HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Senate voted along party lines to approve a bill proposing that a state agency drop “protection” from its moniker to become the Department of Environmental Services.
For the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) name change to become official, Senate Bill 691 would need approval of both the state House and Gov. Josh Shapiro.
The Senate’s Republican majority carried the bill by a 28-22 vote. No Democrats voted in support. A department spokesperson said the Shapiro Administration opposes a change.
Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Union/Lycoming/Bradford/Sullivan/Tioga, is the bill’s primary sponsor. During this week’s floor vote, Yaw said the last word in DEP’s name connotes law enforcement and security rather than promoting its function as an “environmental resource and a partner” to the citizenry. Its work as an “enforcer,” Yaw said, overshadows its other efforts and caused its relationship with the public to sour.
A fiscal impact statement on the bill said there would be no impact on commonwealth funds, saying that signage and other materials can be changed within the department’s existing budget and with a normal maintenance schedule.
“Emphasizing that this department is focused on services will be a huge step forward in instituting a much-needed culture change and will have no impact on its current jurisdiction or enforcement obligations. But, it will go a long way toward fostering a cooperative effort to address our environmental issues,” Yaw said.
DEP’s permitting process has been eyed for reform this session, certainly not the first time, and the push has been bipartisan. Shapiro opened the Pennsylvania Office of Transformation and Opportunity in January with expediting permits being an imperative task. Republicans point to lost investments in business and industry, pointing to companies moving major projects or choosing from the start to build in states with streamlined processes.
At a Senate committee hearing last month, Sen. Katie Muth, D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery, said DEP’s been hurt by funding cuts and low staffing. If technical staff is lacking, she said it’s hard to efficiently process permit applications.
A name change, Muth said, would send the message that Pennsylvania “operates as a partner to corporate polluters and not protecting the environment and the public.”
Minority Leader Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, called a change unnecessary during floor remarks this week.
Costa cast aside any parallels when the state moved in 2014 to change the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Human Services. The phrase “public welfare” grew to become viewed in a negative light, he said, necessitating a change to improve public perception of the department’s mission. The word “services,” Costa said, doesn’t make clear DEP’s mission.
“It relegates the belief that this department is simply providing a service as opposed to protecting a constitutional right which, I think, is extremely important to the people of Pennsylvania,” Costa said.
The Pennsylvania Constitution says citizens have a right to clean air, pure water and the preservation of the environment.
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Armstrong/Indiana/Jefferson/Westmoreland, thought little of the distinction Costa made between the current proposal and the agency name change approved nine years ago.
There’s an expectation that the bureaucracy serves taxpayers and there is an attitude prevalent in DEP that runs afoul of that public expectation, Pittman expressed. The department has been “anything but serviceable,” he said.
“I think this name change is substantive, I think it’s important, I think it goes with the theme of our new governor about making government work, about reforming our permitting process and making sure that our government serves the good of the public and that can include protecting the environment,” Pittman said.