Posts Tagged governor tom wolf

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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Stagnation: PA business climate remains sluggish


Pennsylvania’s business climate remains sluggish as the commonwealth continues to struggle in the aftermath of the Great Recession.  Business conditions, employment levels and sales have all backslid over the past six months with owners blaming high taxes, government regulation and a lack of skilled workers for the malaise.

The Fall 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey conducted by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research found half of the business owners and chief executive officers survey saying the state’s economy has gotten worse over the past six months, only five percent felt Pennsylvania’s business climate had improved during that time frame.

Comparatively, one year ago 42% felt the business climate had gotten worse, while six percent at that time said it had improved.  There is little optimism that business conditions will improve soon. Forty-four percent say they expect the state’s economy to continue getting worse over the upcoming six months, five percent expect to see an improvement in the business climate.

Along with that pessimistic overall prognosis twice as many businesses report having reduced their workforce as say they have added jobs.  The majority of businesses – 66% – reported that employment levels remained about the same over the past six months.  But, 21% said they have reduced their employee compliment while 11% added employees.  The picture improves slightly as the owners/CEOs look ahead to the coming six months.  Sixteen percent say they plan to add employees, 12% expect to reduce their workforce.

Sales have also taken a hit over the past six months.  Thirty-nine percent said their sales remained about the same from March thru September.  But, 39% reported decreased sales and were off-set by only 21% having reported sales increases.  Looking forward, 51% expect sales to remain stable.  Twenty-Four percent forecast an increase in sales, 23% are braced for a sales decrease.

Factors Impacting Business Growth

Among the factors cited by businesses for why they considered expanding their businesses over the past two years, but decided against expansion taxes and regulation topped the list of barriers.  Onerous federal regulations were cited by 41% of the businesses that considered, but rejected, expansion plans.  Coming in a close second was Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed tax increases cited by 40% as a reason why they did not expand. Pennsylvania’s tax structure was listed by 29% as having frustrated expansion plans.

Thirty-six percent cited onerous state regulations as a barrier to expansion, while another 35% cited the lack of a skilled work force.  Nearly half of the businesses surveyed said they currently have open positions for which they have been unable to find qualified applicants. Forty-two percent say they have been unable to fill one to five jobs; 2% have six to ten open positions; one percent has more than ten jobs unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants.

State Issues

Pennsylvania fiscal condition continues to be of concern to the business owners and CEOs participating in the Fall 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey.  Eighty-five percent disagreed – 70% strongly so – with Republicans in the General Assembly having agreed to a $1.4 billion spending increase and then raising taxes to enact the current year’s state budget.

Looking ahead to what will likely be another epic budget battle next summer, 92% say the General Assembly must address cost drivers such as pension reform before considering an increase in taxes.  In fact, 34% said the state’s massive unfunded pension liability has caused them to not consider expanding in Pennsylvania.

Among pension reforms being considered is moving state employees from the current defined benefit pension system to a defined contribution plan. Thirty-nine percent of the businesses surveyed said they offer employees a company administered defined contribution plan to which the company contributes.  Only 3% of the private businesses surveyed continue to offer a defined pension plan.  Another 40% offer employees no retirement plans at all.

Earlier this year the General Assembly did pass, and Governor Tom Wolf signed into law, some modest changes to the state’s century-old liquor laws. Business owners/CEOs said those reforms did not go far enough.  Fifty-two percent would like for the state to completely privatize both retail sales and wholesale distribution of alcoholic products.  Another 26% would like to see just retail sales privatized.  Twelve percent said the recent changes were sufficient.

Pennsylvania has an abundant supply of natural gas, but additional pipelines are needed to get that gas to market.  Eight-nine percent agree – 60% strongly agree – that this resource should be developed and more pipelines built.  Nine percent disagree.  Twenty-five percent said easier access to natural gas would be a benefit to their business with an additional 14% saying it would be a major benefit.  Thirty percent said they do not utilize natural gas in their business.

