Posts Tagged court

Public Opinion Court: Unions Yes, Special Union Privileges No


A recent Public Opinion Court focus group session empaneled by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. on Worker Freedom and Economic Progress found a generally favorable opinion of labor unions, but a lack of support for the special privileges that unions currently enjoy within the Pennsylvania political and policy structures.

The Public Opinion Court is a research vehicle developed by the Lincoln Institute to allow for more in-depth probing of an issue area than can be accomplished by a public opinion poll.  Members of the focus group are not told in advance what issue they will be discussing.  Thus they come into the session with common knowledge of the issue.  The process begins by having the focus group take an entry survey.  Following the entry survey an advocate addresses each side of the issue.  The advocates speak separately, with focus group members given time to ask questions.  After each advocate speaks, the group engages in a roundtable discussion on the issue.  The focus group then concludes with an exit survey designed to measure how opinions may have changed as the group went from common knowledge of the issue to being more informed.

For this Public Opinion Court session the issue advocates were Rick Smith, host ofThe Rick Smith Show, a labor union-backed public affairs radio program.  David Taylor, President of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association advocated for the pro-growth position.  Each speaker was given 20 minutes to make a presentation, followed by 10 minutes of Q & A with the focus group participants.

The Public Opinion Court focus group session was held on Monday, September 19, 2015 at the Reckner research facility in Chalfont, Bucks County.  The focus group participants were recruited from the five county Philadelphia metropolitan area. The focus group was balanced by age, gender, race, political party affiliation and, to the degree possible urban/suburban.  The goal was to make the group as closely representative of the state at-large, although it more accurately reflects the composition of the electorate in southeastern Pennsylvania.

A major theme that emerged from the group discussion was the lack of information voters in southeastern Pennsylvania receive about state government.  While all of the participants were able to correctly identify Mitch McConnell as the leader of the U.S. Senate and John Boehner as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, none could identify Joseph Scarnati as the President Pro Tempore of the Pennsylvania Senate or Mike Turzai as Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.  The group agreed that media coverage of state issues in southeastern Pennsylvania is inadequate.

The group was more familiar with bigger picture labor power issues, such as Right to Work, but significantly less familiar with state-related union power issues like dues deduction and carve-outs for activities such as stalking, harassment and threats to use a weapon of mass destruction.  They were also largely unaware of the influence labor unions wield over politics and public policy in Pennsylvania.

Included in the focus group were two individuals who currently are members of a labor union and two participants who are retired, but were labor union members during their careers.  Of the two currently enrolled as a union member, one is a member by choice and the other a member as a condition of employment.

In both the entry and exit survey the participants held a generally positive view of labor unions.  Entering the session two had a very favorable impression of unions, seven a somewhat favorable view. Four offered a somewhat unfavorable opinion; nobody viewed unions very unfavorably.  There was only slight movement in the exit survey, so no major shift in opinion occurred as a result of the group discussion.  Entering the session, six participants agreed with the statement that labor unions were needed at one time to ensure workplace safety standards and fair wages, but are not generally needed in today’s society.  Seven disagreed with that statement.  In the exit survey one person switched from agreeing to disagreeing with the statement.

Although viewing labor unions favorably, there was strong support for a Right to Work law.  When asked if they favor or oppose enactment of what is commonly known as a Right to Work law, whereby a worker cannot be compelled to join or pay fees to a labor union as a condition of employment, in the entry survey four strongly favored such a law, eight somewhat favored a Right to Work law.  One person somewhat opposed such a law.  Nobody changed their opinion on the exit survey.  This result is significant given there were two active and two former union members in the focus group indicating opposition to a Right to Work law by union leaders does not trickle down through union membership.

Significant time was devoted to a discussion of exemptions in state law that allow stalking, harassment and threats to use weapons of mass destruction during a labor dispute.  The group was in disbelief that such carve-outs in state law even existed.  There was a lack of knowledge that labor union leaders have been blocking legislation in Harrisburg that would eliminate those carve-outs.  The group unanimously – in both the entry and the exit survey – indicated the carve-outs should be eliminated.

The group also unanimously agreed that there is never a circumstance in which acts of violence are justified to force a company to use union labor on a project.  The group was split, with six having heard of and seven not knowing about the recent case in Philadelphia involving the indictment and conviction of numerous Iron Worker union officials for crimes including violence, threats and vandalism.

Currently governments at all levels – state, county, school district and municipal – at taxpayer expense deduct labor union dues from members’ paychecks and forward the money to unions.  There is legislation being considered in Harrisburg that would end the practice and require labor unions to collect their dues money through private, rather than government means.  Nine members of the focus group oppose such forced deduction of labor union dues, four favor it.  Views did not change in the exit survey.

