Sunday, December 18, 2011

The 11 biggest disappointments of 2011

(The PA GOP edition)

After claiming their victories in November 2010 would lead to smooth sailing for their agenda and jobs, jobs, jobs, Pennsylvania’s GOP leaders in Harrisburg found little success in implementing their policies and increased unemployment as a result of their agenda.

Mike Turzai said that there would be “…significant cooperation between the House and Senate in resolving a number of issues,” and then threatened any possible cooperation when he questioned top Senate Republican Joe Scarnati’s GOP credentials by telling the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, "He likes to spend money, he likes to borrow money, and he's not afraid to increase taxes."

But with every faction trying to outrun the other to the far right, it’s almost 2012 and very little’s been done. And it turns out voters have some buyer’s remorse.

Here is my year in review to highlight 11 big disappointments of GOP leadership.

Number 11: Health care hypocrisy

Remember when less than a month into Corbett’s tenure, 42,000 working Pennsylvanians received word they would soon be kicked off their affordable adultBasic health care coverage.

Diverting tobacco settlement funds away from their lawful use under 2001’s Tobacco Settlement Act, the Corbett Administration found it is in its heart to allocate funds for big business bonus depreciation and the mysterious Liberty Loan Fund, but not to help subsidize the successful and needed program aimed at keeping Pennsylvanians healthy.

Even more shocking was when Corbett appointee and at-the-time Acting Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine asked the feds to waive some requirements of the Affordable Care Act in order to help Pa’s newly uninsured. The same Affordable Care Act that former Attorney General Corbett joined a lawsuit to repeal and the same federal government that he claims meddles too much in state business.

Number 10: Redundant Redundancy

In a letter dated Dec. 8, 2011, the Governor addressed the issue of the number of boards and commission in PA…I can only assume that someone whispered in his ear that this was the pressing issue facing the state.

The state Senate considered this issue at a hearing last March, looking for ways to streamline government and then they dropped out of the parade. So yes, the governor 9 months later decided to get out in front of the issue.

In his letter Gov. Corbett, who by the way has created several commissions during his brief tenure (which due to his inaction have added little value to residents) introduces his novel idea for weeding out these unnecessary boards and commissions -- create a task force to conduct this important job.

Yes, create a task force to study the excessive number of commissions.

If this task force resembles the governor’s other commissions, it is safe to assume that he will pack its ranks with colleagues and contributors.

Creating commissions is something the governor has truly excelled at. Earlier this fall, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked if perhaps Gov. Corbett is overly dependent on the commissions he creates. Respected experts concluded that commissions are useful only if their advice is heeded.

But Corbett falls short on follow through. He has taken months to review the report, before deciding to not act at all. Perhaps that explains the sunset provision Corbett wants to include for all future boards and commissions, to limit the time he needs to ignore their reports.

…maybe he should create a commission to weed out wasteful task forces.

Number 9: If a commission issues a report and Corbett didn’t write it, does he have to read it?

See number 10.

In April Gov. Corbett’s announced the creation of his Transportation Funding Advisory Council. In August the TFAC issued its report. And finally, two months later, in October Corbett announced he would do nothing.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, despite our state’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure and having convened a committee specifically tasked with developing options for investing in our roads and bridges, Corbett said transportation is not a priority for this year, reversing his position from last April.

For a man so focused on public safety and fiscal responsibility, how did Corbett decide that structurally deficient bridges can wait and that convening a commission only to disregard its recommendations made sense? Maybe it’s because the commission said he should actually do something.

Number 8: Allowing the far right fringe to run your agenda

It is pretty clear Republican Leader Turzai can’t get his number one priority passed (giving away an asset that generates $400 million for the state each year), what better way to distract the public from his failure than to allow the gentleman from Butler to commandeer the headlines.

The GOP State Government chairman has used his new position as a bully pulpit for the far-right issues that won’t contribute to improving our economy, growing jobs or protecting our environment. Issues like passing a marriage protection amendment, making English the official language and passing a Voter ID bill.

The chairman has also repeatedly stolen the show for his famous feuding with the committee’s democratic chairwoman. On one occasion he asked House leaders to censure her for having the audacity to express her differing opinion.

Kudos to Rep. Turzai, if you’ve got nothing good to say, say nothing at all…or better yet let Rep. Metcalfe say it for you.

Number 7: If you can’t win fair and square, change the rules

See number 8 (Voter ID).

With the record turnout for 2008’s election and the voter registration advantage Democrats hold in Pa. if passing a Voter ID requirement doesn’t marginalize the urban and low income voters who tend to lean Democratic, maybe a change to the Electoral College will.

The Senate GOP Leader’s plan to have Pennsylvania change its “winner take all” system and join Nebraska (which by the way wants to return to the winner take all system) as the only state which divides its electoral votes among candidates, is not only bad for Pennsylvania’s clout as a swing state, it is opposed by most Pennsylvanians and by Republicans in the PA congressional delegation.

A proposal like this could help the Commonwealth go Republican in the 2012 presidential race (for the first time since 1988) but it would cost our state millions of dollars in campaign ads and visits, and rank our importance somewhere in the neighborhood of the electoral powerhouse of Wyoming.

Number 6: You can’t hide from YouTube

GOP leaders in Harrisburg have gotten caught up more than once in reversing their previous stances. But in the Internet age, especially with the advent of YouTube, it is all too simple for the public to review that campaign commercial or swearing-in day speech.

Gov. Corbett got hit day 1, literally for his “Day 1” campaign commercial, which proclaimed that as governor Tom Corbett would “hand Harrisburg his reform plan” his first day in office. The small print must have read “plus or minus when I get to it.”