Over the past nine years since the passage of Act 44 the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has diverted $5.2 billion to PennDOT to help pay for state highways and public transit.  This has resulted in annual fare increases for turnpike travelers.  Sixty-three percent of those participating in the Fall 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey said this should end and fare revenue be used only to maintain and improve the turnpike.  Twenty-nine percent felt the sharing of revenue should continue.

Job Approval Ratings

President Barack Obama and Governor Tom Wolf continue to suffer from significantly low job approval ratings among the business community.  Eighty-four percent have a negative view of the President’s job performance; 86% disapprove of the job being done by Governor Wolf.

U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, who faces re-election in November, received a 50% job approval rating against 23% with a negative view of his job performance.  The job being done by U.S. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. is viewed negatively by 56% of the business owners/CEOs, 18% give him positive marks.  Likewise, 54% say Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is doing a poor job, 15% approve.

Pennsylvania has three statewide constitutional or “row” offices. Two are serving by appointment, their elected predecessors having resigned after being convicted of crimes.  Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is the surviving official elected in 2012 still in office.  Seventy-three percent have no opinion of his job performance, with 14% saying he is doing a good job and 14% having a negative opinion of his job performance.  Likewise about two-thirds offered no opinions on state Treasurer Tim Reese or Attorney General Bruce Beemer.  Of those who did, 18% give Beemer a negative rating, 6% a positive one while 15% hold a negative view of Reese, 5% a positive view.

As has been the case throughout the Keystone Business Climate Survey’s 22-year history the owners and chief executive officers hold the federal congress and the state legislature in very low regard.  Just 8% approve of the job being done by the United States Senate, 11% approve of the job being done by the U.S. House of Representatives.  Seventeen percent approve of the job performance of the Pennsylvania Senate; 19% approve of the job being done by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Finally, the Lincoln Institute asked participants in the survey who they support for President of the United States and United State Senator from Pennsylvania in the upcoming November General Election.  Seventy-three percent said they will vote for the Republican nominee Donald Trump, 12% support the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and 6% say they will vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson.   Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey has the support of 81% of the owners/CEOs, Democratic challenger Katie McGinty has 12% support.

Methodology

The Fall 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey was conducted electronically by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. from September 13 through October 5, 2016.  A total of 370 businesses responded to the survey invitation.  Of those 81% are the owner of the business, 14% are the CEO/COO/CFO and one percent a business manager.

Twenty-five percent of the responses came from the Philadelphia/southeastern part of the state; 18% from Pittsburgh/southwestern Pennsylvania; 16% from south/central Pennsylvania; 13% from northwestern Pennsylvania; 11% from northeastern Pennsylvania; 10% from north-central Pennsylvania; 4% from the Lehigh Valley and 3% from the Altoona/Johnstown area.

Complete numeric results are posted on-line at http://www.lincolninstitute.org

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Crash and Burn: Wolf Job Approval Rating Hits Record Low


There is an old Irish proverb that holds “There’s nothing so bad it couldn’t be worse.”  That applies to Governor Tom Wolf’s job approval rating with the owners and chief executive officers of businesses throughout Penn’s Woods.  It has now dropped to the lowest point ever recorded by a governor in the 21-year history of the Keystone Business Climate Survey. The poll is compiled each Spring and Fall by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research.

Eighty-nine percent of the business leaders surveyed said they have a negative view of Governor Tom Wolf’s job performance; just 5% give him a positive rating.  That eclipses the previous record disapproval recorded by Governor Ed Rendell in the Fall of 2009 when 86% offered a negative assessment of his job performance.  It is also a 20% drop in approval for Governor Wolf from one year ago.  In fact, the governor’s job approval rating has now sunk below that of President Barack Obama who tallied an 88% job disapproval rating.  It is the first time a Pennsylvania governor’s job approval has dipped lower than President Obama’s.

Business Climate

Driving the Governor’s record low job approval rating is a growing pessimism over the state’s economic climate.  In numbers not seen since the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, 54% of the business owners and CEOs say Pennsylvania’s business climate has gotten worse over the past six months.  That is up from 33% who experienced worsening economic conditions one year ago.  The number of respondents saying the state’s business climate has gotten better over the past six months stood at just 6%, down from 13% one year ago.  Looking ahead, 76% expect the state’s business climate to worsen over the coming six months, 8% look for conditions to improve.

