Are Forces Aligning to Extinguish City Gas Ban?

City Council has given its blessing to place a question on the November ballot to amend its Home Rule Charter to ban Marcellus Shale gas extraction. But in order to get in front of voters for approval or rejection the County Elections Board (comprised of the County Executive and the two at-large County Council members) has to approve the question. The Executive expressed his opinion yesterday.

"While the law and elections departments have only conducted a cursory review thus far, I have serious concerns over the legality of placing this referendum on the ballot. I look forward to receiving their formal analysis" he stated.

Recall that the law department’s record on deciding what can and cannot go on the ballot has at least one big blemish mark. In 2008 it gave approval to a County Council initiated question that would have asked voters "Shall the county enact an ordinance to increase real estate taxes in order to repeal the alcoholic drink tax?" According to the County’s Home Rule Charter the only time Council can act to place a question on the ballot is to amend the Charter itself; the Elections Board (with judges serving as interim members) disallowed that question and the County appealed. Common Pleas Court and Commonwealth Court upheld that decision. County approval of the gas ban question might not mean much.

Indeed, City Council’s measure would be quite unique since it seems that it would be the first municipality in Allegheny County to place an outright ban on drilling. There have been plenty of local ordinances that have restricted activity to certain zoning districts, but no complete prohibition has come forward. State law vests the Department of Environmental Protection with the power to permit or disallow wells, but municipalities have some power through the planning code.

And in a final irony, Council is dependent upon the Mayor to act quickly to sign or veto the bill rather quickly in order for the measure to meet the deadline to get onto the ballot. Both parties worked together in order to beat the New Year’s Eve clock on the pension bailout plan with the Mayor vetoing plans in short order. Will the same happen with the ban?

Reverend Presents a Good Tax Policy for Pittsburgh

Reverend Burgess, a Pittsburgh Councilman, has proposed amending the City Charter to require a voter referendum on all property tax rate increases. What a wonderful idea to launch the New Year. The Allegheny Institute has been recommending voter referenda for tax increases for many years.

The premise is very simple. Many legislative bodies and executives are heavily biased toward spending, ultimately necessitating more tax revenue to feed the insatiable spending appetite. Giving voters the power to approve or reject tax hikes provides a strong deterrent to imprudent spending. Taxpayers who vote are likely to be much less inclined to raise their own taxes to enable continued irresponsible behavior by spendthrift legislative bodies.

So, congratulations to Councilman Burgess for proposing the voter referendum. It is a ray of sunshine in a very dreary stream of awful legislation coming from Council recently. Let’s hope his fellow Council members don’t scuttle the plan. It would be politically smart for them to get on board with the Reverend’s idea as soon as possible.