Or Mike Turzai’s poignant remarks delivered on the House floor on swearing day 2011. I encourage you watch the entire 10 minutes, because not only does the Republican leader wax philosophical about decorum on the floor needing to be “respectful, professional, and civil,” but declares the chamber’s focus would be on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Neither of which describe what actually transpired under Republican domination in the House in 2011.

Number 5: Parliamentary shenanigans

See number 6 (Turzai).

With the words respectful, professional and civil still lingering in the air, Republican leaders in the House shirked their own pledge for fair debate and embarrassed the legislature. By using hostile parliamentary tactics, the GOP has effectively silenced the voices of millions of Pennsylvanians.

Here’s a look at the numbers.

In 2011 alone, House GOP leaders have led the march to stop debate immediately for a vote (moving the previous question) 9 times.

To put this in context, from 1961 to 2010—in 50 years in the House at times controlled by Republicans and at times by Democrats -- this maneuver was only used a total of 30 times.

This is just one example of the strong arm tactics Republicans have employed to keep Democratic ideas from being considered. They’ve systematically shut off the consideration of any idea they’re opposed to by raising the issue of germaness, they’ve repeatedly held meetings in rooms too small to fit legislators, staff and reporters and that are not equipped for broadcast, and even voted to change the number of Democrats assigned to committees.

The House GOP prefers to throw up road blocks rather than legitimately consider a democratic idea.

Number 4: If it looks like a cut and quacks like a cut…it might just be a Republican turkey

Everyone knows the governor’s budget last March slashed education funding by historic and unsustainable proportions. In a move that shocked even Republicans, Corbett unwisely placed both basic and higher education on the chopping block.

According to Corbett, educating our children is a “nice to have” not a “must have.”

But for those same Republicans, who voted to cut basic education by a billion dollars and our State System of Higher Education by 18%, to claim they “restored” funding to education is an attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and rewrite history.

Make no mistake: GOP leadership is no friend to your children being saved by public education.

The GOP further boasted that their June budget was free of tax increases…for an alternate perspective I invite you to talk to one of the thousands of residents who saw local taxes go up as a result of smaller state allocations to counties and municipalities. And now that all the school districts have spent all their reserves and laid off teachers and coaches and janitors, wait until you see what happens to local taxes next year!

The governor made a similar move when he cut homeless assistance by millions of dollars but made time for a photo op to serve Thanksgiving dinner to those spending the holidays in our Commonwealth’s homeless shelters.

Number 3: Cheating our children

Conservative think tanks and Republicans leaders allege to be fighting for the kids in “failing” schools by backing an expensive and unproven voucher proposal, which would actually steal more money from those same schools their feigning to rescue kids from. This is the GOPs second act in attacking the students they claim to be fighting to save.

If their billion dollar cut to basic education wasn’t insulting enough to Pennsylvania residents, the GOP failed to implement the cuts in an equitable way. Low income rural and urban districts saw cuts in the neighborhood of $25K per classroom, while the wealthy districts of GOP leadership sustained classroom cuts of less than $1000 per classroom, widening the disparity and punishing kids for having the audacity to be poor.

It’s disingenuous to cut funding for public schools and later assert that you want to help those students by enrolling them in unaccountable private schools.

The few students who would benefit from vouchers attend school every day in the distressed districts that voucher bill proponents cut funding for in June.

Number 2: Flip-flopping on fees

When the state House approved what the Patriot-News labeled a "pathetic” plan to not regulate and impotently tax the Marcellus Shale industry in November, Americans For Tax Reform pledge-signer Tom Corbett issued his full support, despite Grover Norquist’s staunch objection who issued a letter to lawmakers saying HB 1950does not pass the laugh test when it comes to trying to claim this as a fee.

Almost comically, in front of PA Press Club audience in November, Corbett claimed that he had always been onboard for an assessment on natural gas drillers, even challenging reporters to review his statements on the campaign trail... too bad for the governor, they actually did.

According to Capitol Ideas last month, in March 2010 Corbett said his no tax pledge included a prohibition on fees, but in July 2010 the Associated Press reported that Corbett decided the pledge didn’t include fees.

The one thing Corbett has consistently been clear about is his desire to make Pennsylvania more like Texas … which may make you scratch your head since unlike the Commonwealth, Texas levies a 7.5% severance tax, that is 650% higher than the tax in the governor’s plan; Texas also levies a local property tax on the value of the gas under the ground, which garnered over $2 billion for local governments there last year.
Number 1: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

An epic failure at their self-proclaimed top priority.

For a caucus so focused on getting Pennsylvanians back to work, the House GOP has a poor record in 2011.

By any measure Mike Turzai and his caucus have done more to destroy jobs than their policies have done to create them. The proof is in the numbers.

As a direct result of the GOP-back state budget 14,000 education professionals lost their jobs.

Unemployment in Pennsylvania grew consistently for the quarter following the passage of the GOP-backed state budget in June.

Beyond their pathetic performance at getting the Commonwealth’s 500,000+ unemployed residents back to work, state Republicans are trying to add more Pennsylvanians to the ranks of the unemployed.

This year they’ve attacked workers’ rights, tried undermine unions, aimed at lowering wages, and want to eliminate 5,000 family sustaining jobs.

Maybe GOP legislators are taking their cues from Gov. Corbett and trying make our Commonwealth more like Texas, which had a $25 Billion budget shortfall in 2011, an unemployment rate higher than Pa’s, the lowest wages in the nation and where a quarter of the population is uninsured.