In recent years, employment levels have held relative steady.  That has now changed as 22% said they employ fewer people than they did six months ago, 9% report an increase in employment.  In what passes for optimism in this poll, the same number (15%) predict employment levels at their business will rise or fall over the coming six months.

Another turn-around is in company sales.  After steady or moderate increases in sales, the Spring 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey found sales had dropped at 39% of the companies responding, and increased at 18%.   But, 27% project a sales increase over the coming six months while 15% say they look for sales to decrease.

State Issues

About a third (30%) of the business leaders polled said their business had been harmed by the state budget impasse.  But, 85% think Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed state budget will harm Pennsylvania’s overall business climate; 65% say it will inflict significant harm. Seven percent see the Wolf budget as helping the state’s economy.

Governor Wolf claims the state has a “structural budget deficit” of over $1 billion dollars.  Assuming that is correct, 77% of the CEOs/owners said the state should cut spending to match revenue.  Eighteen percent support a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes to balance the budget.  About 1% suggested maintaining current spending levels and raising taxes to cover the deficit.  Just 1% support Governor Wolf’s approach which is to increase spending and increase taxes to cover both the deficit and higher spending.

As part of his budget proposal, Governor Wolf has included an 11% increase in the state income tax for all individuals and businesses.  Ninety-four percent oppose that proposal; 5% are in agreement.  Another Wolf initiative is to raise the state’s 6% sales tax to help balance the budget.  That idea was turned thumbs down by 73% of the poll respondents, but earned the support of 25%.  Opposition was especially strong to the idea of increasing the state’s Corporate Net Income (CNI) tax.  Ninety percent oppose the idea with 76% expressing strong opposition.  Six percent support raising the CNI.

In the absence of a state budget, Governor Tom Wolf has continued to spend money on those items he deems appropriate.  When asked if they think it is constitutional for the governor to spend state tax dollars on line items that have not yet been approved by the legislature, 87% said it is not; 5% think it passes constitutional muster.

The business owners and CEOs participating in the Spring 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey do not want a state budget adopted at any costs.  When asked if they agree or disagree with this statement: A new state budget should be adopted immediately even if it means significant increase in my taxes, 89% disagreed – 80% strongly disagreed.  Nine percent agreed and said a state budget should be adopted regardless even if it means higher taxes.

On other issues, the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives is considering impeachment proceedings against Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Kane is under indictment for allegedly leaking Grand Jury information and has announced she will not seek re-election in November.  Fifty percent of the business leaders said the House should drop impeachment proceedings; 41% think impeachment proceedings should continue.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is considering the legalization of medical marijuana.  Sixty-three percent support the legalization of medical marijuana; 31% oppose legalization.

By executive order Governor Tom Wolf has raised the minimum wage for state employees to $10.15 per hour.  Eighty-one percent of the CEOs/business owners said they oppose raising the minimum wage for the private sector to that level; 17% would support such an increase in the minimum wage.

Job Approval Ratings

President Barack Obama continues to receive strongly negative job performance reviews from survey participants.  Eighty-eight percent disapprove of the job the President is doing; 9% approve.  Janet Yellen, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board also received negative marks: 44% negative to 18% positive as did U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew with 39% disapproving of his job performance and 5% offering their approval.

The only official tested with a net positive job approval rating was U.S. Senator Pat Toomey.  The state’s junior senator was given a positive rating by 48% of the business leaders against a 24% negative rating.  U.S. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. scored a 14% positive, 56% negative rating.

As noted, Governor Tom Wolf received a record high disapproval rating at 89%.  That was worse than the negative rating given to Attorney General Kane.  The indicted top law enforcement official received a 75% negative rating and a 10% positive rating.  Two-thirds or more offered no opinion on the two statewide fiscal officers.  Auditor General Eugene DePasquale got positive marks from 15%, with 17% offering a negative view.  State Treasurer Tim Reese had a 17% negative rating against an 8% positive rating.

