By Alex Roarty
HARRISBURG — This is one tax Dan Onorato doesn’t mind embracing.
The Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wednesday touted his support of a natural gas severance tax, which he says is necessary to protect the environment and local towns from a deluge of drilling that has swept across the state’s northern and western regions in recent years.
And he drew a sharp contrast between his position and that of his GOP opponent Tom Corbett, who, like with all taxes, opposes a tax on natural gas drilling. Onorato characterized Corbett’s stance against the levy as evidence he is little more than shill for the gas and oil industry instead of representing the state’s citizens. Corbett’s campaign shot back that Onorato’s position shows he, like Governor Ed Rendell, supports more bureaucracy and believes the state can “tax and spend its way to prosperity.”
Supporting the tax could give Onorato a wedge issue against Corbett, particularly in the all-important southeast where support of environmental protection is generally stronger. Voters are far more inclined to support taxes on big industries, particularly if the Democrat can tout the programs that the levy will fund. But it also gives Corbett an opportunity to name a specific tax supported by Onorato, who has gone to great lengths trying to portray himself as a fiscal conservative averse to all taxes.
“Tom Corbett thinks these drillers should be allowed to police themselves; I do not,” Onorato said during an afternoon Capitol press conference. “Tom Corbett thinks taxpayers should foot the bill to clean up and protect the environment. I think the drillers should pay for it.
“I’m running for governor to represent Pennsylvania’s taxpayers,” he said. “Tom Corbett is just representing the gas drillers.”
Drilling for natural gas is a major issue for the state’s Marcellus Shale natural gas region, which encompasses nearly every part of the state outside the southeast. The natural resource is seen as an boon to a region that has struggled economically for decades, but environmentalists and others have grown increasingly concerned about its possible negative impact on surrounding areas. The Democratic nominee said voters he talked to say, outside of the economy, drilling is the state’s most important issue.
Onorato’s plan calls for a “competitive” tax rate “comparable” with what other states have levied, but he declined to name an exact rate despite repeated prodding from reporters. The levy needs to meet the dual goals of bringing jobs to Pennsylvania but “not at the expense” of the environment or local infrastructure, he said.
The tax would raise money for environmental programs, protection and local infrastructure, not the state’s $28 billion General Fund.
“It’s a fee on the industry to be brought back into the problems the industry creates,” he said.
Onorato encouraged drawing a contrast between his position and Corbett’s, saying it’s symbolic of a race that features one candidate who wants to represent the state’s citizens and one who wants to represent big business. The attorney general, he said, sees only one side of the issue – the gas industry’s.
“He’s basically saying, ‘You do it industry. I trust you,’” Onorato said.
Corbett, as part of his no-tax pledge, does not support the new tax. His spokesman, Kevin Harley, blasted Onorato for supporting the tax, saying it’s the kind of stance taken by Governor Rendell.
“The biggest difference between Onorato, Rendell and Corbett,” said the spokesman. “They think the solution to all our problems are more taxes and more bureaucrats.
“Corbett believes that by growing this industry, we could produce as much as 600,000 jobs, which will increase the tax base, which will increase the revenue to the state,” Harley said.
The extra revenue generated could fund many of the environmental and infrastructure programs suggested by Onorato, he added, although Corbett hasn’t determined whether he’ll support Growing Greener III.
The issue of a severance tax could be moot by the time either candidate takes office. Lawmakers, per a budget agreement struck in July, have agreed to approve a shale tax by Oct. 1.
But Onorato questions whether that will happen.
“I am skeptical the severance tax will pass by the fall,” he said. “Since the legislature has made it clear repeatedly that they won’t do what needs to be done, preferring politics over policy even at the environment’s expense.”
The Democrat wouldn’t say whether legislators should approve a tax despite the fact much of it would be directed to the General Fund, a significant from his proposed levy. Lawmakers need to do what they need to do, he said.
Harley was unequivocal, saying the legislature should not levy the new tax.
Correction: The original version of this story said Onorato has shifted his position on the severance tax, citing a Post-Gazette article from January. The article stated clearly that Onorato, while having reservations over the tax, was still undecided. PoliticsPA regrets the error.