Giddyup – here’s to 2012

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On the menu this Thanksgiving: Hypocrisy

Below is a segment courtesy of showing Governor and First Lady Corbett serving dinner to several hundred people at the Water Street Mission in Lancaster last week.

In his budget that passed in June, Corbett cut aid for homeless assistance by $2.2 million.  Therefore assuming employees at the Water Street Mission earn the state minimum wage, the Corbett's would each have to volunteer for about 72 years at 40 hours p/wk, 52 wks p/year in order to make up for the $2.2 million.

Click here to view the CBS 21 footage.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Return to Texas

One silver lining to the GOP presidential debates inundating the airwaves is that we get to hear politicians and pundits distinguish fact from fiction in regards to the business friendly, economic boomtown and supposed utopia Gov. Corbett refers to as Texas.

Gov. Corbett has modeled many of his overdue and inadequate policies on the Lone Star state and gushs over it as a policy paradise. But as is often the case, the claims coming from the Corbett (and Perry) camp need some fact checking.

Marcellus matters

The Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission chief, Lt.  Gov.  Jim Cawley made it clear from day one that the extraction tax that 70% of Pennsylvanians support and that every other state has was “off the table.” After the group issued its report, Cawley explained that the Commonwealth’s business climate simply is not as “friendly as Texas,” therefore we can’t implement a tax on natural gas drilling similar to theirs.

What Cawley didn’t consider is that Texas, unlike Pennsylvania has closed the Delaware Loophole. PA’s failure to do so allows 70% of C corporations to operate here tax free. It further demonstrates the Administration’s focus on corporate rather than Commonwealth interests.  In Pennsylvania, a family earning $33,000 a year pays more income tax than 85% of all registered C-Corporations, many of which are multi-state and multi-national corporations that pay taxes everywhere else.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs?

The Corbett Administration and PA GOP leaders have sought to emulate Texas by repeating their mantra: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.  And while it is true, Gov. Perry’s Texas did grow jobs in Texas, nearly a quarter of those are public sector jobs like those that the GOP is seeking to slash through Leader Turzai’s liquor privatization plan and Corbett’s historic cuts to public education, which resulted in over 14,000 jobs lost.  In addition to job creation, Texas also is tied for #1 the country in the number of low wage workers.

Healthy Texans

And despite all those jobs, only 48% of Texans have private health insurance, and more than a quarter have no insurance at all. Texas’ GOP leaders have been slashing the eligibility for government-sponsored insurance like CHIP over the past decade leading to nearly 6.5 million people without health care, a majority of which are employed fulltime. Now it’s easy to see why Gov. Corbett decided to eliminate adultBasic for 41,000 working Pennsylvanians last spring.

Women’s Health

Pennsylvania’s conservatives have also set their sights on making PA hostile to women’s health like Texas, where the 71 family planning clinics receiving government funding are often referred to as abortion clinics even though NONE of them actually perform abortions. The result of failing to fund prevention methods, like basic contraceptives, means Texas spends more than any other state on teen pregnancies. So while the legislature debates the regulating of women’s health clinics right out-of-business, less of Pennsylvania’s women will have access to mammograms, cervical cancer and blood pressure screenings, and HIV testing.

Maybe the American public will get the opportunity to judge the Texas miracle for themselves, maybe not. I’m confident Texas’s formula is not as good for Pennsylvania’s communities as it is for the multi-state corporations working here. One thing is certain for the Corbett and his GOP partners, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In this case, the facts just don’t support the misguided opnion.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Gas and Gaming

Imagine an industry wants to move into your state. It has incredible potential for revenue generation and job creation plus ancillary benefits like increased hotel occupancy and small business opportunities. But with the good comes the bad, the industry will fuel additional costs, like overloading public safety. But some of those costs can be mitigated through preparation and smart regulation.

Pennsylvania has had two such opportunities in the past decade, but GOP leaders insist on treating them differently.

Early in the last decade when the gaming industry came knocking on PA’s door they could have gone to other states, but they decided on the Commonwealth. And since then households ACROSS Pennsylvania are benefitting, not just homeowners in a casino host municipality or county.

In the 5 years since Pennsylvania’s first slots parlor opened, the gaming industry has paid more than $1.3 billion annually in taxes, has directly created 15,000 Pennsylvanian jobs, and has actually surpassed New Jersey, Nevada and every other state in gaming revenue. The gaming industry also pays for gambling treatment, extra police services, a local revenue share and have spurred the rejuvenation of another entire industry, horse breeding.

Anecdotally, gaming enthusiasts have noted Jersey tour buses parked in Commonwealth casino lots.

And get this: PA taxes gaming at the highest rate in the nation. Interestingly enough political contributions from the gaming industry are banned in Pennsylvania.

So when you hear the Gov. Corbett and others argue that if we tax the natural gas industry (like EVERY other natural gas state does), they’ll pack up and leave, know that it is inaccurate and misleading.

Unlike the gaming industry, natural gas drillers have limited options on where they can locate. Pennsylvania is situated upon what is estimated to be the largest natural gas deposit in the world and alone could fuel the nation’s energy needs for a decade. The gas industry is here to stay even if there is a severance tax…they have said so publicly.

Natural gas is an abundant source of domestic clean energy, and the industry has created jobs and stimulated some local economies, but it has escaped paying its fair share (as it does in other states) for the negative effects of drilling including the increased burden on local emergency responders, the deterioration of our roadways and the degradation of the state’s water ways.

Senate GOP leaders have made implementing an impact fee they’re autumn priority, but their plan is limited, insufficient and would operate differently than other taxes levied by the state, and the governor’s “parameters” are designed for counties, not state government.

