Their View: Gas tax deal could benefit Pa. schools

The following editorial appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

With Pennsylvania’s support for schools submerged at a disgraceful 45th in the nation, the commonwealth has no choice but to increase education funding.

Voters said as much in November. Teacher layoffs and local tax increases that did not make up for losses in educational services motivated many Pennsylvanians to vote for Tom Wolf, who promised to adequately fund schools, over Gov. Tom Corbett.

That public sentiment remains, according to a recent Mercyhurst University poll, which showed that a majority of the state’s residents would support more funding for public schools as well as a 5 percent natural-gas tax.

Linking the two, Gov. Wolf unveiled his proposal to tax gas drilling in the stressed Coatesville school district last week. But while his plan has popular support, the Democratic governor is going to have to compromise with the legislature’s ruling Republicans to get it passed.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, has said he is open to a severance tax but insists that compromises on the state’s troubled pension system must come first. Reducing the unfunded pension liability is an important project that should have bipartisan appeal.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, is among those calling for privatizing state liquor stores. Wolf must consider this practical solution to a system that has only frustrated consumers.

Wolf also has to work with fellow Democrats who represent gas-drilling areas. Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, has opposed forgoing the existing “impact fee,” a half-measure championed by Corbett to compensate communities for the dangers, traffic, and disruption of drilling. The Wolf administration says those areas would be compensated under his tax plan, but it’s not clear whether they would get the same amount of money. While a tax is preferable to the current fee, the state should not shortchange the towns that bear the brunt of the industry.

Wolf’s plan, modeled on West Virginia’s policy, calls for a 5 percent tax on the value of gas extracted, plus 4.7 cents for every 1,000 cubic feet. Unlike 29 other gas-drilling states, Pennsylvania has yet to impose a tax on this public resource.

Wolf says most of the anticipated $1 billion in yearly revenue would go to education, but some would fund environmental protection and clean-energy development, two worthy and related causes. The governor has also shown sensitivity to the state’s other natural resources by banning further gas drilling in state parks.

The elements of a bargain are circulating in Harrisburg. Wolf and legislative leaders would be wise to seize the opportunity to pull Pennsylvania’s schools out of the depths.