Earlier this month, the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee delivered a one-two punch on that score.
Oct. 6, it approved a misguided House bill that makes it easier to mow down trees or churn up the ground within buffer areas alongside the state's most environmentally valuable streams and lakes, including Class A wild trout streams.
The same Senate panel also sided with industry in its fight against impending federal rules to slash carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Members voted 8 to 3 for a House-passed measure that would give the Legislature veto power over whatever anti-pollution plan the state uses to comply with the new federal rules.
Both bills run contrary to the principles established by two consecutive Legislatures and Pennsylvania voters.
The bill's supporters apparently fear that whoever is the next governor might put together a carbon dioxide pollution control plan that actually controls the pollution that drives global warming.
Both bills run contrary to the principles established by two consecutive Legislatures and Pennsylvania voters when they approved the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Commonwealth's constitution.
(Article I, Sec. 27 reads "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.")
The people's water is not going to stay "pure," and the "natural values" of currently protected waterways are not going to be preserved, if the Legislature makes it even easier to take apart the buffer zones that protect them. Letting an industry-friendly Legislature veto an air pollution cleanup plan is not going to produce clean air.
Supporters of the blast-the-buffer-zone bill, which passed the House 144 to 59, say it allows more flexibility for protecting water while allowing easier development. They note that buffer zone acreage that's developed would have to be offset with replacement acreage elsewhere within the watershed.
But that's like tearing off a room from a house and saying, "No worries, we'll provide a replacement hut somewhere else far away."
Having new trees downstream won't stop the flooding, erosion or influx of pollutants that's caused when an upstream patch of woods is torn up.
In any event, current rules do allow flexibility. Buffer zone projects of one acre or less are exempt. And the conservation group Trout Unlimited reports that the state has granted waivers for waterside buffer zone work in 48 percent of cases since 2010.
As for the coming of tighter carbon pollution rules in the electric power industry, it's true they will put a strain on the state's aged coal-fired generating plants. The rules will discourage the use of coal, because when it's burned, it produces about twice as much carbon pollution as natural gas does.
Shifting away from coal will probably will drive up electricity prices somewhat, since electricity from coal is artificially cheap — the price doesn't reflect all the harm inflicted on those who mine the coal, or on those who breathe the pollution caused by burning it. Nor does cheap coal reflect the full price of the damage inflicted on land and water when it is mined — not to mention the way coal contributes to the long-term consequences of warming the planet.
Industry critics say EPA's carbon pollution goals for Pennsylvania are literally impossible to reach, and even if they weren't, it would cost too much for too little benefit.
It's a familiar refrain when an industry is pushed to change business as usual because some of its profits come from pushing costs onto others with less political clout.
Asbestos, acid rain, air bags and catalytic converters in cars, lead in paint and gasoline, benzene, vinyl chloride — industry fought regulations on them all, using the highest plausible estimates of compliance cost.
Then when it can time to live with the new rules, the affected industries found the cheapest possible way to comply.
What EPA wants states to do with carbon dioxide pollution may require some fine-tuning to be both realistic and affordable. Miners and other workers who are displaced should get help making the transition to new jobs.
But power plants are the nation's single largest source of the carbon dioxide that's warming the planet. The country won't make progress against global warming unless the nation's power producers, including those in Pennsylvania, do their part.
THIS IS NOT TIME WELL SPENT
Do the numbers 58 and 64 mean anything to you?
Well, that's the number of days the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, are scheduled be in session this year.
Now, let's be clear, those aren't the only days our legislators work during the course of the year. They attend a wide variety of committee hearings and are present for all kinds of events back home when they're not in Harrisburg.
You have to think, though, that the low number of session days has something to do with the Legislature's failure to deal with a whole host of issues, including pension reform, property taxes, legalizing medical marijuana and privatizing our alcohol distribution system.
Take the fall session. It was reported that lawmakers were coming back for four weeks of work starting Sept. 10. Sounds like something should be able to get done in four weeks, right? However, all told, the legislators will only be in session for 12 days.
The typical schedule for lawmakers goes something like this. They usually get into Harrisburg Sunday night. On Monday party leaders meet with the rank-and-file to decide what they want to try and get done that week. Sometimes a vote will be taken late in the day, but usually this is pretty much a setup day.
The real work days are Tuesday and Wednesday. That's when lawmakers debate the issues of the day and, in some cases, actually vote on them. Those days are usually hectic, with most lawmakers putting in long hours. On Thursday, most legislators head back home. Friday, they'll spend most of the day in their offices, meeting with anyone and everyone. Saturday is usually a day for family activities.
The problem is that only two days of the week are actually set aside to get anything done of real substance. And keep in mind that the Legislature is only in session for somewhere between 15-20 weeks a year.
Many lawmakers will tell you that they're as busy, if not more so, at home than in Harrisburg. That's probably true to some extent. They attend all sorts of activities and events, trying to stay in touch with their constituents. Certainly, at least in theory, that's a good thing. But you have to wonder if at least some of that work is directly related to their getting re-elected.
So, aren't legislators getting paid for what basically amounts to campaign work?
Remember too, we're paying legislators a salary of $84,012 these days, plus a nice array of benefits. Shouldn't they be focusing on legislation and trying to get something done? There's no doubt, lawmakers are busy people, but is all that time spent back home really in the best interests of taxpayers?
In the end, though, you can't blame individual lawmakers for the low number of session days. The schedule is set by leaders of both parties, and they can do no more about it than most employees can do about their work schedules. It's also not a Democrat or Republican thing. Both parties have used the same general schedule for years now.
It's more of the general culture of the state Legislature. It's been widely accepted by everyone in Harrisburg as the only way of doing business.
But you have to wonder, given the number of complex issues legislators are faced with, if it's really the best system.