Why should an extraction fee favor one Pennsylvanian over another when all residents’ water supply is being polluted?

Why shouldn’t a portion of the tax levied on drillers go to serving the entire state, the same way a portion of the state’s gaming tax benefits people across the Commonwealth or tolls from the turnpike, or sales tax levied at large malls? And why are some GOP leaders still apprehensive to levy a tax that exists in every other state, and that even industry executives say are reasonable and expected?

Why does the GOP insist on treating the gas industry differently?

Could it be that we have not yet banned political contributions from this industry, or maybe we just need to banish Grover Norquist from the state?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

An Autumn Crystal Ball

The state House returns to Harrisburg next week. And since it recessed for the summer, our kids have returned to schools with fewer teachers and larger class sizes, the number of unemployed Pennsylvanians has grown and through a series of weather-related events, flood waters pounded every corner of the Commonwealth causing property damage and needless deaths.

Coincidently (or not) public education funding was slashed, job training programs were cut and money for flood control projects was eliminated in this year’s state budget.  All while hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were left unspent, waiting for some other “rainy day”.

The GOP-led state House has repeatedly proclaimed its focus as “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” yet there is little evidence that any of the “meaningful” measures they claim to have passed since taking control in January have gained any traction in the continued effort to produce jobs.

It shouldn’t come of much of a surprise that a group focused on passing legislation to root out near non-existent voter fraud, expanding the Castle Doctrine, and shuttering women’s health centers hasn’t found much success on the job creation front.

So when the House returns to Harrisburg on Sept. 26, what has the Majority Leader touted as his top priority?
•             Lowering the tax burden on Pennsylvanian small businesses by closing the Delaware loophole –no;
•             Ensuring more working Pennsylvanians have access to health care – nope;
•             Protecting our state’s water supply – guess again;
•             Finding solutions to cure our state’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure -- not right now.

GOP Leader Mike Turzai announced in July that his top priority for this autumn is liquor privatization. A plan that would immediately kill 5,000 family sustaining jobs, more than double the number of liquor stores, and do nothing to guarantee lower prices, but would almost definitely drive up public safety costs across the state.

Only time will tell if Republican leadership will pick up the pace in passing legislation that favors Pennsylvanians over private interests, that values transparency over backroom bargaining, and deals with the Commonwealth’s most pressing problems instead of political preferences.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

PA GOP launching a war on words

Despite their frequent and fruitless efforts, with the GOP at the helm I think little threat exists that English will be declared the official language of Pennsylvania. If it were, it would be more challenging for Republican lawmakers themselves to misrepresent the rhetoric they’ve embraced since January.

The GOP has made distorting definitions an art form.

For instance House leaders wouldn't be able to characterize the expiration of federal stimulus dollars as a "federal cut" anymore. ARRA was a one-time grant for states to use, not money states could count on forever. So GOP claims of “cuts” from the feds are misleading and disingenuous.

For a time it was trendy in GOP circles to congratulate one another for restoring education funding -- which left everyone else in PA scratching their heads because everyone knows the GOP supported a $1 BILLION CUT in education. Only in the GOP alternate universe can you claim a massive reduction is actually a restoration.

More GOP-speak is the use of the word "gimmick." By House and Gov. Corbett’s standards “gimmick” easily translates into whatever tactic the opposition (be it Senate Republicans, Democrats, or the federal government) is using to make their point, no matter how logical and sound, it’s a gimmick.

Also in the world of Republican rule, there is no such thing as a surplus (except when one of your leaders slips up and calls it a surplus). New lingo: “revenue over estimate” made its appearance last spring in order to describe the excess taxpayer funds now sitting in a government bank account waiting for a rainy day while our kids endure larger class sizes, people can’t afford health care, and entire communities have literally been underwater.

Also in the gun toting, papers-checking, rights-denying Pennsylvania imagined by some lawmakers, the GOP used some "fuzzy math." You can call a $27.6 Billion budget a $27.1 Billion budget; and you can characterize an $800 million bonus depreciation giveaway to big business as only $200 million. In their minds, it all adds up.

Speaking of adding up, under Gov. Corbett the Harrisburg colloquialism formerly known as "WAMS," has been renamed and redistributed. Under new management WAMS have become the Liberty Loan Fund (synonym: slush fund).

With an obvious flair for deceptive communications in their first year, I can barely wait to see how many new words and phrases crop up in 2012. One thing is clear, while Republicans rewrite the dictionary and Senor Metcalfe tries to score an appearance on Fox News, both are distractions from solving the Commonwealth’s actual challenges.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

More DC input on PA's tax burden

Grover Norquist was revealed months ago as the puppet master pulling the strings behind the policy decisions of Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers across the country, including 34 right here in Pennsylvania (plus one enthusiastic Governor) took an oath to represent the interests of a Washington, DC lobbyist rather than the people who elected them.

Well it turns out there is more than one voice coming out of Washington on Pennsylvania's tax policy. In a report by the Tax Foundation, a self-proclaimed "nonpartisan tax research group based in Washington, D.C.," (judge for yourself), Pennsylvania was found to have the 10th highest tax burden among the 50 states at 10.1% of a resident's income paid to the state. Who tops the list: New Jersey (home of Gov. Chris Christie, the darling of Tea Party enthusiasts).

The report makes some interesting and useful statements regarding the balance states choose when generating tax revenue from out-of-state sources, versus in-state sources. Like other states with a high resident tax burden, Pennsylvania tax policy allows for "non-residents" like out-of-state industries, natural gas drillers etc to get away without paying much.

As a result the percentage of the total taxes paid in PA, 23.7% are paid by non-resident sources, while residents like you and me get walloped with covering the remaining 76.3%.

