Pa. Guv Debate: Sustainability

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 19, 2010

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The Democratic gubernatorial candidates took turns out-greening each other at an urban sustainability forum held at the Academy of Natural Sciences last week.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, Auditor General Jack Wagner and State Sen. Anthony Williams took the stage to debate how they, if elected governor, would make Pennsylvania a greener, cleaner and happier state.

All the candidates voiced support for green space, green jobs, mass transit, local farming and green-building standards, pledging to encourage the initiatives through tax credits and government grants. All supported continuing the popular “Growing Greener” program started by Gov. Tom Ridge and continued by Gov. Rendell, which protects open space through farmland preservation, park and trail improvements, mine reclamation and other projects.

When asked about funding for all these ideas, all four mentioned taxing Marcellus Shale gas extraction, though Onorato also spoke of raising private funds for park development. None of the candidates addressed the fact that the shale tax might be needed just to plug the state’s already gaping budget gap, to say nothing of funding future projects.

Williams did brag about voting twice to raise taxes as well as increase SEPTA fees. Later, Hoeffel moved to out-liberal him, saying that, as governor, not only would he tax gas extraction from shale sites, he would also happily impose a gasoline tax on the state and turn the income tax progressive so higher-earning residents would shoulder a greater portion of the burden.

Williams repeatedly brought up his childhood in West Philly as planting the seeds for his environmental awareness: “Urban farming was a necessity when I was a kid. It was how we got fresh vegetables,” he said. He said he learned to appreciate mass transit by riding SEPTA and to appreciate green space by playing in Fairmount Park.

Wagner, in a growl reminiscent of Jack Nicholson, at times seemed on the verge of telling the audience they couldn’t handle the truth, but instead dropped lines like, “Urban farming dramatically increases the quality of life,” and “America needs to get off of oil.” He proposed making the turnpike into the first multiple-fuel highway in America, starting with electrical outlets for those of you driving cars from the future. He hinted at compressed fuel-powered vehicles as well, but didn't mention personal flying cars, much to the audience's disappointment.

Wagner and Onorato both spoke on the importance of developing around existing transit lines to encourage the use of mass transit as well as save on costs for extending infrastructure.

Onorato repeatedly leaned on his urban-planning experience as county executive, saying “If you want to get serious about urban sprawl and gobbling up green space, you need to get serious about planning. We don't have to pick between sustainable development and economic growth," he said.

All four candidates were bursting to explain how they would be the top environmental governor—to an audience of environmentalists. It will be interesting to see if their stances stay consistent in other forums, though Hoeffel at least seems to be betting his campaign on green issues, proposing a full moratorium on leasing state lands for gas drilling.

It would have been nice to hear the Republican candidates’ take on the subject but, though invited, they declined to participate.

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