Pennsylvania Secretary of Revenue Daniel Meuser Hispanic Chamber Meeting Questions Corbett Secretary Over Fracking/Cuts to Safety Net
J. Smith-El Hispano
Philadelphia- Pennsylvania Revenue Secretary Daniel Meuser was looking to “communicate and get more people on board” Governor Corbett’s policies and 2012 Budget, when he visited last week with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Introduced by Varsovia Fernandez, the President and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Secretary Meuser was confronted by polite but persistent series of questions from an audience of business entrepreneurs, financial advisors and leaders of community-based organizations.
Although much of the discussion focused on the issues of taxes and tax incentives for investment, it also drifted into concerns over the controversial natural gas drilling and fracking process and to cuts to general assistance programs.
Mr. Meuser opened the meeting by explaining the overall “goals” of the Corbett administration, which is to “make Pennsylvania a better place for as many people in Pennsylvania as possible.” In order to accomplish this he spoke broadly of “creating as much opportunity as possible,” and creating “appropriate programs for job creators.” Mr. Meuser went on to talk of spending in a “most accountable way possible,” and channeling funds towards programs that are most beneficial from a “business perspective.”
Secretary Meuser, a former President of Pride USA, a manufacturer of wheelchairs in Luzerne County, reiterated that the Corbett Administration’s budgetary philosophy, which is “ultimately about creating prosperity for as many people as possible, and improving the quality of life.”
“In my opinion if we can do that successfully and we do have a plan, the revenues will take care of themselves and the funding for the important programs the government provides for will be there than they have been in the past.”
After explaining the necessity of “planning” the Revenue Secretary cautioned against expectation of immediate results, and spoke of “incremental gains and improvements every single day.” He added, “Unfortunately, in business and in government, there are very few leap frog moments.”
During the last 16 months, according to Secretary Meuser the new Republican administration has trimmed staff by 130 people, and through other efficiencies has saved Pennsylvania some $6 million.
Despite facing a $4 billion deficit, Sect. Meuser noted that there is a $2 billion annually in uncollected state revenues, which he described as due tax evasion.
“So we’re working on closing that tax gap through enforcement, technology, and the right allocation of funding,” he said.
Discussing a tax credit that promoted capital investments, Mr. Meuser noted that it mirrored a similar federal level proposal from President Obama and has” worked out very well.”
On energy, the environment and energy-related jobs, Sect. Meuser suggested Corbett was primarily concerned with “quality standards” or “world- class standards.”
The Governor “wants the highest level of environmental quality standards in the country. He wants them clear, so every knows what they are, and within those parameters he wants the industry to grow. He doesn’t want catch people or fine them on technicalities. We want to keep it fair.” Mr. Meuser also noted that the gas industry has been fined over $3 million, which is “far more that any other industry in the commonwealth.”
Defending the choice of an ‘impact fee” rather than a “severance tax” -as is imposed in most other states with a natural gas industry- Sect. Meuser explained that the impact fee raised almost $200 million, and that 60% of that money goes back to the counties; the other 40% left to the commonwealth. for a variety of environmental projects and road construction.
The Natural Gas industry is “enormously helping” homeowners throughout Pennsylvania, said Mr. Meuser. “People who use natural gas to heat their homes had an average reduction of forty percent,” he said, and they expect the price of natural gas to drop another 20 to 25 percent.”
The Secretary’s upbeat depiction of the natural gas industry and savings to residents was challenged by Oscar Rosario, an adviser with WPVI and several others.
After confessing that he was unaware of the fact that any reductions in gas prices had not yet reached into the Philadelphia region, Sect. Meuser promised to look into what he noted was not the case in other areas.
He also pledged that any future “savings” or “surplus” that occurred in the state budget would be passed on to emerging, small and minority businesses. “Any time that the state saves money, less has to go out for the programs that exist; then yes, those dollars need to go towards small businesses where seventy-five percent of the people throughout the state get their jobs. “
The forum returned to the subject of gas drilling and concerns over fracking, prompting Secretary Meuser to state, “We’re promoting it as much as possible. We want to make sure that they maintain a very high level of industry standards. But outside of that we want the industry to grow for the purpose of raising tax revenues.”
Last year the natural gas industry paid almost $500 million without this impact fee.
Ms. Iris Colon pressed the Secretary, noting, “Some people will turn on their water and if you put a flame near “it will (ignite) because of the gas going into the wells.”
Secretary Meuser offered that he has lived in one of the major areas of gas development -in Bradford county- and that in the last four years many of his friends, who had been struggling “to feed their families,” now had jobs “making really good money.”
A similar economic boom was occurring in Susquehanna county, Potter county, Tioga county and all the way towards Pittsburgh, all areas that now had unemployment levels of 4 1/2 percent, and “anybody who wants a job is getting it.”
Ms. Colon persisted, asking “What is money and wealth if you are going to blow up yourself.”
Fracking is not a “new concept” said the Secretary, and “it’s been in effect for more than twenty five years.” As to stories of water becoming combustible: “I have friends that live in those areas and they say that faucets have been lighting for twenty years.”
The Secretary went on to explain that outside of the initial drilling’s “surface impact,” the clean-up and the money invested to restore the areas results in a complete rehabilitation, so “you can really hardly tell (the drilling) was there.”
Secretary Meuser also reiterated Gov. Corbett’s commitment to “world-class” environmental protections. “
The Governor “loves Pennsylvania. It’s an industry. It’s not about exploiting Pennsylvania. It’s about improving Pennsylvania.”
The recent passage of the Corbett administration’s $27.66 billion budget prompted sharp criticisms from Philadelphia State Rep. Angel Cruz who said he was “outraged and disgusted” over cuts to the Department of Welfare.
The decision to terminate cash assistance, Rep. Cruz said, has “blind sided nearly 70,000 needy recipients across Pennsylvania.” He added, “it’s further proof of the Republicans total lack of compassion for residents who are already struggling to make it in this economy.”
Rep. Cruz also blasted the Governor for failure to notify recipients who are on assistance of the discontinuance, which will effect a variety of households.
The new policy also imposed a job search condition of eligibility for cash assistance through TANF and General Assistance-related medical assistance.