Posts Tagged debt

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.)

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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.)

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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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Eye of the Storm


By Lowman S. Henry

As August melts into September the halls of the state capitol building are relatively quiet. This is a marked contrast to a year ago when state government was in what turned out to be the early phases of the longest budget stalemate in state history.  This year the budget, or at least the spending part of it, was done reasonably close to the constitutionally-mandated June 30th deadline, the revenue component followed several weeks later.

But is this just the eye of the storm?

In capitulating to too many of Governor Tom Wolf’s spending demands the state legislature larded up the budget with nearly $1.4 billion in new expenditures.  This despite claims of a $1.5 billion dollar “structural deficit” the governor claimed needed to be addressed.  Even those using Common Core math can calculate that left the state nearly $3 billion in the hole.

To pay for this spending orgy some $650 million in new taxes were cobbled together, and accounting gimmicks employed, to produce a “balanced” budget.  But the budget isn’t really balanced and even that $650 million contains projected revenue that will never actually materialize.  For example, lawmakers planned to charge the state’s casinos $1 million each to purchase 24-hour liquor licenses.  Apparently nobody thought to ask if the casinos wanted such licenses, as there now appears to be no takers.

The budget also includes revenue from on-line gambling.  The problem is legislation has yet to be passed authorizing on-line gambling.  After adopting the budget, the General Assembly adjourned for a two month recess delaying any possible revenue from that source deep into the fiscal year.

And, predictably, the taxes that were hiked on existing businesses are having a dramatic negative impact.  A 40% tax imposed on vaping supplies is driving many vaping stores – almost all of which are small businesses – out of business.  That means not only will projected revenue from the tax fall short, but the state will also lose out on sales tax revenue as the stores shutter their doors.

That Republicans in the legislature caved into $1.4 billion in new spending defied logic.  The GOP had fought an epic budget battle with the governor the previous fiscal year and won. Not only did they win, but not a single lawmaker seeking re-election was denied by voters due to the budget fight.  After posting a historic win, Republicans essentially forfeited the next game.

All of these elements are coming together to produce the perfect fiscal storm as budget talks begin for next year.  Don’t forget that “structural deficit” of $1.4 billion hasn’t been addressed.  A significant portion of the new taxes enacted this year will fail to materialize.  And, Governor Wolf continues to demand a lengthy menu of spending hikes – and the taxes to pay for them.

Making matters worse the governor and the legislature have not been able to agree on how to deal with cost drivers, particularly the skyrocketing cost of public employee pensions.  Pension costs are gobbling up the lion’s share of any new revenue produced by a still slow-growing state economy.  Republicans have passed pension reform only to see it vetoed by Governor Wolf. There are new legislative proposals on the drawing board, but they fall woefully short of resolving the problem.  Even if some reform is enacted it will likely have minimal impact on the upcoming 2017-18 state budget.

Given all of this, will Republicans stick to their pledge that without addressing cost drivers they will not enact broad-based tax hikes – such as raising the personal income tax, expanding and/or raising sales taxes – or  will they again cave into the governor’s tax and spending demands?  Much rides on the outcome of this looming budget fight, primarily the fiscal health of the commonwealth.

But, 2018 is a gubernatorial election year and this budget will be enacted as the campaign heats up.  Governor Wolf, if he seeks re-election, will want to show his base voters that he delivered the goods of higher spending.  Republican voters will judge the GOP-controlled legislature by their ability to resist higher spending and more taxes.  Add these competing political imperatives to the state’s perilous fiscal circumstances and we should brace ourselves for the second wave of the hurricane.

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

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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.)

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Budget Battle Ends With Electoral Dud


The final pieces of legislation ending Pennsylvania’s longest budget stalemate fell into place just days before the April primary election. And the story that dominated state news for over nine months had no apparent impact on voters who meted out no electoral punishment for the fiscal fray that had school districts on the cusp of closing, nonprofits cutting services, and politicians at each other’s throats.

This budget stand-off was different from those that took place during the Rendell era notably due to the lack of public pressure placed on Governor Wolf and the legislature.  There were no daily protests on the capitol steps. State employees did not go without pay.  When the battle commenced last summer Governor Wolf’s first salvo was an attack ad campaign. It fell flat. Outside the halls of state government and the few remaining news media that cover it, the budget battle went largely unnoticed.

Despite Governor Wolf’s threats of electoral retribution, lawmakers did not pay a political price for engaging in the budget battle.  The first clue that the fiscal free-for-all was not impacting the electorate came in February when there was no wave of candidates filing to oppose incumbent legislators.  Looking at the primary election results it would be difficult if not impossible to point to a single lawmaker who lost his or her seat because of the sustained budget stand-off.

In fact few lawmakers lost for any reason.  And those that did lose were a result of local political divisions rather than anything that happened in Harrisburg.  In Philadelphia, for example, Democrats engaged in their biannual exercise of primary fratricide.  The state’s longest serving House member – State Representative Mark Cohen – was defeated by a challenger who claimed he had been in office too long and was out of touch with his constituents.

Another rare defeat of a House incumbent took place in Lackawanna County where State Representative Frank Farina lost to former legislator Kevin Haggerty.  The two former colleagues found their districts merged in redistricting a couple of years ago and have been battling over the seat ever since.

While voters were busy returning incumbents to office some lawmakers even got a promotion.  State Representative Mike Regan ran for and won the Republican nomination to replace outgoing state Senator Pat Vance in Cumberland County.  In what was a hard fought and nasty campaign the budget crisis did not register as a key issue.

For Republicans looking to hold onto historic majorities in both the Senate and the House the future looks bright.  Senate Republicans could actually achieve a veto proof majority as the fall battles will be fought over swing seats currently occupied by Democrats.  On the House side, the primary yielded solid GOP nominees for open seats like Dawn Keefer in Cumberland County and Frank Ryan in Lebanon County.  Conversely, Democratic retirements in western Pennsylvania provide the opportunity for additional Republican pick-ups in an area already trending toward the GOP.

Further evidence of the impotence of the state budget battle on the electoral process can be found in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.  Governor Wolf’s first chief of staff, Katie McGinty, was one of the prime architects of the budget proposal that triggered the lengthy stand-off.  She resigned last summer to run for the U.S. Senate and prevailed against three opponents in the primary.

Why did the epic budget battle fall so flat with voters?  Chalk it up to a lack of attention being focused on state government.  Or the fact the absence of a state budget had little impact on the daily lives of Pennsylvanians.  Timing was also a factor.  With the nation transfixed by the presidential race scant coverage has been afforded other matters.

And so we find ourselves back to where we began.  Another budget season is underway in Harrisburg.  Governor Wolf is pushing for more spending and higher taxes, Republicans are adamant in their refusal.  The fight will continue, apparently without consequence for anyone involved.

(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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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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