Archive for category Opinion

Best of Times, Worst of Times


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . ”  So begins Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities.  It is set in in the years prior to the French revolution, but actually applies to the recent performance of Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature.

As official Harrisburg prepares for what is shaping up to be another epic budget battle, the big question is: which GOP will show up in 2017?  Will it be the Republican-controlled legislature that last year stood its ground and fought Governor Tom Wolf’s historic tax and spending proposals, or will it be the GOP that this year folded like a cheap suit and approved $1.4 billion in new spending?

The $1.4 billion spending hike might not qualify as the worst of times, but coming on the heels of a successful struggle against the Wolf Administration’s spending demands it did leave a lot of folks puzzled.  After winning the longest budget fight in state history, why turn around and cave in months later? This leaves most observers – and quite a few participants – at a loss when it comes to predicting how the 2017 budget war will unfold.

We are certain of a few things.

The toxic stew of tax increases and new taxes cooked up to pay for this year’s massive spending increase has failed to live up to expectations.  To date, revenue collections for the 2017-2018 fiscal year are running $261.8 million below estimates.  This, coupled with a “structural budget deficit” pegged at over a billion dollars means the new budget will begin with a significant gap between spending and revenue.

We also can be sure that Governor Wolf will again demand massive spending increases and the taxes to pay for that spending.  He used his budget address this year to lecture the General Assembly for its refusal to accede to his spending demands.  Since most of his priorities have not been funded chances are they will be dusted off and included in his new budget proposal.

But should Republicans sit back and wait for the governor to set the agenda?  Leo Knepper of the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a pro-growth PAC, suggests a different course of action.  “If Republicans in the General Assembly were smart, they would upend a long-standing budget tradition and go on offense,” Knepper wrote in a recent policy brief.  “(They) should ignore tradition and pre-empt the Governor’s budget address with a plan of their own.”  Knepper observed this would “force the governor to play defense rather than the usual offensive position granted to governors.”

The question remains, however, whether or not legislative Republicans – or at least the leaders who actually sit at the negotiating table – want to go on offense.  Will the resolute leaders who fought and won the first budget battle show up to play, or the ones who forfeited this year’s game?

The final certainty is that all this will play out against the backdrop of the rapidly approaching 2018 election for Governor.  For his part, Governor Wolf will want to deliver the goods of higher spending to his largely urban constituency.

It won’t be so simple for Republicans.

With a number of legislators, including leaders who will negotiate the new budget, eyeing a race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, the upcoming budget battle is fraught with peril.  There are pressures for leaders to “be responsible” and give into spending demands.  But with a veto proof Senate majority and a historically large majority in the House, voters are not likely to be either understanding or forgiving if the GOP doesn’t stand firm.

Will it be the “best of times” with legislative Republicans going on offense and standing up to a tax and spend governor, or will it be the “worst of times” with the taxpayers of Penn’s Woods getting stuck with yet another round of tax hikes?  As the budget process begins a new cycle it is impossible to tell which of the GOP’s split personalities will emerge dominant in 2017, but both the pocketbooks of taxpayers and the political fortunes of many politicians will be affected by the outcome.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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Your Pain Is His Gain


The epic budget battle that began two years ago with the inauguration of Governor Tom Wolf resulted in school children and nonprofits being held hostage for over nine months as legislators battled the massive tax and spending increases advocated by the new chief executive.  State employees, however, were spared economic pain.

As the budgeting process for the new fiscal year gets underway the first shots in what is shaping up to be an even more intense struggle between the Democratic governor and a legislature heavily dominated by Republicans clearly will not let state employees off the hook.  In fact, some 520 workers in the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry are among the first casualties.

Just as the battles at Lexington and Concord heralded the start of America’s Revolutionary war, the skirmish over funding for Labor & Industry represents the start of what may turn into Pennsylvania’s longest fiscal fracas.  Court rulings require state employees to be paid even if there is no budget in place by the constitutionally mandated June 30th deadline.  That is one reason why little pressure was applied to the governor and lawmakers during the lengthy budget battle two years ago.

