Tom Corbett’s Moral Decision

The needs of big gas companies outweigh the needs of the poor

Governing, at its core, is about making moral decisions.

It’s easy to lose sight of that, in all the talk of budget deficits and spending cuts and entitlements and unemployment and all the rest. When the House Republicans cut $1.5 billion in global AIDS programs that might save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives, while insisting that millionaires can’t afford to pay the same marginal tax rates they paid in the 1990s, that’s a moral decision. When the Nutter administration defers $235 million in payments to the city’s woefully underfunded pension program over two years, thus nudging us ever closer to fiscal crisis, that too is a moral decision. And when the Corbett administration, along with the Republican legislature, eliminates Pennsylvania’s adultBasic health care program for low-income adults, thus leaving as many as 41,000 people without access to affordable coverage, while at the same time insisting that the megabillion-dollar energy companies who are mining the Marcellus Shale and even state forests for natural gas should not be asked to pay a tax on those extractions—those same companies that funneled millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of the governor and his pro-drilling allies last year—just like they do in every other natural gas state, even as hydraulic fracturing, the process by which gas is extracted from the ground, is shown to present a larger environmental risk than originally thought, this is a moral decision as well. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

The natural gas tax would bring in $245 million in its first year. AdultBasic costs $163 million per year. The math isn’t hard—Corbett and company have made a moral judgment that the needs of energy companies outweigh the needs of poor, uninsured people. (Many of those uninsured, it’s worth noting, will be covered the the health care reform law’s Medicaid expansion starting in 2014, unless, that is, Corbett and his Republican ilk get their way, and the law is defunded or repealed.)

I don’t mean to oversimplify or paint in broad strokes of black and white: Corbett says he believes that if the state levies of tax on natural gas, those companies will pass up the potential trillion-dollar revenues mining the Marcellus Shale will deliver in coming decades, so as to avoid paying a few million bucks in taxes. I think that’s patently ridiculous and runs afoul of the most fundamental notion of economics—self-interest—but hey, we’re all entitled to our beliefs. And perhaps, on some level, a severance tax would discourage some companies from exploring for gas in Pennsylvania, and consequently cost the state some jobs. (I kind of doubt it, but that’s a theory.)

These decision aren’t easy. If they were, Governor Rendell and the last, more Democratic legislature could have hammered out a severance tax rather than leaving it to the next administration; but they didn’t, and here we are. Lawmakers could also have tackled tough issues years back, rather than allowing them to fester into billion-dollar budget deficits now. There’s no denying that; and there’s also no denying that, well, the government can’t do everything.

But deciding what the government can do—what it should do—is about the prioritization of the public’s resources and will. In Pennsylvania, at least with the Republicans in charge in Harrisburg, we’d rather cut off health care for the needy than tax multibillion-dollar gas companies.

I find that morally unconscionable. You might not. But don’t think for a second it’s not a moral decision.