Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Opportunity" for education dollars, hurt by tax breaks

Crafting a state budget is all about priorities.

For four years now, Gov. Tom Corbett and his Republican colleagues leading the House and Senate have shown that giving tax breaks to some multi-national corporations, while refusing to tax others at all, is their priority and that funding public education is not.

Since he took office, Corbett has provided more than $2 billion in big-business tax cuts. Not to mention allowing multinational corporations to continue using the Delaware loophole to avoid paying taxes while, at the same time, refusing to implement a shale gas severance tax.

In an attempt to cover their tracks, Corbett and the Republicans are now trying to include funding for pensions as part of their calculations of education funding levels. But that's not flying with the parents and taxpayers in Pennsylvania who understand that funding for old pension obligations doesn't help a single student learn to read, write or solve a math equation. It never has, nor should it now be, included in the bottom line. For comparison sake, the total education spend, not including pension costs, (... because historically, no other administration has ever included pension costs when calculating levels of education funding) for 2008-09 -- the year before federal stimulus funding -- was $9.36 billion. Meanwhile, total education dollars spent in 2014-15, not including pension costs, (... because historically, no other administration has ever included pension costs when calculating education funding levels) is $9.18 billion. Clearly less funding, yet Corbett and the Republicans in an attempt to call a lame duck a swan, try to tout this as an increase.

Simply put -- Corbett and the Republican-led House and Senate have cut education funding in Pennsylvania by about $3 billion total over the past four years.

Those funding cuts at the state level have drastically impacted Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, which have been forced to lay off 20,000 employees, cut programs, increase class sizes and hike local property taxes.

But wait ... that's not enough tax breaks for corporations or enough defunding of public education for Corbett and his Republican privateers. To make matters worse, the 2014-15 state budget continues $150 million in business tax credits for the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) ... or what some like to describe as "the faux voucher program that masquerades as choice."

Some Republican echo chamber organizations continue to tout these programs as vehicles for "saving tax dollars." Their argument goes something like this ... if corporations (remember, they are people too) can pay their taxes to private schools instead of to the state so that a handful of kids can attend the private schools of their choice, the rest of the taxpayers in the state will actually save money. I know ... it makes no sense ... but that's what they are claiming.

However, providing those tax credits to businesses doesn't relieve the school district of their educational expenses or the rest of the taxpayers the burden of paying for the lost revenue.

Those scholarship recipients aren't leaving Pennsylvania classrooms in groups of 25 or 500, which would lead to one less classroom or one less school building. On the contrary, the buses still run past the child's house that opted for the taxpayer-subsidized private scholarship (and in some cases the public schools incur additional costs to transport that scholarship student separately to their new private school). Meanwhile, the same costs still accrue for the public school ... a teacher might have one less kid in their class (although they most likely have 10 more due to the Corbett education cuts), the cafeteria worker still prepares the same lunch (less one serving), the principal still oversees the same number of teachers (although probably 10 less as a result of the Corbett education cuts), the janitor still cleans the same school building, and there are still the same numbers of teacher's aides and nurses … check that, the Republicans cut reimbursement for nurses and teacher's aides so they are no longer a part of any equation anyway. But ... the same lights are still on in the same classroom, the same public school building is still heated to the same temperature by the same boiler, and the same roof still needs the same repair.

So where are all these "savings" other than lurking somewhere in the ideological minds of the faux voucher advocates.

The reality is, these business tax credits don't save any taxpayer dollars. In fact, they are an extra cost to Pennsylvania's pocketbook. The $150 million of taxes otherwise due to the state would be better spent in the public classroom for the basic education or special education line items.

But as we've already discussed, those aren't priorities for Gov. Corbett or the Republican-led General Assembly.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gov. Corbett's "family budgeting" is hurting PA

Four years ago, Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his first state General Fund budget proposal and likened it to a belt-tightening family sitting around the kitchen table making decisions on where to save and where to spend.

So let's take a look at how that family budgeting idea compares with this year's House Republican budget proposal.