But this is different.  At issue is continuing a dedicated funding stream that finances the operations of seven unemployment compensation service centers around the state.  As the last hours of the 2015-2016 session of the General Assembly ticked away the House passed a bill reauthorizing the spending.  Senate Republicans, however, wanted more information which was not forthcoming from the Wolf Administration in a timely manner and the clock ran out.

Sensing a political opportunity Wolf immediately announced lay-offs and sent a labor union ally out to blame Senator Scott Wagner who plans to challenge the governor’s re-election.  This despite the fact senate leaders indicated their willingness to renew the funding when the new session of the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Senators argue the lay-offs are unnecessary because the administration could merely move funding among budget categories to cover costs until after the New Year.  Wolf claims he can’t do that, but during the long budget battle of two years ago he made hundreds of such transfers.  It isn’t a matter of can’t – it is a matter of won’t.

So once again Governor Wolf is signaling his willingness to inflict great pain upon innocent parties in his efforts to achieve his spending goals.  As 570 families enter the holiday season with paychecks about to end, they are the first of millions who will suffer economic harm in the coming months.  Charities and schools are soon to follow.

A representative survey of just 176 nonprofit organizations found that during the last budget battle 68% were adversely affected by the disruption in state reimbursements.  Had that fight gone on much longer numerous school districts across the state would have been forced to close.  Many kept their doors open only by borrowing.  Likewise many counties were forced to cut services and/or borrow money.  All of this came at significant cost to taxpayers.

The early signal by Governor Wolf that he plans to continue using fiscal hostage taking as a tactic is ominous.  The recent General Election produced a veto-proof Republican majority in the state Senate.  And while not holding veto-proof numbers in the state House, Republicans did add to their already substantial majority.  Thus the stage is set for a lengthy fight.

Overlay all these factors with the unofficial start of the 2018 gubernatorial election cycle and it becomes quite possible Penn’s Woods may see something it has never seen before: a fiscal year with no official budget.  It happens in Washington all the time where so-called continuing resolutions keep the money flowing because congress and the president can’t agree on a spending plan.

But even a state version of a continuing resolution is not possible unless all parties agree that money must continue to flow.  At this point it is unlikely Governor Wolf will bow to political reality any time soon. Rather he is doubling down on his policy of your pain is his gain.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

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Grow Private Sector, Not Government


 

Tax policy received scant attention in the presidential debates, but when it did both candidates displayed a serious lack of understanding regarding at least one critical component of the tax code: carried interest. Although arcane in nature and unheard of by most, carried interest is a tax rule that fosters capital formation, encourages investment and ultimately leads to job creation.

Simply put, carried interest is a type of capital gain.  Homeowners are familiar with the term ‘capital gain’ which in that circumstance refers to the increase in value of your home over time as you make improvements or rising market prices increase its sale price.  If you sell your principle residence and make more than $500,000 in profit as a married couple, you must pay a capital gains tax.  You pay the capital gains tax rate, not the ordinary income tax rate, on the transaction because you have already paid taxes on the income used to purchase the house.

Likewise carried interest is a long-term capital gain that is earned by an investment partnership.  In this case the asset is not a house, but an investment portfolio that the partnership established and grew over time. When sold, the portfolio manager pays a lower capital gains tax rate on the fund’s profit, not the higher ordinary income tax rate.

The presidential candidates have, unfortunately, decided to portray carried interest capital gains as a loophole granted to special interests.  Both candidates want to raise this capital gains rate claiming it gives investment fund managers an unfair tax break.  Fairness, however, is not what such an increase would achieve. Rather it would amount to double taxation.

