HARRISBURG — When the state Senate voted on a tax plan that involved a new tax on natural gas drilling, four senators who’d reported financial ties to the industry cast votes.
Two of them — state Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican from Lycoming County, and state Sen. Donald White, a Republican from Indiana County — voted in the favor of the plan.
Two — state Sen. Elder Vogel, a Beaver County Republican, and state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County — voted against it.
The senators’ connections to the oil and gas industry were disclosed in statements of financial interest compiled by reporters from the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity.
These financial interest statements are public records which are filed with the state Ethics Commission.
Their decisions to participate in the vote complied with Senate rules governing what constitutes a conflict of interest that would bar lawmakers from voting, said Yaw.
Rules in the Senate and state House are similar and require that lawmakers disclose when they suspect they have a conflict.
In the Senate, the lieutenant governor usually hands down the decision on whether a lawmaker can vote, said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jacob Corman. Senators are supposed to request a ruling on whether they should vote, when they have a “direct, personal, private or pecuniary interest” in the matter being decided upon, according to Senate rules. In the House, the speaker makes the ruling on whether a member should vote after consulting with the parliamentarian, said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, a Republican from Indiana County.
There is no ban on voting on measures that will impact a lawmaker personally, as long as the lawmaker doesn’t get a benefit that members of the public who have similar financial interests wouldn’t get, as well, Miskin said.
“When interpreting that rule, we have always looked to the principles regarding conflict of interest in the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act,” he said. “The Ethics Act conflict of interest provisions specifically exclude any action applicable to a ‘class or subclass.’”
So, if a lawmaker has a lease allowing a gas company to drill on his or her land, that doesn’t bar him or her from voting on issues regulating the industry, he said, as long as the lawmaker doesn’t get any benefit that other lease-holders wouldn’t get.
Micah Sims, executive director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania, said the state’s use of a full-time legislature was supposed to limit the potential for financial conflicts of interest. But, despite their full-time status, many lawmakers retain interests in business ventures, he said.
The data compiled by the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity shows that the Pennsylvania legislature includes five accountants; eight who reports interests in food or beverage businesses; 33 lawyers; and 42 lawmakers who report financial interests in real ventures.
That raises questions about whether the state really needs a full-time legislature or whether it needs a legislature with 253 members, he said.
Forty states have governing bodies that the National Conference of State Legislatures considers less than full-time. Those lawmakers convene for only part of the year and rely on other work to make a living.
Sims said that the Legislature might be better off adopting conflict of interest rules that more closely mirror the standards used by judges when deciding whether they can preside over trials.
In Pennsylvania the Code of Judicial Conduct dictates that judges step side in cases “in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned,’’ said Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Court.
Yaw said it would be difficult to fully eliminate these types of potential conflicts of interest.
“You’d have to bring lawmakers in from Maryland if you want to get rid of potential conflicts,” he said, because many bills affect everyone in Pennsylvania or large groups of Pennsylvanians, some of whom may be lawmakers.
“If we couldn’t vote on things that affect us financially, we’d never be able to change to income tax,” he said.
Yaw said that he owns a property which a gas company has been leasing to mineral rights to since the 1930s.
Vogel said the state ethics law allows lawmakers to retain rights their neighbors have while requiring reporting so that the public is aware of their financial interests.
“As the Commonwealth’s ethics law lays out, you can be part of a class of individuals in similar situations (in this case natural gas leasers),” Vogel said. “I am not different in terms of the family farm having a lease than the other individuals who also have a lease. The ethics law we have ensures that legislators do not have to forgo rights that other people in a class have. The difference is that legislators have an obligation to report it, which I completely support, so I report the natural gas lease on the family farm.”
Vogel said his opposition to the tax plan extended beyond the component directly involving the severance tax. The measure would have also added new gross receipts taxes on other utilities.
He added that he opposes the severance tax because “it would hamper the growth of natural gas in Western Pennsylvania.”
“Just like many other landowners in western Pennsylvania, I decided to enter into an agreement for the minerals rights under my property,” Bartolotta said. “I have no other financial interests associated with the industry.”
In regards to the tax plan, Bartolotta raised similar concerns to those brought up by Vogel, saying it would have harmed families by making them pay more for “the very basic necessities, such as electricity and heat.”
She objected to the proposal to create a new tax on drilling because the industry already pays impact fees, Bartolotta said.
“The Impact Fee alone has generated more than $1 billion in revenue for Pennsylvania to ensure communities that are affected by drilling receive their fair share of funding for projects like road and bridge repairs, housing and other infrastructure needs,” she said.
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 email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.