Simply put: this budget plan is based on either delaying paying the bills or simply not paying the bills at all. Not many Pennsylvania families can balance their budgets in that way.

For example, the PlanCon reimbursement program for new school building construction is behind by $1.2 billion and the 2014-15 Republican budget allocates only $10 million to it. That's like making a single payment on a 120-year mortgage. On that schedule, schools in the program will have to wait 120 years for a new building. Are you kidding me?

The Republican budget plan also suggests putting off this month's payment of $394 million to Pennsylvania's managed care organizations which help to meet the health care needs of some of our state's most vulnerable residents. Cash-strapped families know what happens when you put off making a monthly payment. You're faced with interest and late fees. And make no mistake about it, when the MCOs come calling for their bills to be paid, they're going to charge the state more money to make up for it.

As for higher education funding, four years ago the state cut their budgets 19 percent and that cut has continued year after year after year with so-called "flat funding." For families with students in college, that would be like telling the school: "We'll pay tuition for 4 out of 5 semesters and call it even." How do you think that would go over at Pitt or Penn State?

Standard & Poor’s warned that Pennsylvania’s credit rating would suffer if the Republicans continued to use one time gimmicks to “balance” the budget. This Republican budget is based on $700 million in one-time accounting gimmicks that supposedly balance the budget this year, but will lead to a $2 billion structural deficit in next year’s budget. That's an irresponsible way to budget, even for fiscal conservatives.

I just can't go along with the idea of fixing a budget deficit by creating a bigger one for the next guy to worry about.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Republican budgeting has led to $1.4 billion deficit

Gov. Tom Corbett and his Republican friends -- who lead comfortable majorities in the state House and Senate -- have had four years to take Pennsylvania in a new direction.

Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, that direction is deep into the red, headlined by a $1.4 billion General Fund budget deficit. We are one of only 11 states nationwide with a deficit. That’s what happens when you give tax breaks to some multi-national corporations while refusing to tax others at all. 

If the state budget deficit wasn't enough, funding cuts at the state level have drastically impacted Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, which have been forced to lay off 20,000 employees, cut programs, increase class sizes and hike local property taxes. But the governor continues to claim he didn't raise taxes?

And so here we are, within days of the budget deadline and the governor and Republican leaders can't figure out how to fix a billion-dollar deficit of their own making.

Now in their fourth year of budget fiascos, they feign surprise that their trickle-down economics aren't working. Sorry governor, you've had three years and three budgets that let you implement your spending priorities. You chose $2 billion in big-business tax cuts over more dollars in Pennsylvania classrooms. You chose to stall on Medicaid expansion instead of accepting Pennsylvania's share of federal dollars and you refused to impose a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas even though every other state with gas reserves imposes one. You don't have the federal stimulus program to blame any more. This is your budget deficit.

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee Republican Chairman Bill Adolph is offering some obtuse argument about how our flat income tax as it relates to federal tax rates is causing our budget problem. Again, most other states have a budget surplus, not a deficit. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai believes another thing entirely: that targeted job-creation tax incentives are breaking the state's bank and corporate tax breaks should be across the board. With all due respect Mr. Leader, that's how we got into this predicament in the first place: by Republicans cutting corporate taxes by $2 billion and allowing multinational corporations to continue their tax shifting out of Pennsylvania's state coffers.

We didn’t need to be here … but we are. By implementing fair progressive policies, we could have stopped our slide from 7th to 49th in job creation, and Pennsylvania likely wouldn't be in the budget hole that we are today thanks to the failed leadership of Gov. Tom Corbett and his Republican colleagues. It may be too late to change the governor's fate as a one-term failure, but it's not too late to change the failed policies the governor and the Republican legislature have pursued. We could pass a budget that doesn't rely on one-time gimmicks and selling off assets.

I am not holding my breath …

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A light bulb went on, but did he actually see the light?

"It's not fair right now, OK? So we need to address that."