The negative effects would be much worse than over-taxing a sub-set of taxpayers.  The partnerships that are formed when an investor joins with a fund manager results in a structure that fosters informed investments that grow over time.  This growth generates profits.  When the profits are re-invested that is called capital.  Such capital is invested in businesses so that they can grow, expand and create jobs.

Carried interest capital gain rules play a critical role in allowing capital to form.  If you raise the carried interest capital gain tax rate, the government will take more in taxes–dramatically decreasing the amount of capital available for investment in the economy.

A significant portion of that capital available for investment is invested right here in Pennsylvania.  According to the American Investment Council, private equity firms invested an estimated $24.49 billion in Pennsylvania-based companies in 2015.  There are 143 private equity firms headquartered in Pennsylvania.  These companies support more than 185,103 workers at facilities both in Pennsylvania and in other states.

In other words, carried interest capital gains is not a tax device aimed at making Wall Street fund managers richer. Rather, it is appropriate taxation that makes more capital available for investment in the companies that are creating much needed new jobs for Pennsylvanians and elsewhere.

It is common in an election year for candidates to propose new government spending programs in an effort to win votes.  They then go looking for ways to pay for that higher spending. “Reforming” the nation’s complex tax structure is often an effective target.

But, changes can have unintended consequences.  Raising the current 23.8% carried interest rate to 33% as proposed by Donald Trump or almost 50% as suggested by Hillary Clinton would result in only a modest increase in tax revenue flowing into the federal treasury.  And we all know that any move to raise this rate would likely be coupled with other tax hikes on working families and small businesses.

Even if you set aside the unfairness of double taxing investors, raising the carried interest tax rate or eliminating that category of capital gain entirely would have the detrimental effect of reducing capital formation.  That means dramatically fewer dollars available for companies to grow and create new jobs.  Carried interest is not a tax break for the wealthy; rather it is a way for investors to put their earnings to work creating the new jobs needed as the nation struggles to recover from the Great Recession.

Lowman S. Henry is Chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org

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Leave Us Alone


It was a simple, yet revealing summary of the problems plaguing Pennsylvania’s businesses.  “Please stop trying to ‘fix’ it,” the business owner begged. “Leave us alone.”  That plaintive plea came as three new studies show our state’s economy is sagging under the weight of new regulations, higher taxes, and unsustainable government spending.

Recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 has been one of the slowest in history.  But, some states have bounced back faster and farther than others.  Pennsylvania is not one of those states.  The Fall 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey conducted by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research found half of the business owners/chief executive officers surveyed saying the state’s business climate has gotten worse over the past six months, and only five percent reporting improving business conditions.

Like other states the people who actually run businesses reported a dramatic deterioration in economic conditions in Pennsylvania during the Great Recession. Optimism returned briefly during the Corbett Administration, but tanked less than three months into Governor Tom Wolf’s tenure.

Governor Wolf began his administration pushing for historic increases in both state spending and in taxes.  The Republican-controlled legislature successfully derailed that effort last year, but then caved into $1.4 billion in higher spending this year – earning the disapproval of 86% of the owners/CEOs.  All of this creates a climate of uncertainty leaving one owner to comment: “We expect another shoe to drop making it difficult to operate in Pennsylvania.”

The biggest shoe that hasn’t dropped is who will pay to bail out Pennsylvania’s massively underfunded public pension system.  Business owners fear a significant portion of that burden will fall upon them.  And the problem is, to use a currently popular word, huge.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently released a study of state pension systems entitled Unaccountable and Unaffordable.  It pegged Pennsylvania’s unfunded pension liability at nearly $212 billion dollars.  The commonwealth has amassed the 44th largest unfunded pension liability among the fifty states.

Compounding the problem is Pennsylvania has little room in which to maneuver in finding new revenue streams (taxes) to fund the public pension system.  The Tax Foundation’s State Business and Tax Climate Index found we have the 24th highest state tax burden in the nation.  We already have the most damaging taxes on the books: the Personal Net Income tax, Corporate Net Income tax, and a broad-based state sales tax.  Already suffering from a poor tax climate, any move to expand, increase or create new taxes would further erode our competitiveness.

