As Harrisburg prepares to dig in and debate the annual budget, one package of bills could well play a significant role in negotiations. The so-called “regulatory reform” legislation introduced by conservative House lawmakers puts basic regulatory activities at agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection at risk in the name of cutting red tape. Yet a closer read of what these bills actually propose to do uncovers that, beyond shedding meaningful government oversight, pro-industry lawmakers are attempting to repurpose bureaucracy to better suit their agenda.
The suite of bills employs a number of tactics and overly simplistic anti-regulation rules borrowed from the Trump administration to bog down regulators and weaken checks and balances in crucial areas, at the expense of the environment and public health.
House Bill 209, for example, includes language requiring that every time a state agency proposes a new regulation, it must also identify at least two regulations to eliminate. President Trump issued an executive order with similar language soon after taking office. The bill would also establish an “Independent Office of the Repealer,” creating another redundant bureaucratic agency to review existing legislation.
House Bill 1792 also borrows from President Trump’s naïve and destructive deregulatory agenda. It would bar state agencies, including DEP, from reissuing regulations that are the same or similar to standards disapproved by legislators unless specifically authorized by a new law. It would also make it easier for General Assembly members to repeal regulations with a single vote. Regulations that have already been vetted, debated and enacted would now be subject to elimination with far less review or public input.
House Bill 1237 would considerably constrain state agencies and give General Assembly members the power to block essential rulemakings from DEP and other agencies simply by doing nothing. For any “economically significant regulation,” lawmakers would be required to pass a concurrent resolution of approval. If they don’t, the rulemaking is not enacted. Despite repeated attempts to amend the bill and establish exemptions for critical regulations including environmental standards, the PA House passed the bill without any such protections.
House Bill 1959 would strip state agencies of considerable resources in coordinating with and regulating the industries they oversee. It would strip departments of their ability to issue some permits and give that power to “third-party professionals.” It would require agencies to develop and implement this third-party program within 180 days but allocates no additional funding or resources to accomplish this. The bill somehow manages to increase administrative requirements on agencies while reducing their regulatory oversight. In the case of DEP, these new rules do not factor in the reality that funding has been cut by 40 percent over the last decade resulting in a 25 percent staffing reduction.
House Bill 1960 requires agencies to appoint a Regulatory Compliance Officer with the authority to waive fines and penalties if a permit holder attempts to correct violations or pleads ignorance of the law. In the supposed name of industry cooperation, this bill shifts enforcement powers away from agency leaders to employees where conflicts of interest can develop all too easily.
These proposed laws have more to do with injecting politics into the regulatory process than actually creating a strong and supportive government. Rather than cutting layers of bureaucracy and streamlining regulations and coordination between industry and government, this package simply puts the red tape dispenser in the hands of the General Assembly while making it even more difficult for state agencies to fulfill their missions.
As an environmentalist and non-profit leader, the threats to common-sense environmental protections and increased strains on the underfunded DEP are my primary focus in opposing this proposed legislation. But the impact of the bills goes beyond putting additional strain on an under-funded DEP. Republican lawmakers – that party that claims to champion small government – is creating new bureaucratic positions and requirements while unsettling the fundamental balance of power in Harrisburg.
Pennsylvania already has one of the most comprehensive and complex regulatory review processes in the nation. This suite of bills, borrowed from President Trump’s attempts to obstruct common-sense government, is not right for Pennsylvania’s citizens or the agencies tasked with protecting their fundamental rights.
Joseph O. Minott, Esq., is Executive Director and Chief Counsel of the Clean Air Council.