The Foundation's definition for "total tax burden" on an individual includes both state and local taxes, so it's worth noting while Corbett and others quibble over detail in regards to what is a tax versus a fee and whether Grover approves of the state budget, according to the Tax Foundation Corbett's "no tax pledge" gets lumped in with the countless local property tax hikes his budget is responsible for.

Further, many people like Gov. Corbett would claim the Commonwealth has an unfair tax environment for business, but in the far more conservative corner of the country, Alaska, residents cover a mere 20.5% of taxes; non-residents: 79.5%. The report even notes that in Alaska, "State residents get the equivalent of subsidy from some of the world's largest oil companies."

The report points to several solutions to lighten the load on residents. Spoiler alert: one of them is impose a tax on the natural gas industry. But in reality, several solutions exist that would favor the Pennsylvania resident as opposed to out-of-state retailers, manufacturers, and users of Pennsylvania goods and services.
Here are a few that I've been repeating for a very long time:

·     True, PA has the highest corporate tax rate, but we don't require combined reporting. So any company with a semi-competent tax attorney knows if they HQ their company in say Delaware, then they escape paying taxes in the Commonwealth. Seventy percent of all  "C" corporations operating in PA pay NO taxes, and 84% pay less than a family of 4 earning $30K p/yr. If Pennsylvania closed this loophole, we could lower the burden on our state's homegrown small businesses...increasing the burden on "foreigners" and lessening the burden on people in our own community.

·     Along those lines, what's crazier than not taxing big box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy and Home Depot? Paying them to do business here! These vendors get to keep 1% of the sales tax they collect, just because they pay the state's share of sales tax that they collect on time. This costs the Commonwealth $70 million p/year.  A blanket exception for a reasonable portion of this would insure that small, in-state retailers could keep this incentive while reaping tens of millions of dollars from the big guys.

·     Pennsylvania remains the only state that does not tax cigars or smokeless tobacco. We also don't tax funeral services, dry cleaning, manufacturing equipment or gold bullion. While all of these goods and services may have legitimate claims as to why they were exempted from taxes in the first place, they all merit review.

All of this is to say, Pennsylvania's tax system could use a complete overhaul which would bring it into the 21st century. Unfortunately the current regime can't utter the word "tax" unless they ask Grover Norquist first and it's preceded by the word "No", so the chances of PA improving on the Tax Foundation's list of tax offenders anytime soon is slim to none...but that won't keep me from talking about the insanity of the Republican agenda as it is currently being foisted on the citizens of this great state.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A great way to celebrate America.

"I don't fashion myself a clever man. I don't really care to do clever procedural maneuvers. I'd rather us have straightforward, civil policy debates to recognize the difference and then to let democracy take hold."
                                                            House Majority Leader Mike Turzai
                                                            January 4, 2011 Swearing In day

There will be plenty of time over the course of the next few months to discuss in great depth the truly detrimental cuts to schools and services in this year's Republican budget. There will be an endless of supply of negative consequences that result from the plan endorsed solely by the GOP, and its effects will be felt this year...and for years to come.

But this past weekend's Independence Day celebration provided the perfect time to reflect on the governing style and choices made by the current Republican leadership in Harrisburg, policies which would surely cause the founding fathers to turn over in their graves, or make the new generation of revolutionaries around the world question what they're fighting for.

The words spoken by the House Majority Leader on swearing in day (example posted above) were cast aside almost immediately.

Under their Leader, House Republicans have "called the previous question" (a means to shut off debate) a record-setting 8 times in the past 6 months, eclipsing every YEAR since 1961. This procedure used to be employed sparingly, a total of 30 times between 1961 and 2010 -- 30 times in 50 years. At the current rate, the House GOP will call the previous question 32 times in this 2 year session alone.

This and other overused combative tactics endorsed by the GOP are an abomination to the democratic principles our Commonwealth and nation were founded on. As a result House Republican leaders have tarnished our institution; the oldest in the nation and one where Ben Franklin once stood at the helm.

Even with near-guaranteed passage of their politically-motivated agenda (think Voter ID, limiting women's health centers, eliminating adultBasic) they have acted in a way to silence the Democrats, and the millions of Pennsylvanians who elected them.

They've made a mockery of House rules by over-utilizing questions of germaneness and the previous question, and by establishing new precedent setting interpretations of the rules to make amendments out of order. They have limited transparency by holding meetings in tiny rooms without broadcast capability when larger rooms are available. And they've destroyed the civility of the chamber by not allowing every member to debate a bill.

The Majority Leader said himself during his Swearing In remarks that by being elected members are given the privilege " be able to vote and be able to introduce bills and be able to debate in a setting like this [House chamber] on public policy."

And that there is "Nothing more important than participating in debate."

And finally that, "We need to be respectful, professional, civil. We need to focus more on the policy at hand; less about the show....To move the agenda forward we need the participation of everyone."

If nothing, in fact, is more important than the ability to debate, how can someone defend shutting off debate so consistently?

A Democratic colleague noted it's is a good thing the House Republicans were not in Philadelphia in 1787 to call the previous question during the four-month debate on independence, or the Constitutional Convention would have had a dramatically different outcome.

In the end the GOP achieved what it desired at all cost, an on-time budget, regardless of the detriment to the institution, its governing principles and most importantly Pennsylvanians. In the end, this budget is so bad it can't be justified by any means...but the means used to get to it aren't justified under any circumstance...not in a democracy.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Prioritizing Promises

Some things happen so consistently you can set the clock by them: the sun rises in the east every morning, there are fireworks on the 4th of July, and during the last week of June the Capitol is filled with lobbyists, lawmakers and camera crews.

