Posts Tagged capital

Déjà vu All Over Again


‘Tis budget season again in Harrisburg.  Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature face a June 30th deadline for enacting the 2016-17 spending plan. If it seems like we just finished the budget; that is because it took until April for the longest fiscal stand-off in state history to be resolved.  And now, it is time to begin anew.

Hopefully, not the lengthy stand-off part.

June is typically when the heavy lifting on crafting the new budget is done, particularly the last week of the month when legislators act like college students pulling an overnighter to get their assignments finished.  In this case though, there is no penalty for tardiness.

The big question under the capitol dome is will there be a summer re-run of the 2015-16 budget drama, or will the state budget actually get done relatively close to the constitutional deadline?  So far, the signals are mixed – but ominous.

Will it be, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again?”  Two factors point to another epic battle.  First, Governor Wolf’s “budget address” last winter lacked any content actually pertaining to the budget. Instead, he unleashed a tongue lashing at the legislature for failing to approve his historic tax and spending increases.  This was as well received as an illegal alien at a Trump rally.  Second, not a single legislator lost in April’s primary as a result of the budget battle.

That second factor is significant.  With all House members and half of the Senate up for re-election this year pressure is normally on to avoid anything even remotely controversial so as not to upset the electorate.  However, Republicans in particular are emboldened because they stood their ground, bested Governor Wolf in round one, and were rewarded by voters.  This gives them no incentive to cave to the governor’s tax hike demands.  Quite the opposite, voters in their districts clearly don’t want expanded state spending and the taxes needed to pay for it.

Conversely, Democrats – who have become essentially an urban party in Pennsylvania – represent districts that benefit from state taxpayer largesse.  Their constituents want more spending because they are on the receiving end, thus those voters returned their representatives to office as well.

Stuck in the middle are the endangered species of suburban Democrats who represent so-called “swing districts.”  Largely located in western Pennsylvania, these districts have been flipping from Democrat to Republican in recent cycles.  This is where the biggest electoral battles of 2016 will be fought, and those Democrats are on the hot seat.

This brings us to the one factor that could bring about a prompt budget resolution: Democratic desires not to lose even more of their seats.  Already Republicans hold legislative majorities not seen in over a half century.  The electoral map does not offer Democrats much hope.  At least three Senate Democrats are imperiled while the GOP faces no significant opposition to holding their seats.  In the House, most battles will again be fought on the little remaining Democrat turf in the western part of the state.

In each of those districts the trend line has been favorable for Republicans, and the Democrat constituencies are far more conservative than those found in urban areas.  Thus, Democratic candidates in each of those districts can ill afford to be tagged with supporting Governor Wolf’s tax and spend agenda.  This is incentive for Democratic leadership to postpone until next year any epic battle over the budget.

Should that occur Pennsylvania taxpayers will have only a brief respite.  Governor Wolf must stand for re-election in 2018 meaning his last shot at enacting his bold plans to expand the size and scope of state government will come next year.  Lose, and his image as an isolated and ineffective chief executive will be cemented into place.  But for Tom Wolf, even winning comes with some risk: will statewide voters actually reward a governor who just imposed upon them a historically large tax hike?

The only thing we can say for sure is it will be interesting to watch.

(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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Uncharted Waters


On one point there is unanimous agreement under the capitol dome in Harrisburg: Pennsylvania is in uncharted fiscal waters.  Never before in the history of the commonwealth has a state budget impasse lasted this far into the fiscal year.  There are no signs of agreement on a pathway forward.  And the deadline for next year’s budget is now on the horizon.

Despite all of this there has been little public outcry.  Recent polling suggests Governor Tom Wolf’s approval ratings have taken a hit, but the filing deadline for candidates to run for state House and Senate seats came and went in mid-February leaving most lawmakers with no or token challengers.  And, for the most part, the machinery of state government chugs onward.

Unlike past periods of budgetary disagreement state workers have continued to be paid throughout this impasse.  This as a result of past court rulings that held employees who in fact show up for work and perform their jobs must be paid.  As a result, essential – and many non-essential – state services have continued unabated.

Since the state constitution requires passage of a budget before spending can take place you might think state coffers would be overflowing with unspent tax money.  You likely have noticed that despite the lack of a budget, state income taxes are being deducted from your paycheck and you continue to pay sales tax on purchases.  The state, however, is broke.

The state treasury a couple of months back took out a $2 billion loan supposedly to keep the cash flowing.  But, without a budget how can the state spend so much money it actually had to take out a loan to stay in business?  The answer is over $37.5 billion has been expended, much of it prior to the partial budget resolution that occurred in January.

This has caught the attention of Republican legislators who point out Governor Wolf does not have the authority for such spending.  Worse, what gets paid and what does not get paid is basically happening at the discretion of the Governor.  Senate Republican spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Wolf is spending as if he has “an open checkbook.” She pointed out, for example, the governor continues to fund the state corrections system even though he line-item vetoed that portion of the state budget.

