Cawley Breaks The Mold

Brad Bumsted
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

In six short months, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley has taken on a huge workload and a higher profile than most lieutenant governors in recent history.

With the job comes the rap of supposedly being a “lightweight.” Predecessors Catherine Baker Knoll, Mark Schweiker and Mark Singel all experienced it.

But Cawley, thrust into the limelight over the volatile issue of Marcellus shale drilling, has dispelled the notion.

The idea of the No. 2 person in state government being a lightweight stems from the fact there are only a couple of basic responsibilities, such as chairing the Board of Pardons and presiding over the Senate. The main task is to be ready to step in if the governor is out of action. Cawley served as acting governor for 90 minutes when Gov. Tom Corbett had back surgery in May.

There is only one requirement — loyalty. Cawley has been an active player for the administration, for instance, lobbying GOP House members behind the scenes to support a back-end property tax referendum, which Corbett signed into law.

A lieutenant governor’s role is defined by the governor. Aside from the lieutenant governor’s statutory duties, there might be special projects.

Corbett handed Cawley a doozy with Marcellus shale, complete with protesters, a tax vs. fee issue and a deadline.

Cawley heads the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, which is due to issue its final report Friday. From the start, it drew fire from environmentalists who portrayed it as an industry-packed panel doing the bidding of Corbett’s big contributors.

Cawley kept a steady hand in deflecting that criticism and focusing on a goal — the effects of Marcellus shale drilling on the environment and Pennsylvania communities. The commission members are professionals, including Corbett Cabinet members, and are taking the task seriously, Cawley said.

Cawley was handed the hot potato of determining whether an “impact fee” on drilling is appropriate to compensate counties and municipalities for damages. Lawmakers of both parties are pushing for a tax or fee and environmentally conscious legislators are demanding some of the money go to statewide environmental programs (i.e., they want a piece of the pie for counties without drilling).

Cawley made it clear from the outset that a tax is off the table. What’s the difference between a fee and a tax? Some say none. Others suggest that a flat amount per well, which doesn’t increase based on the volume or price of gas, is a fee.

Corbett campaigned against raising taxes. Thus, much is riding on how any fee is framed.

A former Bucks County commissioner and onetime chief of staff to a state senator, Cawley has grown a thick political hide. Some of the commission members from private industry were taken aback at protesters ripping them at meetings. One, Gene Stilp, called Cawley a “prostitute” and crawled under a table rather than exit the room.

In terms of gubernatorial assignments, Singel focused on emergency management. Schweiker headed a commission to cut costs in state government. Knoll’s assignment was to stay out of the limelight.

Cawley has the toughest task since former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton was an early voice for the Thornburgh administration in the aftermath of the nation’s worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

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