This June 30 the average Pennsylvanian will be forced to determine how to come up with more tuition money, how to care for grandma now that her services in the nursing home have been cut, and how to afford their increased property tax bill.

I've heard a lot of Republican promises from the governor and his band of loyal legislators in the first 6 months of this legislative session, and for many no promise was more prominent than an the budget process would run like the trains in Mussolini's empire.

With overwhelming majorities in both chambers and a budget surplus that exceeds anyone's wildest expectations or hopes. What's the hold up?

The GOP's far right contingent found time to advance its conservative agenda: limiting abortion, strengthening firearms laws and limiting victims' rights. The House GOP even found time to approve a voter suppression bill.

But how do GOP leaders determine which promises to keep and which can be brushed aside?

The governor made plenty of high-profile promises beginning on the campaign trail.

On Day 1, we anticipated the governor's reform package ...because that when Gov. Corbett promised that he'd deliver it. We got a press release a week later saying he supported some things that others already planned to do.

Gov. Corbett also promised to shrink the number state fleet vehicles. Keep in mind, as Attorney General the number of state cars in his department actually grew by 12% from 445 to 499, while declining for other row offices.

One of his first and few press conferences involved auctioning off  Commonwealth One  (3/30/11 press release), and a commissioning a statewide review of the state’s vehicle fleet in an effort to reduce the cost of government. That's also about the time that 4 SUVs, totaling $186,000 that the governor had ordered, were delivered to Corbett, his top lieutenant and their wives.

Perhaps the most well known of the governor's promises was made last fall and has been repeated at pretty much every public event the governor has graced with his presence – No new or increased taxes. He and 34 state lawmakers took the Norquist Pledge. At a debate last October, Corbett made it more than clear that in addition to taxes he would "... not increase any fees. Not now. Not ever."

Last week Corbett drew Grover's admonishment over a plan to increase hospital assessment fees; but Norquist reneged and said as long as you lightened the load on someone else, the fee could be hiked for why doesn't that apply to a Marcellus Shale tax that would be used to lessen the burden on Pennsylvania taxpayers.

So what's a guv to do?

Supposedly the 26% of Pennsylvanians who voted for Corbett did so because of his NO tax stance (not his slash-and-burn education strategy, his collapsing of budget line items at tactic to hide where money is going, or the creation of his personal WAM account, the Liberty Loan Fund).

But now 70% of Pennsylvanians support requiring the out-of-state natural gas drillers to pay their share. So do you upset your base or 70% of Pennsylvanians?

Only time will tell, but one thing is clear (even to a guy who's been kept in the dark) even if a budget does pass on time and promises are kept, by and large the promises fail a majority of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is this the voter fraud the House GOP had in mind?

Voter fraud in Indiana

Just as Gov. Corbett had a yearning to be like Texas…at least  until he learned that they have a gas drillers tax…and a mineral resources property tax…and a recently enacted fracking fluid identification law, it is clear, after three days of debate on the ill-conceived voter ID legislation, that House Republicans are Indiana wannabes. At least that was the case yesterday…

Timing is everything -- in addition to the endless issues House Democrats illuminated on the House Floor this week, it seems like voter fraud is a thorn in the side of even Indiana's top election official, Republican Secretary of State Charlie White. 

While PA GOP members fight to enact a law to combat a nonexistent problem with voter fraud here at home, Mr. White is defending himself against allegations of voter fraud in Indiana. Whoops. It may be too late for the House Republicans to pull a Rosanne Rosannadanna-esque “never mind,” but they should give it a try.

Mr. White used an address on a voter registration form for the May 2010 primary that didn't belong to him. The address belonged to his ex-wife, and was NOT in the same district as the new condo he owns with his fiancée. In his defense of using the old address for political reasons, Mr. White's attorney admits White used his ex-wife's address as his mailing address, but his new condo as his physical address. Mr. White is defending himself in front of a state panel this week, and faces an August trial on criminal voter fraud and perjury charges.

Here’s the sad part. The $10m taxpayer funded voter ID bill that House Republicans in Pennsylvania are embracing doesn’t address this type of fraud. The bill they are pushing would require guys like Indiana Republican Secretary of State Charlie White to produce a photo ID to vote…which he did… The problem was not that he was who he said he was when he voted…the problem was that he was casting votes for people in a town where he wasn’t a resident. 

The $10 million photo ID requirements in the Pennsylvania bill geared more toward voter suppression than the impersonation voter fraud that Republicans hypothesize, would do nothing to remedy this very real kind of voter fraud.

House GOP leaders delayed this bill as long as they could, but, needing budget votes from the Paranoid Delusional faction within the Republican Caucus, we now find ourselves devoting hours to debating a voter suppression bill, rather than, you know, discussing a state budget.

But you can take solace in knowing this week Pennsylvania GOP leaders are making it more difficult to vote, but easier to shoot someone.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hypoco-lypse Now

We're for it... we're just against paying for it
With contributions from Rep. Steve Samuelson

I've waxed philosophical many times in this blog about the PA GOP's hypocritical policies and actions. For example, when my GOP Policy counterpart said our "surplus is extremely good news and a great sign," only to have other House GOP leaders claim a few weeks later that there is no surplus.

It turns out these bouts of hypocrisy aren't apparent just to readers of this blog, but to others! My colleague Steve Samuelson provides me regularly with examples of when GOP rhetoric just doesn't correlate with their actions. Below are a few of the most atrocious we've encountered.