These factors weigh heavily on the minds of business owners/CEO as they consider locating or expanding in Pennsylvania.  Forty percent said Governor Wolf’s proposed tax hikes have caused them to not expand their businesses.  That factor was second only to the explosion of new federal regulations in impeding business growth.

Why should non-business owners care about all of this?  Business relocation into Pennsylvania and the expansion of existing businesses will result in the creation of new jobs.  Penn’s Woods has lagged the national average in job creation in large measure due to state taxes and regulations.  The 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey found 21% of the responding businesses reduced their employee compliment over the past six months while only 11% added employees.

Thus Pennsylvania continues on a downward spiral.  And there is little optimism among those on the front lines of business activity in the state for improvement at any point in the near future.  Uncertainty is Kryptonite to business development.  At the state level uncertainty abounds.  Governor Wolf continues to press for increased spending and higher taxes at a time when the commonwealth already faces a structural budget deficit.  The recent record of legislative Republicans has shaken confidence in their ability to either deal with cost drivers like the pension crisis or to successfully oppose future tax hikes.

The bottom line is Pennsylvania’s business climate will not improve, and significant job creation resume, until and unless state government gets spending under control, addresses the looming pension crisis, cuts onerous regulations and provides some measure of tax relief to businesses ready to expand but which are being held back by the heavy hand of government.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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What’s My Line?


There is an old television game show entitled “What’s My Line?” The game featured celebrity panelists questioning contestants to determine their occupations.  Let’s play a Pennsylvania version of the show: Who are Otto Voit, Joe Torsella, John Brown, John Rafferty and Josh Shapiro?  The answer is they are all currently running for statewide office in Pennsylvania.

Next question: Can you correctly identify the office for which they are running?  The answers are Voit and Torsella are running for state treasurer; Rafferty and Shapiro for attorney general; and John Brown, along with incumbent Eugene DePasquale are running for auditor general.

When it comes to statewide offices in Pennsylvania it is either feast or famine.  This year’s ballot will feature a veritable buffet for voters from President of the United States to U.S. Senate to the already mentioned three statewide constitutional offices. But next year statewide politics goes on a strict diet with only appellate court seats on the menu.

Voters respond accordingly.  Turn-out for the 2012 election topped 58% in Pennsylvania.  The following year, 2013 sported only one statewide race – a seat on the state superior court – and voter turn-out plummeted to less than 17%.  As a side note, that 2013 judicial race was won by Victor Stabile who has the distinction of being the only Republican to win a statewide election in the past four years.

In 2012, President Barack Obama powered a sweep of statewide offices as Democrats were elected state treasurer, auditor general and attorney general. It was the first time since attorney general was made an elected position back in 1980 a Democrat won that office. Four years later, however, former Attorney General Kathleen Kane and former state Treasurer Rob McCord have been convicted of high crimes and await sentencing.  Auditor General DePasquale, it should be noted, has served scandal free.

Corruption in these statewide constitutional or “row” offices is unfortunately not uncommon in Pennsylvania.  Former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer was recently indicted for alleged improprieties dating to her time in office.  Going back a bit further, former Auditor General Al Benedict and former state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer were convicted of crimes. Benedict admitted his guilt, Budd Dwyer died proclaiming his innocence.

Of course it is impossible to know whether or not a candidate will be honest in advance, but it is clear the currently system has not provided voters with the opportunity to learn enough about the candidates.  While tens of millions will be spent on this year’s U.S. Senate race between Pat Toomey and Katie McGinty, candidates for the row offices will likely be lucky to have a couple of million to present their credentials to voters.