The governor’s spending priorities have been controversial.  Last Fall the state treasury floated a “loan” to the House Democratic Caucus because they had run out of money to pay staff due to the budget impasse.  A couple of months later that same treasury denied the City of Erie School District a loan to keep schools open.

Worse, the Wolf Administration has been less than transparent in making public details of its unauthorized spending.  State Representatives Chris Dush (R-Jefferson) and Seth Grove (R-York) have had to file Right to Know requests to obtain information.

All of this has prompted calls for Auditor General Eugene DePasquale to conduct an audit of the state spending that is occurring during the budget impasse.  The GOP brought out the heavy artillery to make the request which came from House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh).  They head the legislative committees vested with budgetary power.

Governor Wolf triggered the ongoing budget battle by requesting, actually demanding, a massive increase in state taxes and spending.  Interestingly, the amount of money spent by his administration over the past seven months surpasses the total annual budget passed by the legislature and partially vetoed by the governor.  This has given rise to concerns that the governor plans to spend to his preferred level regardless as to whether or not he ever receives legislative approval.  That could turn the current fiscal and political crisis into a constitutional crisis.

Much like President Obama at the national level Governor Wolf has made it plain he plans to implement his agenda by whatever means necessary even if it means trampling the constitution.  His unchecked and unauthorized spending spree is proof positive he is doing just that.

(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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Cesspool of Corruption


These are days of shame in Pennsylvania.

In just the past couple of weeks a sitting state Supreme Court Justice has been indicted, a state Senator has resigned in the wake of her conviction on corruption charges, a former Senate President Pro Tempore has struck a plea deal, and a former Speaker of the House has entered and been released from prison.

Penn’s Woods is in the throes of the worst outbreak of corruption since Milton Shapp occupied the Governor’s office. Former high ranking officials of both political parties, as well as sitting elected officials in both houses of the legislature and the state’s highest court have brought shame upon themselves and upon the government they were entrusted to serve.

The case of former House Speaker William DeWeese is particularly egregious. Convicted and sentenced he reported to the Dauphin County Prison outside of Harrisburg on a Monday, but was released just days later pending appeal. As DeWeese walked out of the prison gates and later feasted at one of Harrisburg’s finest restaurants, those of less lofty status were left to languish in the prison while awaiting trial. Even in disgrace rank apparently still has its privileges. Making matters worse, DeWeese – currently resigned from the House – was nominated for a new term by voters in his Greene/Fayette County district in April’s primary.

Those charged and convicted (so far only one defendant has been found not guilty) have attempted to divert attention from their misdeeds by claiming the prosecution is politically motivated. This tactic spans the partisan divide. Former Attorney General, now Governor Tom Corbett was accused throughout the Bonusgate and Capitol Corruption investigations of prosecuting for political gain. In Allegheny County, District Attorney Stephen Zappala, a Democrat, is accused by the Republican Orie sisters of similarly pursuing a political agenda. But in both cases indictments were issued by sitting grand juries, and convictions came from a jury of their peers. Neither Corbett nor Zappala controlled those bodies, and none of the multiple juries involved were of political construct.

Adding further to the cesspool of corruption that has engulfed state government is the fact those charged and convicted were not low level staffers or even back benchers in their respective chambers. They were leaders: a Supreme Court Justice, a former Senate President Pro Tempore, two former Speakers of the House, and those who held other leadership positions. This again proves the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Yet, despite the fact our prisons are filling up with former elected officials, and dozens of legislators have been tossed from office by voters, precious little reform has been enacted by those who remain. There have been a few changes; such as ending voting in the middle of the night, and not passing legislation in lame duck sessions.

But the reforms passed to date have been neither significant nor structural. The fact is the culture of corruption that pervades state government stems from the fact the General Assembly has become for all too many a career rather than public service. Once elected, all too many legislators place a higher premium on getting re-elected than in addressing the many significant needs of the commonwealth. That is why the state and school districts across Pennsylvania are standing on the beach ready to be swamped by a tsunami of pension costs, our roads and bridges are crumbling, and our public education system is in disarray.

There has been window dressing. A proposal to reduce the size of the General Assembly is nothing more than a ploy to concentrate more power in the hands of the few. Real reform, such as constitutional term limits, restricting session days to just three months per year, and limiting compensation to that proscribed by the state Constitution is nowhere on the radar screen. Even ministerial reforms, such as doing away with unvouchered per diems and requiring receipts for expense reimbursement, have not seen the light of day.

We are often told by those remaining in office that the few bad apples are not spoiling the whole barrel and that there are good and honest people serving in state government. This is certainly true. But, apparently there are not enough good and honest people – or at least not enough of them are willing to step forward – to make the changes necessary to put an end to the commonwealth’s culture of corruption.

The philosopher Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So true, and by standing by and doing nothing the rest of the legislature adds to the shame that today shrouds Penn’s Woods like a summer fog.

  (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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