Providing for Providers

On May 24, the Pennsylvania Community Providers Association (which represents 225 community-based organizations providing or supporting mental health, intellectual disability, substance abuse, children’s, and other human services) held a press conference in the Capitol calling for the full funding for community-based human services in this year's budget. Several House Democrats stopped by and spoke in favor of the funding restoration.

We were joined by a lone House Republican from Montgomery County, who spoke eloquently in favor of funding these valuable community-based services, and who a few hours later voted for a budget that cut these services.

Bowling for Food banks

On June 6 the Bowling Proprietors Association of PA teamed up with the state's food banks to "strike out hunger," drawing awareness and donations. A lane was set up in the Capitol's EW allowing 80+ legislators to bowl. Democrats and Republicans, senators and representatives all participated in the fun.  The BPA's donation of $25K will be especially useful as more and more Pennsylvanians are visiting food banks and because just two weeks prior to the event, the House GOP voted to cut the State Food Purchase Program by $339,000, likely hurting the 805,000 households who used the program in 2009.

Swing for hypocrisy

Pennsylvania has poor marks as far as cancer screening and deaths. To make matters worse the House GOP budget cuts Cancer Screening Services by 14.9%. Despite the cuts, 57 House Republicans found it in their heart to co-sponsor a resolution (prime sponsored by a Lycoming GOP lawmaker) supporting "Take A Swing Against Breast Cancer Month." They're likely depending on the annual fundraiser to make up for their own 15% cut.

There is great speculation that next week is "it" week...budget week. Signing the state budget next week fulfills the Gov. Corbett and Majority Leader Turzai's pledge to have an "on-time budget" no matter how many Pennsylvanians it hurts.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A lesson in ignoring Grover Norquist, courtesy of the Lone Star State

As we know progress in Pennsylvania on the GOP agenda has been a little slow. No one anticipated that the 3 arms of GOP leadership in Pennsylvania could bluster so much prior to the election about how they would do things differently if elected, and do so little about it after they were elected.

Some of that inactivity may have more to do with pledges that Gov. Corbett, GOP members in the House, and to a lesser extent, members of the Republican Senate took to constrain their own flexibility by limiting their own tax policy to an Amish-like mentality that freezes taxes in time, never to be changed...unless downward...not even allowing the substitution of a new rational tax for an old irrational one.

But even in Texas (Gov. Corbett's favorite state south of the Mason Dixon, and maybe anywhere) Gov. Rick Perry has encountered an obstacle keeping his Republican majorities in line with the Luddites.

Last week the Texas House defied the governor's veto of a measure to expand the sales tax to a number of Internet retailers who heretofore didn't collect sales tax. This by the way sounds like a pretty good idea especially to the Main Street retailers who feel the pinch of "no tax" competitors.

Maybe it's just that GOP chief executives aren't used to being responsive, or maybe because they're only held accountable to voters every 4 years. But one thing is for sure, Gov. Corbett can expect more of these GOP-clashes in his own state if he continues to value his pledge to Grover Norquist more than he values the opinions of Pennsylvanians.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lights, camera, action – it's show time GOP

I'll be honest, I didn't vote for any Republicans in last year's general election, but if I had I'd be mighty disappointed, just like everyone who didn't vote for the Republicans or just stayed home. PA Republicans, like many of their comrades across the country, claimed that the voters had spoken and they had a mandate to govern. Well we're 6 months in so far, and their successes have been minimal, if not nonexistent.

With control of both chambers of the General Assembly and the Governor's Mansion, the PA GOP said they were ready to lead and could finally achieve all of their conservative priorities like:

·       Balancing a budget by simply cutting waste, fraud and abuse
·       Implementing a school voucher plan
·       Privatizing the state's liquor industry
·       Tort reform
·       Blaming poor and working Pennsylvanians for all that is wrong in the world, and
·       Handing out more corporate welfare

All, with the underlying Norquist-pledge of no new or increased taxes.

But from the House side of the Capitol, instead of making headway on these issues, we're hearing more progress on initiatives like Voter ID, abortion clinics and the Castle Doctrine.

Even the governor told WHYY during an hour long interview, he's a little bummed out the first bill he signed was repealing the Sprinkler Law.

Don't get me wrong, these are all perennial conservative favorites too, but they're just not the "two jobs and a voucher" in the pocket of every Pennsylvanian that the Republicans had promised.

So what is the hold-up?

Believe me I know what the House GOP is dealing with -- working with the Senate Republicans is no walk in the park, after all their caucus consists of some independent thinkers and responsive legislators, who by House and Gubernatorial standards seem like reasonable people who actually understand the concept of governing.

And Gov. Corbett certainly hasn't done any of them any favors either, from his proposed increase to welfare spending and ridiculous cuts to education, to creating a new commissions to study the topic du jour, in addition to selecting campaign contributors and staff family members for high level appointments, and his refusal to even consider Marcellus Shale impact fee or tax. He definitely was a distraction from the Republican talking points.

Recently, House Republicans have boasted the supposed "early passage" of their draconian budget plan, which was been panned by Senate leaders since before it was even approved.

So while some of the GOP big ticket items are in a holding pattern for now, my guess is the Republicans will manage to pass a budget on times as predicted...albeit one that makes little or no sense for Pennsylvania families.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The House Republican Budget: a series of false claims, mistruths and inconsistent statements

As if listening to the House Republicans defend their budget on the House floor wasn't enough, I'm a glutton for punishment and spent some time over the past few days reading and watching their media releases, newspaper interviews and television segments.

I've heard a number of claims and inconsistent statements which bear repeating, primarily to correct the record.

Claim #1, The Republican budget restores education funds slashed by Gov. Corbett.