It is unreasonable to expect voters to pay attention to who will be state treasurer, auditor general or attorney general in a year when a presidential campaign dominates the news.  You aren’t going to see Otto Voit and Joe Torsella on the front page of the paper every day – in fact they’ll be lucky to be in the paper at all.  And no television station is going to go live and lead from an appearance by these candidates.  Many voters will go to the polls not even knowing their names, much less with a full understanding of their credentials and plans for the offices they seek.

This will continue to be the case for however long these offices are filled in a presidential election year.  So here is a thought: move the election of these three offices to the year following the presidential election.  In the four year cycle of elections the “off year” following presidential balloting is the lowest profile year.  Only statewide appellate court seats are on the ballot, and – except for home rule counties – there aren’t even county commissioner races to capture voter interest.

By moving the election of the treasurer, auditor general and attorney general to the off year they would become the marque races.  The news media could devote more attention to the candidates.  Fundraising would be easier.  Party activists could devote more time to their campaigns. Voters would be able to focus.  They would go from being a side salad in the electoral buffet to the main course.

With a brighter spotlight on these offices we would hopefully end up with more voters at the polls, and fewer of the officials elected in jail.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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Road to Ruin: PennDOT Drains Turnpike Cash


The Pennsylvania Turnpike is America’s first superhighway.  It also has become one of the most expensive roads in the country to travel.  If you are in a passenger car driving the entire length of the turnpike from the Delaware River Bridge in the east to Gateway in the west it will cost you $42.30 if you pay cash, $30.32 if you have an E-Z Pass.

Traversing the Pennsylvania Turnpike gets more expensive for truck traffic, significantly more expensive.  That same east-west trip for the heaviest and largest of trucks costs $1,634.35.  As if that isn’t bad enough, recent annual fare hikes are projected to continue into the foreseeable future.

Pennsylvania is known as the Keystone state and for good reason.  Geographically we are centrally located for both north-south and east-west traffic destined for some of the nation’s most populous cities.  For decades the turnpike has been a key traffic route, but now both freight haulers and passenger cars are seeking out other routes – such as Interstate 81 that, while a bit out of the way for some, charge no tolls.

These facts have not escaped the attention of state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale who recently sounded alarm bells over the turnpike’s fragile fiscal situation.  In his audit of turnpike practices DePasquale said: “The plan for the turnpike’s financial future relies on projections calling for a 215% increase in toll revenue between 2015 and 2035 and a 44% increase in traffic volume through 2044.  However, traffic volume has remained relatively flat over the last decade.”

These two projections are inherently contradictory as basic economics dictates that consumers use less of a product as prices rise – especially if prices rise at a much faster rate than the income of the purchaser.  Thus, we can expect the past decade’s “relatively flat” traffic volumes to either remain so, or perhaps even decline as such significant toll hikes continue to be implemented.

It would be easy to blame mismanagement and the turnpike commissions’ often criticized hiring and contracting practices for these annual rate hikes.  But, in this case the problem has been caused by the state legislature, not by turnpike administration.  Act 44 of 2007 requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to make payments of $450 million per year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).  PennDOT then spends the money on highway maintenance and on subsidizing mass transit operations.  Since the passage of Act 44, $5.2 billion in fare revenue has been diverted from turnpike operations to PennDOT.

Act 44 was passed with the unrealistic expectation that Interstate 80 would be converted to a toll road operated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. That revenue would offset the mandated subsidy to PennDOT.  State officials appealed to both the Bush and Obama administrations for approval of the scheme, but were rejected. As a result the turnpike has been saddled with making annual payments to PennDOT and no source to fund those transfers except annual fare hikes.

The legislative mandate is also having another impact: the turnpike is reducing planned spending on maintenance, improvements, and expansion. An ambitious rebuilding plan that includes expansion of the turnpike to six lanes in many areas has already been reduced by $1 billion over the next ten years.  DePasquale pointed out the folly of the situation stating: “You can’t cut back on construction and increase traffic 44%, especially while jacking up the toll rates.”