When a group of employees are voting on whether or not to form a labor union they currently do so by secret ballot.  Labor union leaders would like to change to law to make the voting process public.  Such a move raises concerns that the lack of anonymity would put pressure on employees to vote in favor of unionization.  The Public Opinion Court focus group unanimously agreed in both the entry and exit survey that such decisions should be made by secret ballot.

Raising the minimum wage, however, resulted in a split decision.  Nine entered the session favoring an increase in the state’s minimum wage, four opposed.   But, when asked if raising the minimum wage would result in fewer jobs and/or less hours being available for minimum wage workers, support for raising the minimum wage dropped to four participants with nine indicating opposition.

During the group discussion phase of the Public Opinion Court session several issues arose that were not included in the entry/exit survey process.  Several times the group returned to the state budget impasse.  While there was general knowledge about the stalemate, the group was largely unaware of such significant developments as the partial veto over-ride attempt, the second budget offer made by legislative Republicans or a then-pending vote for a stopgap budget.  The group also lacked comprehensive knowledge of the size and scope of Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed tax hikes.

The state’s public employee pension crisis also arose during group discussion.  There was general awareness of the problem and its significance to taxpayers.  The group was in unanimous agreement that those already retired and those currently employed should remain in the current defined benefits pension system and that the state should honor its pension obligations.   However, the group also unanimously agreed that the current system is unsustainable and that the state must move to a 401k-style defined contribution system.  Most were unaware of the passage of legislation last June to do just that and the fact Governor Wolf vetoed that legislation due to opposition by labor union leaders.

On each occasion when the group discussed government dysfunction, the participants fell back on one prescription for change: term limits.  Term limits were not mentioned in either the entry or exit survey, nor were they brought up by either speaker or the panel moderator.  Despite that, the group repeatedly and unanimously and with enthusiasm felt that career politicians were at the heart of the state (and national) government’s woes.  For example, when discussing the state’s pension crisis and the cost of legislative pensions to taxpayers, the group offered term limits as a solution which would make legislative pensions obsolete.

Conclusion

Efforts in Harrisburg to curtail special treatment for labor unions have failed repeatedly due largely to an alliance between Democrats and suburban Philadelphia Republican legislators who unite in opposition to such reforms as enactment of Right to Work legislation; ending union dues deduction and eliminating carve-out that allow for harassment, stalking and threats to use weapons of mass destruction during labor disputes.

That handful of suburban Republican senators and representatives who have stymied reform efforts claim they are representing the views of their constituents and must vote with organized labor in order to win re-election.   Results of this Public Opinion Court focus group session indicate that argument is not valid.  While labor unions are generally viewed favorably, on issue after issue the focus group supported reform measures, with even some current and former union members in agreement.  The political equation in Harrisburg has changed with the coming to power of enhanced Republican majorities in the current legislative session reducing the influence of union-backed GOP members.  However, Governor Tom Wolf – whose campaign was heavily financed by organized labor – now wields a veto pen over labor policy reforms.

Demographics

The Public Opinion Court focus group session on labor power issues was balanced by gender, seven males and six females.  There was at least one participant in each age group, with the largest participant group being between 50-65 years of age.  Income skewed high, as expected in the Philadelphia suburban region, but did include those in the middle income categories.  The group included seven Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent.  The focus group included four members with graduate degrees, six with a four-year degree, one with a post-secondary certificate, one with a high school degree, and one with secondary education.   Ten of the participants lived in a suburban area, two in an urban area and one in a rural area.

(The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit educational foundation based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that focuses on pro-growth economic issues.)

Permission to reprint is granted providing author and affiliated are cited.

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PA Dems Flounder on Shoals of Corruption


There are two ways to remove a Band-Aid; in one sharp motion getting the pain over quickly, or pulling it off slowly allowing the pain to linger.  Democrats in Pennsylvania appear to subscribe to both approaches when it comes to dealing with the misdeeds of their statewide elected officials.

 

Former State Treasurer Rob McCord abruptly resigned from office in late January revealing he was going to plead guilty to charges that he attempted to extort campaign funds from companies interested in doing business with the state.  The crimes occurred while McCord was battling now-Governor Tom Wolf for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last spring.

 

The McCord denouement came swiftly.  In a town that leaks like a sieve, there was surprisingly little advance rumor of the charges; news of which McCord broke himself.  The former treasurer spared the commonwealth the usual drama which surrounds such things by accepting responsibility for his actions and promptly leaving office.  He has now disappeared from the headlines.

 

And then there is the case of Kathleen Kane.  The term “embattled” is appended to virtually every news article written about the attorney general who is currently under investigation by the Montgomery County District Attorney for allegedly leaking secret grand jury information.  Charges have been recommended by that grand jury and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled the process legal and correct.

 

Suffice it to say General Kane is in hot water.  As if that were not enough, news broke that she scuttled an investigation into a northeastern Pennsylvania casino probe.  And, the Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has successfully prosecuted another investigation Kane dropped involving several Philadelphia legislators who allegedly took bribes.  This, along with a revolving door among her top staffers has produced an agency in crisis and an attorney general in political peril.

