanger, lobbies legislators and the governor for higher taxes and onerous mandates, while also receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants for "alternative energy" projects.  The organization then uses that money to lobby for even higher taxes and fees and more onerous government mandates.  Since 1999, alternative energy projects have received almost $2 billion in state grants and loans, on top of mandates for utilities to use legislatively-defined sources of alternative energy.

So while PennFuture and the KRC/PBPC are demanding higher taxes for some and taxpayer subsidies for others, they attack Pennsylvania's natural gas companies as "special interests" because they simply want to stop government from taking even more of their income. 

These companies aren't looking for tax breaks.  They don't even want taxpayer handouts, like wind and solar companies lobby for.  Yet, it is natural gas companies and their employees who are pilloried as evil "special interests" when they fight efforts to raise selective taxes-taxes not paid by wind, solar, or nuclear energy companies.

Of course, gas companies pay the same taxes as every other business in Pennsylvania.  They are heavily regulated and held accountable for any environmental or infrastructural damage they may cause.  Simply raising taxes on the natural gas industry because Harrisburg politicians want more spending money is not only bad public policy, but it will be harmful to our struggling economy.

Additionally, 90 percent of this new tax revenue would be going into the General Fund, not dedicated for the purposes claimed by PennFuture and the KRC/PBPC.  This isn't about remediating problems caused by natural gas drilling - even the Department of Environmental Protection has commended the responsible development of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.  This tax is to fund Gov. Rendell's preferred special interests-those who live on other people's taxes rather than those who produce them.

It is a shame that good-government groups like Common Cause PA and the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters would allow themselves to be used by PennFuture and KRC/PBPC to attack the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.  If they truly wanted to "get money out of politics," they would support reducing the powers of state government that are destroying successful businesses and propping up failing ones. 

There are really only two reasons people make political contributions or lobby elected officials: one is to prevent government from further encroaching on their private property; the other is to receive special privileges or get more of what they didn't earn.  In this case, natural gas interests are simply trying to thwart the imposition of selective and punitive taxation, while PennFuture and KRC/PBPC are seeking additional subsidies and more expansive wealth redistribution for their own benefit.

So instead of casting aspersions on job creators who are simply trying to keep the government from taking more of the money they've earned by developing clean and affordable energy, PennFuture and KRC/PBPC should be viewed by the general public and elected officials as the truly negative "special interests" that are harming Pennsylvania's economic and political well-being.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.