- Gov. Tom Corbett, on education funding, Jan. 22, 2014

There’s been a breakthrough: after 1100 days in office, following dozens of protests across the state, and poll numbers that make the Titanic look recoverable -- in the dark abyss that is Gov. Corbett’s education policy, a small light went on. I’d say it was a 15 watt refrigerator bulb in the cold recesses of a beer refrigerator in the garage, but I digress.

Recently, the governor had sprinted from a Philadelphia public school he was scheduled to visit (the first visit to a public school in the state’s largest district, and one whose chronic underfunding repeatedly makes the national news), because he was notified of scheduled protests inside and out of the school.

See it’s only ok for the governor to use the school as the backdrop for his message and to try to save (or create) a legacy, but when teachers, parents and students want to convey a message at the school they work at day-in and day-out, well then it becomes, in the governor’s words, “theatrics that have been designed by adults.”

A few days later during a non-education related press conference, the governor seemed aware of and even expressed interest in a GOP proposal approved in the House that would set up a commission to develop a formula to distribute money for K-12 education.

And you know how the governor feels about commissions: creating them is his favorite hobby, but taking their recommendations is optional.

The larger irony in this: Pennsylvania had an education funding formula, established in 2008 after an extensive study was completed. However, the state abandoned it, before it was even fully implemented. Care to guess when and by whom?

If you said “2011 when Governor Corbett took office and cut a billion bucks from public schools”-- well you’d be right.

So this notion that Governor Corbett supports a formula just may be because it is politically expedient since his cuts to education are a key campaign issue.

Truth is the governor could invest more money in education today – literally today. Its budget day and the governor could choose to appropriate more state funds for education than pre-stimulus, because despite his claims and excuses Corbett’s number is still below that mark.

So while a light bulb has flickered on, I have little hope he’ll actually step into the light. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Genuine Outrage II

With the Corbett Administration’s typical impeccable timing – the day following my blog post last week questioning where Sen. Toomey’s new found outrage regarding Pennsylvanians’ health insurance was when the governor was kicking 41,000 working adults off adultBasic; removing 88,000 kids from Medical Assistance; or his denying 500,000+ residents health care at all; not to be outdone—Gov. Corbett’s Insurance Commissioner, Michael Consedine issued a letter, saying both he and the governor “…are deeply troubled by the flawed launch of the federally-facilitated marketplace…”
Consedine goes on to say his department has received over 100 complaints from residents.

Well, we already know that the Corbett administration doesn’t have much concern for the impact its policies have had on the health care of over 600,000 (and that’s a conservative estimate) Pennsylvanians.

But Consedine’s letter reminded me of another letter I received last month (Oct. 29) from Labor and Industry’s deputy secretary for compensation and insurance regarding the efforts L&I was making to correct its own flawed launch, and that they are working “diligently to resolved system defects, clean up inconsistent data, and implement improvements.”

So it turns out the rocky launch of health care exchange under Obamacare, which Pennsylvania like dozens of other states, opted to let the federal government operate is not unlike what Pennsylvania’s own Workers' Compensation Program's website  encountered in addition to problems it's phone line had last year.

The difference is scale.

While is tasked with shepherding millions of Americans through the process of purchasing health care, Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Comp system deals with a fraction of that.

So before Gov. Corbett and his minions cast stones at a program aimed at fundamentally improving the health of our nation, perhaps they should consider Corbett’s own imperfections.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Genuine outrage?

Last week while federal HHS secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, underwent another round of mainly disingenuous moral outrage from congressmen and women criticizing the implementation of a plan they been opposing the implementation of for three years, our state’s junior senator, Pat Toomey offered the evidence he’s been hearing from some Pennsylvanians.

No doubt the stories Toomey cited are real; one woman he spoke of is even from Lancaster County. But I find Sen. Toomey’s outrage misplaced and poorly-timed.

See, I didn’t hear a peep from the newly-elected senator in 2011 when Gov. Corbett decided his first action as governor should be the elimination adultBasic -- which if you remember was the low cost health care plan, covering for over 40,000 working Pennsylvanians.  Or a year later when the Insurance Department reported that 40% of those kicked off adultBasic and forced to sign up for new coverage that cost them more; or when 88,000 kids were kicked off Medical Assistance.

