Packed Pennsylvania Capitol leaves little room for agreement, as rallies reflect tense talks

EnergyAssociated Press

The tension of budget season spilled over Tuesday into heated exchanges at back-to-back rallies at the Pennsylvania Capitol on the virtues of the state's Marcellus Shale industry and public schools.

The back-and-forth mirrored the battle over Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's plan to increase taxes on natural gas production to boost public school aid. Chants of "tax the shale" by public school boosters assembling for their rally began to drown out speakers at the industry rally, including Tim Schoen, a 2013 Penn State grad who now works for a civil engineering firm.

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"I'm proud to be where I am today," Schoen loudly declared, winning over the chants and sparking applause from industry supporters.

Heated debate continued between participants in the two rallies as the industry supporters left their place in the rotunda and began mixing with public school boosters who moved to take it.

Mark Fischer, who works for a pipeline surveying firm with an office in Lancaster, told China Livingston that any tax money coming from the shale drilling industry would simply go into the outsized pensions of teachers.

"That's what you're fighting for," he said.

Not so, Livingston shot back.

"We know exactly what we're fighting for," replied Livingston, the parent of a Philadelphia public school elementary student. "We're fighting for our children."

Industry supporters did not heckle the public schools rally.

Budget negotiations between Wolf and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature appear to be yielding little agreement, eight days from the start of the new fiscal year. A key element of Wolf's budget proposal is his request for another $400 million in aid for public school operations and instruction, about a 7 percent increase targeted to schools that suffered the biggest cutbacks under Republicans in 2011.

To pay for it, Wolf wants to increase taxes on the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry, arguing that no other major natural gas state is without such a tax on production.

Republican leaders have shown no support for a tax increase on the industry and have not said how much aid they think the state should send to schools next year.

Livingston, who chairs the parent committee at Henry C. Lea Elementary School, said class sizes have grown at her son's school, while parents fundraise and volunteer as aides and teachers buy school supplies with money out of their own pockets.

"My son's classroom has 35 kids in there," Livingston said in an interview later. "This woman is supposed to educate 35 kids? How?"

Fischer said everyone likes to talk about how much CEOs make, but his firm is laying off people right now as the natural gas industry works through low prices and the slow process of building pipelines between wells and consumers.

"This tax bill will be devastating," Fischer said.

Released in March, Wolf's proposal calls for a 5 percent tax on the value of the natural gas pulled from the Marcellus Shale, plus a flat fee of 4.7 cents per unit of gas.

The Wolf administration expects the tax would eventually raise more than $1 billion a year, significantly more than the state's existing "impact fee" on drillers, which generated $224 million in 2014 and is split up by local governments and state agencies and programs.