FILE - PA Tom Wolf 8-25-2020

Gov. Tom Wolf answers questions from reporters Aug. 25, 2020, in Harrisburg.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf canceled confirmation hearings for several of his cabinet nominees this week as tensions flare with Republican lawmakers over their efforts to thwart his climate initiatives.

Lyndsday Kensinger, a Wolf spokesperson, told The Center Square on Wednesday that the administration withdrew several nominees after the Senate Republican Caucus blocked Wolf’s pick for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission last week and issued an ultimatum to stall action on future appointments until he halts the state’s pending entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“The Wolf Administration will not let its cabinet officials be held hostage by the Senate Republicans' insistence to halt progress on policy issues that are important to Pennsylvania’s citizens,” she said. “The individuals will continue to serve in an acting capacity. The title of ‘acting’ does not impact their ability to do the job in any way.”

The Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee had meetings scheduled this week to consider confirmations for acting Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier, acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega and acting Health Secretary Alison Beam.

Nominations for the administration's other acting secretaries, including Veronica Degraffenreid at the Department of State, Margaret Snead at the Department of Human Services, Physician General Denise Johnson and Adjutant General Mark Schindler were also withdrawn.

The Center Square reached out to Rob Ritson, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, on Wednesday but did not receive an immediate response. Ward chairs the committee alongside Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh.

When asked about the canceled hearings, a staffer for Costa referred to a Philadelphia Inquirer article about the PUC nomination fallout and said only the administration could elaborate on the decision further.

Multiple sources told The Center Square that the administration is also targeting appointees with expired terms, including members of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency board, the State Board of Education and five members from the Charter School Appeal Board, in retaliation for the RGGI ultimatum. Board members with expired terms have, in the past, served until a replacement is named.

John Evans, the state's Small Business Advocate, told The Center Square he was one of 11 appointees fired this week without warning. A former House state representative, he said he asked old contacts if any knew why the administration let him go.

"I was told it was political fall out from the Senate PUC letter," he said.

Kensinger said Evans's term expired on Friday. He was appointed under the Corbett administration in 2013, and a replacement will be named later this week, she said.

Evans disputed the explanation, noting that his appointment doesn't have term limits and is at the discretion of the governor.

"I guess if they want to mince words, then yes," he said. "My term ended Friday because they said so."

Roy Reinard, a longtime PHEAA board member first appointed in 2003 after serving nine terms as a Republican state representative for Bucks County, was also among those removed by the Wolf administration, according to a legislative source.

Other fired appointees include James Biery and Vincent Gastgeb, from the Banking and Securities Commission, and Bradley Franc, a trustee on the University of Pittsburgh board.

Wolf first nominated Hayley Book, a senior adviser on energy and climate to Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell, in August to serve on the PUC board. She’s one of several dedicated staffers working on the state’s impending entry into RGGI.

When the chamber adjourned for the legislative session in November without confirming his pick, Wolf renominated Book in January. The deadline for action on her appointment is next month.

But Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, said they won't act until Wolf pulls the plug on RGGI. The 11-state pact charges power producers for greenhouse gases emitted from their facilities and reinvests the proceeds into projects and programs that support improved air quality or energy efficiency. 

DEP told the Senate Appropriations Committee last month its internal modeling shows that joining the program would reduce carbon emissions by 188 million tons; asthma-causing nitrogen oxide emissions by 112,000 tons; and acid-rain producing sulfur dioxide emissions by 67,000 tons.

McDonnell also estimates that gross domestic product in the state would grow by $2 billion while producing 27,000 clean energy jobs and more than $6.3 billion in health benefits over the next decade.

“Given the overwhelming evidence of what we are seeing in the comments and the polling, that’s what leads us to be confident in making the statement that this is something the residents of Pennsylvania want,” he said.

Lawmakers say their constituents don’t support RGGI at all, however, over concerns that it will spike electricity prices and drive lucrative energy jobs into unregulated states like Ohio and West Virginia. Last year, a proposal to halt the state’s entry into the program until the Legislature approves the action passed both chambers with bipartisan support. Wolf vetoed the bill in September.

As such, Pennsylvania would be the first state to join RGGI without the blessing of its General Assembly – a step Republican lawmakers believe the constitution requires.

“In lieu of this subversion of the constitutional process, and short of arguing this in a judicial setting, we are presented with very few options to reinstitute proper checks and balances in this particular situation,” the letter concludes. “Therefore, we will be exercising our legislative authority to reject all future PUC nominees until you withdraw your executive order related to Pennsylvania’s inclusion in RGGI.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.