Is There Flattery in Local Government?

In northeast Pennsylvania, the city of Scranton (population 76,000, only Second Class-A city in Pennsylvania, home rule since 1976, in Act 47 since 1992) and the county in which Scranton is located, Lackawanna (population 214,000, one of twelve counties of the Third Class, home rule since 1977) are proposing some very southwestern Pennsylvania ideas as of late.

For Scranton, a state senator has raised the possibility of a Pittsburgh-like shift of business taxes like the reforms made in 2005 when the General Assembly approved creating the payroll preparation tax and eliminating the mercantile and business privilege taxes. The senator noted "This would be a tax shift…[however] I haven’t gotten a clear view on whether it makes sense." Many of the arguments made in the Pittsburgh case pointed out the exemptions that had been crafted under the BPT and that a payroll tax would be fairer and fall on businesses across the board (non-profits and government are exempted from the tax).

Lackawanna County is debating whether to amend its home rule charter to replace the three commissioner system with an elected executive and a part time council, though that option would not be binding on a government study commission. There is also talk of consolidating some of the administrative row offices that are elected under the County’s charter (clerk of judicial records, recorder of deeds, register of wills) and appears that the whole of the matter might end up in court since there is a petition for a study of the Charter at the same time an ordinance calling for a referendum on the row offices.

Dousing the Gas Industry

Two negative incidents in the area (one in Clearfield County, one in Moundsville, WV) in recent days related to drilling into the Marcellus Shale certainly aren’t going to help with public relations for the gas industry. Not with the oil leak in the Gulf, not with an ongoing debate in Pennsylvania over whether to tax natural gas extraction.

The company involved in the Clearfield incident has been placed on a suspension by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that regulates drilling activity in Pennsylvania. Some want Federal intervention and expanded oversight. Others want a moratorium on all drilling activity statewide.

This raises the question of local government’s place in the equation. State courts have heard cases in recent years over municipalities trying to exert their police power over drilling via the zoning process, and some have passed ordinances designating specific zoning districts for drilling activity. A publication by Penn State University points out that "the ability of municipalities to regulate natural gas exploration is limited by the Oil and Gas Act…[which] preempts a municipality or county from regulating a matter that has been addressed in the act". But it is quite possible that these recent events might raise issues as to the regulatory framework.