 

Unlike McCord, Kane is fighting back.  She has hired big guns associated with her political patrons, Bill and Hillary Clinton, refuses to resign and plans to fight any criminal charges which may be filed against her.

This could not be worse news for Pennsylvania Democrats.  The party can ill afford going into a major election year with the state’s highest elected law enforcement official under a cloud, or possibly under indictment.  Add in the McCord misfire, along with the Philadelphia legislator scandal, and what you have is the image of a political party steeped in corruption.

Already the steady stream of negative headlines is having an effect.  In just the last couple of weeks Democrats lost a special election for a legislative seat in Philadelphia, something that hasn’t happened in decades.  A Quinnipiac University poll shows Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey leading likely Democratic challenger Joe Sestak by double digits.  The poll even found U.S. Senator Rand Paul leading presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by one point.  And, the poll was taken before Senator Paul’s official announcement of candidacy which likely will give him a further bounce.

Clearly the scandals surrounding Pennsylvania Democrats could have national implications.  Pat Toomey has been listed as one of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election next year, if only because of the large Democratic voter registration lead in Pennsylvania.  But, to date, he has overcome that edge.  And, there is absolutely no plausible mathematical formula for Democrats to win the White House in 2016 without carrying Pennsylvania.

It remains to be seen whether or not Republicans will be able to take advantage of the culture of corruption surrounding state Democrats.  But one thing is for sure, the slow removal of the Kane Band-Aide ensures the issue will remain alive for the foreseeable future.

(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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Tampering with Transparency


Transparency has become a buzzword, one of those principles that politicians of all stripes pledge fealty to, but often in practice fall short.  For those who value the ability of We the People to know what is happening in our government, the past couple of weeks in Penn’s Woods have been bad ones.

For starters, the grand jury investigating whether Attorney General Kathleen Kane leaked confidential court information recommended the state’s Shield Law, upholding the right of journalists to keep confidential sources confidential, be changed to remove that protection when it relates to grand juries.

In a misguided effort to preserve the secrecy of such proceedings, the jurors placed blame for the leaks on the reporters writing the stories rather than on the individuals – including possibly the Attorney General – who actually leaked the information. Weakening a critical protection of journalistic freedoms is akin to blaming the escaped horse for the farmer having left the barn door open.

Shield laws are important because officials – elected, appointed and hired – who see to hide information from the public generally are willing to use the power of their position to harass, punish or otherwise frustrate the news media to prevent transparency from occurring.  Simply put, the ability to protect the confidentiality of sources makes it possible for journalists to do their job precisely at the time it is most important for them to do so.

The other hit to transparency came just days after Governor Tom Wolf took office when he attempted to fire the director of the state’s open records office.  Since its inception over six years ago, the Office of Open Records has become a vital tool for the media, watchdog groups, citizen activists and concerned voters to obtain information from governments at all levels that seek to deny access.

Although the state’s Open Records Law can and should be strengthened, it has brought about a higher level of transparency to government.  It is critically important for the independence of that office to be maintained, free from interference by both the executive and legislative branches of state government. That independence was honored by governors, Democrat and Republican, until now.

Former Governor Ed Rendell appointed Terry Mutchler as the first director of the Office of Open Records. The law states that executive directors shall be appointed for a six year term.  So, when Republican Governor Tom Corbett took office she continued in her job – actually past the six year mark as Corbett did not act immediately to name a replacement when her term expired.  That move came in early January during the waning days of his administration when Mutchler resigned and Corbett named Erik Arneson as the new executive director.  Arneson, a former state senate aide, played a key role in crafting the Open Records law making him eminently qualified for the job.

Within days of his inauguration, Governor Wolf, objecting to the timing of his predecessor’s action, fired Arneson.  Arneson’s dismissal triggered a firestorm of protest from senate Republican leaders who have correctly asserted that the job is not an “at will” position, but rather an appointment to a fixed term.  Arneson, claiming he could not be fired, showed up for work the next day as did the acting director appointed by Wolf.  A court battle now looms.

Setting aside the political stupidity of starting a turf war his first week in office, a lot more than a battle between a Democrat Governor and Republican Senate hangs in the balance.  If Governor Wolf succeeds in turning the Office of Open Records into a political fiefdom it will become impossible for it to fulfill its mission.  Above all, the Office of Open Records must remain free from political pressure.  How willing would an executive director who serves at the will of the governor be to grant open records requests which the administration wants to keep information hidden?

Candidate Tom Wolf ran for office promising a “fresh start.”  But by seeking to politicize the Office of Open Records, Governor Tom Wolf has fully embraced the worst aspects old fashioned politics.  There are many ways for a governor to confront a legislature, but tampering with transparency is a foolish way to begin.

(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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