Nor have I heard him call on the governor to expand Medicaid, which would be a way to cover over a half million Pennsylvania residents and the easiest way to shrink the list of uninsured Pennsylvania’s by over 50%.

If Pat Toomey (and others) were actually for covering more Pennsylvanians and stimulating job growth in the Commonwealth he’d join with the rest of us calling on Gov. Corbett to expand Medicaid.

While Sen. Toomey was admonishing Sebelius on Capitol Hill, PA’s other Senator Bob Casey was calling on Gov. Corbett to accept Medicaid Expansion, like the governors of Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan and Arizona (see where I’m going here) have.

Sadly, Casey’s request will likely fall on deaf ears, as Gov. Corbett is busy on a 10 day tour of Pennsylvania in an attempt to rewrite his abysmal record of governing over the past 3 years.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It seems like it’s time for another optimistic (albeit inaccurate) email from the governor

Something along the lines of …

With Labor Day behind us, we can etch another relaxing summer free of controversy in our memories and gear up for a productive autumn legislative session with most of Pennsylvania's most pressing issues already resolved through the deft leadership of the Corbett administration in its first 33 months. All we need to do now is fine tune the machine of prosperity. (The drop from 7th in job creation to 49th was part of the plan to make our eventual emergence as #1 even more impressive. Although it may occur long after he’s been booted from office, he will lay claim to the accomplishment now).

Look- there is more state money being spent on education than ever before, and the state has made sure that local districts have held the line on taxes while securing smaller class sizes, higher test scores, and expanding curriculum offerings. More and more kids are performing better at cyber charter schools and its saving taxpayers millions because the tuition is free.

Pennsylvanians are going to work in record numbers, and not just at the minimum wage jobs they found when their unemployment was cut -- these are family sustaining jobs with healthcare benefits, a defined pension and generous vacation time. Things are so good, that workers are complaining that the prevailing wage should be scrapped in favor of higher wages being offered in the open market.

The Commonwealth’s few remaining working poor (so few that it’s difficult to find them these days) have access to affordable healthcare without resorting to Medicaid expansion, and polls show that an overwhelming majority of the residents are happy to send their federal tax dollars to expand Medicaid in other states where they aren't fortunate enough to have a governor with the sense to hesitate on Obamacare.

The extensions for the potential sale of the lottery have also worked like a charm. The extra time has allowed 3 new bidders to enter the fray and the free market has produced a new bid that is more than double the original offer.

The impending passage of liquor privatization is a mere formality now that the details of the new plan that will make alcohol available everywhere in the state, including vending machines on college campuses! Through a deal brokered by the governor himself (another notch in his legendary prowess as a dealmaker), distilleries have agreed to sell liquor to mom and pop operations at the same price the state used to get. In exchange, mom and pop operations have agreed to sell liquor at cost, and since there is already a surplus in education funding, the state has agreed to cut liquor taxes by 50%, meaning the consumer can now buy liquor for about the same price as their favorite mixers.

In a quirky twist of fate, even though manmade climate change doesn’t exist, the prediction of unseasonably warm winters in the future has resulted in a reevaluation of Pennsylvania's roads and bridges and found that since there is no expected “freeze-thaw” cycle for the foreseeable future, the roads and bridges are good to go for at least another 5 years -- maybe even 10 -- if the GOP-controlled House and Senate can push through legislation banning people from voting while allowing a governor to serve 3 terms.

In fact things are going so swimmingly that Grover Norquist has finally conceded that the Marcellus Shale fee is so paltry it should no longer be considered a tax.

And lastly, a new report by the Dept. of Revenue states that 70% of "C" corps paying $0 is just not acceptable - thus effective immediately the Sec. of Revenue will use the power he’s been granted to waive all taxes on the remaining 30% of multi-national corps that pay anything at all!

Well, a man can dream …