Participants in the survey offered a strong negative view of the job being done by the United States Senate: 77% hold a negative view of the institution’s job performance with 12% having a positive view.  The U.S. House of Representatives fared a bit better with 72% offering a negative assessment and 18% a positive view.  Fifty-one percent of the respondents give the Pennsylvania State Senate negative marks, 37% think the state senate is doing a good job.  Fifty-one percent have a negative view of the job being done by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; 39% say the lower chamber is doing a good job.

Methodology

The Spring 2016 Keystone Business Climate Survey was conducted electronically from March 14, 2016 thru April 1, 2016.  A total of 367 individuals responded of which 84% are the owner of their business; 13% are the CEO/COO/CFO and 2% are a state or a local manager. Complete numeric results can be viewed at http://www.lincolninstitute.org.

For interviews on this survey please contact Lowman S. Henry at717 671-0776 or lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.

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R.I.P. PA Constitution 1968-2016


Governor Tom Wolf has been in office for just over a year, but already we know historians will put the words “budget crisis” in their lead paragraph.  But a far more ominous phrase may get top billing: “constitutional crisis.”

Like his authoritarian counterpart in Washington, D.C., Governor Wolf is willing, in fact may prefer, to shred the constitutional separation of powers and enact by executive fiat that which the legislative branch is unwilling to do.  The commonwealth has entered its ninth month without a completed state budget and that has spawned a growing debate over the limits of gubernatorial power.

Days before Christmas the legislature again passed a state budget.  This time Governor Wolf signed off on most of the spending plan but “blue lined” or line item vetoed about a third of the items thus extending the budget crisis.  Three months later, there is no resolution, but the administration is spending money anyway.  This, many lawmakers argue, is a clear violation of the state constitution.

The Governor, and his appointed State Treasurer Timothy Reese argue there is a competing requirement for the state to keep certain agencies operating – especially those involved with ensuring public safety.  But Treasurer Reese has gone far beyond that even authorizing a “loan” from the state treasury to House Democrats to pay their staff during the ongoing budget crisis.

The public safety argument is nothing more than a distraction from the main issue which is can a governor spend taxpayer dollars without explicit authorization from the General Assembly?   It is a clear violation of the state constitution and one which will explode into a full blown crisis, especially if the governor’s illicit spending extends outside the realm of public safety.

The budget, however, is not the only area in which Governor Wolf is willing to trample on legislative powers.  He is trying to shutter the Public Employees Retirement Commission (PERC), an obscure state agency that earned his ire when it disagreed with his view of the pension crisis.  The agency was created by an act of the General Assembly and signed into law by a previous governor.  Lawmakers have sued in court to block executive dissolution of PERC pointing out it would take legislative action to do so.

This week Governor Wolf again by-passed the General Assembly on the issue of the state’s minimum wage. The governor has called for an increase in the state minimum wage, but the legislature has refused to go along.  So, he signed an executive order unilaterally raising the minimum wage paid to state employees to $10.15 per hour.  The action applies only to state workers, but will be extended to those companies doing business with the state.  The minimum wage hike does not extend to private business.

However, the impact on small businesses will be significant.  Neal Lesher, legislative director for the National Federation of Independent Business-Pennsylvania, points out that the governor’s executive order effectively prevents many small businesses from entering the bidding process for state contracts.  “Some small businesses simply cannot afford to pay inexperienced, entry level workers that much more per hour,” Lesher explained.  “This creates an unfair playing field that favors larger companies.”

Having fully bought into the Obama “pen and phone” style of governing there is no indication Governor Wolf plans to return to a constitutional model any time soon.  His “budget address” to the legislature last month was hostile and confrontational and had the effect of solidifying Republican opposition which at times had shown signs of wavering.

It is clear crisis government is now the new normal in Harrisburg.  With no resolution to the current budget impasse in sight, and the deadline for adopting a budget for the next fiscal year less than four months away, the governor is content to act as if the legislative branch of government does not exist.  But legislators will not sit idly by and be consigned to irrelevance.  If the governor continues on his current course the constitutional crisis will explode into the courts, and possibly even lead to impeachment proceedings.

(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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