The subsidies to PennDOT are scheduled to end in 2022, but by then the turnpike’s financial situation will be dire. Worse, legislators will then have to determine how to fund the insatiable appetite for subsidies required by the state’s money-losing mass transit systems.

This problem should have been addressed two years ago when the legislature passed and Governor Tom Corbett signed into law a defacto 30-cent per gallon increase in gasoline taxes.  That would have been the time to end “haphazard funding gimmicks” such as Act 44 and placed both the Pennsylvania Turnpike and PennDOT on solid financial footing.

It didn’t happen then. But it needs to happen now before, as Auditor General DePasquale concluded, the system collapses “and leaves the turnpike and people who rely on public transit systems across the state in a world of hurt.”

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

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Regulation Uber Alles


In nearly every study of state-by-state economic competitiveness Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom.  The most recent Keystone Business Climate Survey conducted by the Lincoln Institute found 53% of business owners and chief executive officers think our business climate is getting worse, only six percent think it is improving.

State government is doing everything in its power to prove them correct.

Two recent cases of regulatory excess and job crushing taxation illustrate the point.  The first involves the ride sharing company Uber; the second is the vaping industry.  Ride sharing and vaping have little in common aside from the fact both are being victimized by state government over-reach.  Sadly, they are just the latest example of how public policy in Penn’s Woods discourages business growth and job creation.

In the case of Uber it is an un-elected government regulatory agency, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) that has levied an $11.4 million fine because the firm supposedly operated for six months without the appropriate license.  I use the word supposedly because the Uber concept was so innovative it did not fit neatly into any existing regulatory category.  What we have here is not a company flaunting the law, but a hyde-bound bureaucracy unable to keep pace with technological advancements.

Rather than work with Uber, the regulators flexed their muscle by issuing a cease and desist order – which Uber ignored.  Uber thus committed the greatest of sins: failure to bow before the power of the bureaucrats.  So out-of-bounds is the fine that Governor Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders urged the PUC to reconsider.  Those folks don’t normally agree on much, so their unity on behalf of Uber was striking.

For its part Uber remains committed to Pennsylvania.  The company is testing a new driverless system in Pittsburgh.  Apparently if such a system can navigate the circular roads, hills and bridges of the Steel City it will work anywhere.  That research has brought much needed jobs to the southwestern part of the state – something the PUC apparently failed to take into consideration.

It’s not just regulators who are crushing jobs; some legislators are doing their part.  After splurging on $1.4 billion in new spending in this year’s budget lawmakers went in search of the revenue to pay for their spending spree.  Part of the answer was to impose a 40% tax on vaping stock.

Vaping is an alternative to smoking that utilizes what is in effect a personal vaporizer to turn vaping liquid or juice into steam.  Such liquids can be infused with various amount of nicotine – or none at all – and has been known to help smokers quit using tobacco products.  As vaping has become more popular mom and pop vape shops have sprouted across the commonwealth.

A 40% tax on any product or service is excessive, but in the case of the nascent vaping industry it is a killer.  Since the tax is applied to any items in stock at the time the tax takes effect next month it will crush many if not most of the small businesses.  For example, if a shop had $100,000.00 of vaping stock on hand they will immediately have to write the commonwealth a check for $40,000.00.  For some that exceeds their annual profit margin.

The end result is one of the few industries available for first time or small entrepreneurs will close and disappear, or the industry will be dominated by a few larger operations capable of surviving the tax onslaught.  The end result will be fewer small businesses, lost jobs and fewer choices for consumers.  Oh, and those sales and personal income taxes paid by the vape shops, they go away too.

The General Election campaign is now underway with half of the state senate and the entire state house on the ballot.  This is an excellent time for voters to demand their elected officials stop imposing job killing taxation on businesses and call upon them to reign in the power of regulatory agencies.  Unless a stand is taken at the ballot box Pennsylvania has no hope of shedding its well-deserved reputation as an unfriendly place to do business.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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