As a trained architect, I know a thing or 2 about "restoration." And I know if I had only done a demolition of a home and claimed it was a restoration, I'd be in for a lawsuit. So when the governor's budget called for cutting education by $1.6 billion, it was hard for the House GOP not to do better, but to claim they restored the education cuts is bogus.  The Majority Appropriations Chairman and budget's author, backed off such claims at the one meeting the committee held to examine his plan, the GOP doesn't provide a "restoration" at all, the GOP's plan amounts to schools receiving $900 million less than last year.

Of course if I were a member of House GOP's leadership whose school districts got cut to the tune of $39 a student versus, low income districts cut by $2443 a kid, I'd probably be ok with the budget reduction too.

And you know your plan is flawed when the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Dominic Pileggi says he thinks the Senate can do a better job of allocating education funding (he represents both of the above school districts, by the way).

Claim #2, The passage of this budget puts PA on a path to an on time budget.

I've read a couple statements from Republican rank-and-file Norquist-pledging cult member freshmen say that passing this budget is "another step in the process to deliver a budget on time."

If passing a budget on time were just about when the House passes a plan and it moves to the Senate, I guess when the House passed its General Appropriations bill March 24 last year, a full two months before the GOP this year, we were really on the right track. It took an appalling 9 weeks for the House GOP leadership to introduce this failing plan.

What freshmen don't realize is that we in the House have no control over when the Senate acts, and no control over how they'll amend the House Republican's budget.

We've seen already that Senate leader's intentions run counter to what the governor and House GOP back, whether it be a Marcellus Shale fee or use of the $500 million surplus.

It seems the House GOP is more concerned with an on time budget than a quality budget. But if having it enacted by June 30 is their goal, I wouldn't rest so easy just yet.

Claim #3, Is it or isn't it a "surplus"?

Any number of Republicans stood up on the House floor last week and said the Democrats were mistaken, the $500 million extra dollars of tax revenue the Commonwealth has received through April wasn't a surplus; it was simply revenue over projection.

I'm guessing not all the Rs received the same talking points, because in a press release dating May 10 from the GOP Policy chairman it was referred to as a "surplus" and " extremely good news and a great sign..."

It is not every day I agree with my GOP counterpart, but this time he is right.

Claim #4, There are no projects like the Arlen Specter Library in the Republican budget

I still hear some of my colleagues in the GOP leadership sounding off about projects from last year under Gov. Rendell like the Arlen Specter Library (at Philadelphia University) and the John P. Murtha Center for Public Policy (at Pitt's Johnstown campus), which were scheduled to receive a combined $20 million, would have spurred construction and economic growth, would have been at institutions higher learning in the Commonwealth, and were approved by Senate Republican leaders. Important to note, nearly a year later, funding for these projects has still not been awarded, and likely won't be.

What I haven't heard is equal aggravation about Gov. Corbett's $2.1 billion slush fund, the Liberty Loan Fund, a repeated topic of this blog. The Republican Appropriations chairman admitted publicly he knows nothing more than the minority party on this fund, but still included it in his budget plan. And further, other than being a gimmick to give the governor unabated control of economic development monies, read: WAMS, it is partially funded through from Tobacco Settlement monies, which are supposed to go to health related purposes, like adultBasic, which was eliminated in March.

So where is the House GOP's rage on the Liberty Loan Fund?

The House GOP wanted its turn to lead, but leading doesn't include looking in the rearview at the last governor's administration.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

House GOP continues its long tradition of implementing solutions to problems that don't exist

The budget clock is ticking, and after 9 weeks House Republican leadership finally introduced their own version of the governor's failed spending plan: Corbett-lite.

Despite the delay in their budget intro, the House GOP has been aggressive in embracing every opportunity to take on the standard catalog of conservative policies: repealing federal health care, gun legislation, welfare trimming, and abortion; often with limited time or opportunity for public examination or comment. Is this transparency?!?!

Just last week the state House passed an oversimplified solution to a problem that, while gruesome, under current regulation shouldn't have been allowed to occur in the first place. Attach the word abortion to a debate, and watch people fall into place.

2010's Gosnell abortion clinic tragedy was horrific. Innocent women and babies harmed and killed by a rogue and reckless "doctor." It was national news, and no doubt should never have happened. But redefining abortion clinic, widening hallways, and making rooms bigger would not have prevented the tragedy.

The legislation that passed this week will do little more than close women's health facilities, which, yes may perform abortions in addition to pap smears, cancer screening and provide prescriptions, and thereby limit the availability of these services to low income and rural women.

A similar law in Texas passed in 2004 essentially forcing the shutdown of 80% of the state's providers, compelling women to seek care out-of-state or illegally, and often unsafely.

Philadelphia's Grand Jury report, which allegedly sparked this legislation, found that the Gosnell clinic was allowed to continue operating due to the state Department of Health's failure to exercise its already existing oversight over abortion clinics.

If the Department of Health was negligent in its responsibility to enforce regulations to protect the health and safety of patients as the Grand Jury concluded, changing those regulations doesn't prevent a problem.

Even Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams said the Republican-authored legislation went beyond the scope of the Grand Jury report.

The Republican chairman of the Health Committee and his colleagues know "abortion" is a hot button issue, and with the House of Horrors Gosnell platform, overregulation was an easy sell.

The purpose of abortion regulations should be to protect women’s health, not to shut down safe providers and limit legal health care options to women and families across Pennsylvania.

But this week's abortion debate is just another example of the House GOP slamming through its agenda without public discourse, avoiding the real challenges, all at the expense of the Pennsylvania people.