By John Finnerty
This week a state lawmaker filed a Right-to-Know request demanding to learn how the Corbett administration determined that expanded drilling activity in the state’s forests could generate $75 million.
State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, said he filed the formal request for records because the Corbett administration wasn’t forthcoming.
For the record: A couple weeks ago, I expressed curiosity about the $75 million figure, too. A Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokeswoman said the estimate was suggested by representatives of the gas industry. However, environmentalists wondered if the state had enough suitable forests to generate the kind of money counted on by Gov. Tom Corbett.
“It is simply not believable that Gov. Corbett could propose such a plan without having an estimate of how many acres they would need to lease and what state parks and forests might be impacted. The governor’s proposal cannot be properly considered by the Legislature without this information,” Vitali said.
“Additionally, the public needs this information to give us their input on Corbett’s proposal.”
It will be interesting to see what Vitali’s request reveals.
But it’s just one area where Corbett’s budget seems shaky.
The same day that Vitali announced his open-records demand, the state Liquor Control Board awarded its first license for a tavern to begin selling small games of chance. That is the one and only license for a small game of chance. To date, the board has received just 10 tavern gaming license applications.
The governor had projected that allowing the new games would pour another $100 million into the state coffers. That’s doesn’t look likely unless there’s quite the crowd at the Midway Tavern in Hanover — or license applications start to pick up.
The Liquor Control Board noted, hopefully, that about 1,700 people attended information sessions to learn about the licensing process.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear how many of those were deterred from applying. By most accounts, the application process is onerous, and bar owners were alarmed to learn that bookkeeping infractions related to the games could threaten their liquor licenses.
And, if all that wasn’t worrisome enough, the governor’s budget relies on 4 percent growth in tax revenue.
Corbett has defended the projection, saying his economists are bullish on Pennsylvania. But estimates for the 2013-14 budget year thus far are turning out to be overly optimistic.
For three straight months, including February, the state brought in less tax revenue than expected, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
Also, in case you’re wondering, we’re not smoking, drinking or gambling as much as the government needs us to. Pennsylvanians have paid $941 million in sin taxes so far this year, about 1 percent less than expected, according to the Department of Revenue.
“All eyes will be on collections for March, the largest revenue month of the year,” said Michael Wood, an economist with the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “If collections fall short in March by about 2 percent, as they did in February, the state’s year-to-date revenue shortfall would more than double.”
The governor had laid out an optimistic budget that promised modest increases in funding for education and social programs, while banking on an increased gas tax to pay for road and bridge projects.
Corbett, himself, described his plan as “a budget reflecting real numbers, responsible choices and unlimited confidence in what our people can accomplish.”
So far, about the only thing that’s gone according to plan is that Pennsylvania motorists are ponying up more at the pump than those in most other states. So, it’s full-steam ahead for the road construction.
It’s only March, but if things don’t pick up soon, the governor and lawmakers may end up with a budget that gives their opponents fodder for the campaign trail this election year.
John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.