Week in Review: Corbett-supported ethane cracker plant shuffles ahead

By PA Independent Staff

Gov. Tom Corbett might be leaving office, but one of the biggest achievements of his single term is really just starting to take root.

Shell Chemicals took a major step when it purchased a Pennsylvania site for its ethane cracker plant, which will use natural gas to make petrochemical products.

PART OF CORBETT’S LEGACY: Gov. Tom Corbett didn’t win re-election, but part of his legacy is starting to take root as a job-creating ethane cracker plant moves ahead with plans to locate to Pennsylvania.

A large proponent of the plant, Corbett advocated for a record tax-break package for Shell that could be worth up to $1.65 billion over a quarter century. The incentive helped lure the company to the state, bringing along the potential thousands of jobs will come with it.

PA Independent checked into Shell’s progress this week, and took a look at an ethics reform that might get a second life as Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf takes office.

Shell cracker plant shuffles forward, negotiating a regulatory roadmap

Shell Chemicals has announced that it is buying an industrial site in Beaver County, in western Pennsylvania, though the company still hasn’t made a final decision on the project.

The cracker-plant project still has many steps, including a lengthy regulatory process. One adviser to the project once counted the number of permits that would be required — and got to about 130.

When operational, the plant would employ around 400 workers, and up to 10,000 during “peak activity levels” of construction. At least one study also has found the project could have a hand in bringing up to 20,000 jobs to the region.

Sorry, wrong number: Shell wants feedback, but no one answering

Shell Chemicals says it’s listening to Pennsylvanians’ thoughts and concerns about the proposed plant, but no matter how hard the company listens, it might have trouble hearing.

That’s because a business card Shell provided at community meetings about the project proclaim “We’re Listening,” but ironically list a wrong number.

A spokesman for the company says it will print new cards before the next community engagement, as well as email attendees who provided their email addresses.

Auditor General calls for transparency over pension funds’ investment fees

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday that Pennsylvania’s two public pension funds should be more transparent about the fees paid to hedge-fund managers.

The Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System, or PSERS, and the State Employees Retirement System, or SERS, have more than $77 billion in investments between them. Of that total, PSERS has $5.7 billion invested in hedge funds; SERS has $1.9 billion invested in hedge funds, according to their most recent annual report.

DePasquale said the two systems should be more up-front about the costs associated with those investments. For example, hedge-fund managers typically earn 2 percent per year, plus a portion of the profits on the investments.

“While PSERS and SERS may publish information on the management fees, the information is incredibly difficult to locate and comprehend unless you are trained in the business of investments. These are public pension systems and the general public has a right to know where the money is going,” DePasquale said.

A spokeswoman for PSERS said transparency is very important to the pension system. Each year, PSERS releases information detailing the investment manager fees paid by the system, which is posted online.

Legislation banning gifts could get second life under Wolf

Wolf plans to have a simple rule when it comes to members of the executive branch taking gifts: Just say no thanks.

State Sen. State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said Wolf “sent the right signal about the importance of public integrity” and believes that the Legislature should do the same by barring state lawmakers and state employees from accepting any gifts and hospitality from lobbyists and those who employ them.

State law allows legislators to accept all kinds of perks from rounds of golf to meals to even cash. A push to reform the laws governing gifts stalled this year, but Wolf’s decision to ban gifts has given Smucker hope it could happen in the next legislative session.

It seems like a common-sense move, but this year alone has proven that even those sorts of reforms can face tough tests in Harrisburg.

“This is more than symbolic, but it’s going to take a heroic effort to get it done. Money never concedes anything without a fight,” said Eric Epstein, the coordinator of Rock the Capital, a reform group.

Teacher files complaint over unions’ political letter

The National Education Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association made an assumption. An assumption that had one teacher, Mary Trometter, upset enough to file a complaint against the unions with the Labor Relations Board this week.

It started just days before the Nov. 4 election, when the NEA and PSEA sent Trometter’s husband a letter asking him to “Please join Mary in in voting for Tom Wolf for Governor.”

Trometter originally trashed the letter but decided later to file a complaint, saying she has grown tired of the teachers unions increased political activity and that the letter was the “last straw.”

The PSEA, while contending such communications are legal, also offered an apology after receiving complaints.

“We’ve apologized for the way the letter was worded, and we’ve told those members we won’t use this approach again and we regret that any of our members were offended by this,” PSEA spokesman David Broderic said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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