Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed a disastrous state budget last night that favors the natural gas industry at the expense of the state’s children and least fortunate citizens. The $27.15 billion budget does not raise taxes, but cuts health care for more than 100,000 of the state’s poorest residents. It did this by slashing Medicaid contributions by $280 million, which will result in a $425 million loss in matching federal funds. State universities and community colleges have announced the largest tuition hikes in state history as education funding took a heavy, $863-million hit.
Yet, state Republicans and Corbett did not have to punish children and the neediest to plug a $4 billion budget deficit. Several variations of natural gas drilling taxes were proposed this year, and an extraction fee tacked onto the budget by the state Senate last week would have raised $310 million. However, Corbett threatened to veto any tax, and he strong-armed the state House into withdrawing a vote on the tax this week just hours before it was scheduled to be debated. Corbett’s obstinacy continues even though Pennsylvania is the only major gas producer that does not tax its use.
So why is Corbett very friendly to natural gas, despite its documented dangers? It may be because the governor owes part of his political career to the industry, having accepted almost $1.3 million in campaign contributions from drillers. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this week on the cozy relationship between Corbett and Chesapeake Energy, the state’s largest natural gas driller, which began during Corbett’s first statewide campaign for attorney general.
“For much of the fall of 2004, polls showed a slight lead for the Democrat. … Then, in the final weeks of the race, came a game-changer…$450,000 in campaign checks from Aubrey McClendon, CEO and chairman of Chesapeake Energy…The influx of cash helped Corbett narrowly win the closest attorney general’s race in Pennsylvania history and propelled him toward the governor’s mansion, where he has now pledged to turn the Keystone State into ‘the Texas of the natural-gas boom.’”
Chesapeake is one of the worst environmental offenders, having racked up fines of $900,000 and $188,000 in the last few months. They are also currently being sued by the attorney general of Maryland. Despite this, representatives from Chesapeake initially served on Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. Since his election, Corbett has also favored the industry by lifting a moratorium on new drilling on public lands, and by requiring his office’s approval before any regulations against natural gas companies can be enforced.