Posts Tagged legislature

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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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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A New Shade of Blue


Residents of Penn’s Woods are about to experience history in the making: the start of a new state budget year with the previous year’s budget still unresolved.

Governor Tom Wolf guaranteed the anomaly by line item vetoing almost a third of the budget passed by the GOP-controlled legislature just before Christmas.

The official start of the budget process comes in early February when the governor delivers his budget address to a joint session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.  For a variety of reasons the remaining unresolved budget issues from the current fiscal year are likely to remain that way well past the governor’s budget speech currently scheduled for February 9th.

Governor Wolf began the current impasse last winter by proposing a massive increase in state spending and demanding a package of tax hikes that exceeded the tax increases proposed by the governors of all 49 other states combined.  The governor asked this of a legislature not only in control of the opposite political party, but one that holds historically high majorities and one which has become significantly more conservative in recent years.

It is a common strategy for both sides to stake out their most extreme position at the beginning of negotiations.  That leaves room for compromise, which is what always happens during budget talks.  Governor Wolf asked for $3.4 billion in new spending, the GOP preferred spending cuts.  Ultimately, Republicans agreed to a $1 billion increase, including significant additional funding for the governor’s top spending priority: public education.  The governor, however, wants everything he asked for and he wants in now.  Thus began the budget impasse which persists to this day.

The governor has made it clear he is not interested in compromise.  After vetoing the on-time, no tax hike, balanced state budget passed by Republicans last June he immediately sanctioned television ads blasting GOP lawmakers.  In another departure from tradition Wolf vetoed the entire budget.  In the past governors have signed the budget then blue lined or line item vetoed the parts with which they disagreed.  Wolf, however, wanted to ratchet up the political pressure on Republicans so he trashed the entire thing.

Since then there have been numerous votes on alternative budgets, proposed tax hikes, and so-called cost drivers including pension reform and a plan to partially privatize state liquor stores.  GOP lawmakers have passed these bills only to have the governor wield his veto pen.

Governor Wolf and his allies in the liberal media have taken to castigating Republicans, especially House Republicans for being “extremists” because they will not support a broad-based tax hike.  Largely unreported by the media is the fact Democrats in the legislature have been equally obstinate in their support of the governor’s tax and spend agenda.  Vote after vote has fallen along party lines with only a handful of defections on either side of the aisle.

This (aside from the governor’s stubborn streak) gets to the core of the impasse: Democrats have been reduced to a largely urban party that allows no deviation from its Left-wing agenda.  Conservatives dominate in the Republican caucus, but there is a group of moderate, mostly southeastern Pennsylvania legislators, who often fracture party unity by siding with Democrats.

And look for Democrats to become more ideologically rigid after this year’s elections.  State Representative Nick Kotik of Allegheny County is one of only a very few so-called blue dog Democrats and he is retiring.  The term blue dog originated because the Left strangles their moderate brethren blue to force compliance.  This canine is about to become extinct in the Pennsylvania legislature.

In its place is another shade of blue: that being the governor’s face.  He is determined to hold his breath until he gets his way.  He has called Republicans stupid, extreme and their most recent budget “garbage.”  By remaining in campaign mode rather than maturing into governing the governor’s strategy ensures not only that the current budget impasse will continue, but that Pennsylvanians are in for three more years of fiscal chaos.

(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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Delco Special Could be Scott Wagner Sequel


While all eyes are riveted on the looming state budget deadline in Harrisburg, the political story of the summer is now playing out in Delaware County where a special election for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has become the latest flashpoint in the ongoing internal GOP battle between union-leaning southeastern Republicans and the party’s pro worker freedom grassroots.

The drama began to unfold when State Representative Joe Hackett resigned at the end of April.  Despite having been re-elected just months earlier, Hackett decided he wanted to return to his old career in law enforcement.  That set the stage for a special election which will be held on August 4th.  Nominees in legislative special elections are chosen by the respective political parties rather than by voters in a primary.  Thus, a candidate not selected by committee members has no recourse other than to run a write-in campaign. Such write-in campaigns had previously proven to be fruitless, until Senator Scott Wagner scored a historic write-in victory in a special election in York County last year.

The Delaware County committee members participating in the selection of a nominee for Hackett’s 161st district seat chose a candidate who has riled grassroots conservatives across the commonwealth.  They picked as their candidate Paul Mullen who is president of the Delaware County AFL-CIO and business manager of IBEW Local 654.  In doing so, the committee passed over Lisa Esler, a local school board member and co-founder of the Delaware County Tea Party Patriots.

As a labor union boss, Mullen can be expected to oppose most of the pro worker freedom agenda being advanced by the Republican-controlled legislature in Harrisburg.  Pension reform, liquor privatization and paycheck protection are but three important issues that enjoy widespread support among the GOP grassroots and in the Republican caucuses in the legislature.  Progress on all three of these reforms has been blocked by the labor unions.  Worse, Mullen supported Barack Obama, Joe Sestak against U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, and Tom Wolf over Governor Tom Corbett, making his selection by the GOP even more curious.

The Mullen pick lit a power key of fury among conservatives.  Esler has stepped forward and will challenge the union boss in the upcoming special election by running a write-in campaign.  Her efforts should be taken seriously for two reasons: the Wagner win proves it can be done; and the district is almost evenly divided by party registration meaning this is more than just a GOP intramural competition

Senator Wagner’s election has changed the political landscape in a number of ways.  Most notably party domination of special elections is now a thing of the past.  With active and highly effective conservative groups now operating in the state, a write-in candidate such as Esler now has access to funding, consultants and grassroots workers previously unavailable to such challengers.

The Wagner write-in victory in York County, the first time in state history a write-in candidate won a special senate election, proved the playing field has been leveled.  Wagner was well funded, had substantial grassroots support from the local Tea party and benefitted from a voter backlash over the high-handed campaign run by those supporting the party’s nominee.

All of those factors are at play in the Delaware County race.  In what will be a low turn-out election in a small geographic district, Esler will be a force with which to be reckoned.  The outcome will have no impact on party control of the legislature. The GOP has a historically large majority, but it will impact the GOP caucus.  A small group of southeastern Pennsylvania Republican representatives, out of step with a majority of their caucus, have sided with Democrats on labor power issues. Those looking to enhance worker freedom in the state will be anxious to prevent another member from being added to their number.

And that is how what should have been a routine, sleepy special election in the dead of summer could turn out to be the political battle of the year.

(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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Memo from Voters: Stuff Your Endorsement


Tuesday’s primary election highlighted two serious structural deficiencies in Pennsylvania’s electoral process. Once again the “Keystone State” was anything but in the presidential nominating process. And, clearly the day of the party endorsement – especially a nod forced from the top down – has passed.

For several weeks it appeared as if the Pennsylvania and New York primaries would be pivotal contests in the race for the Republican Presidential Nomination. But, several weeks ago when former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Rick Santorum suspended his campaign our state’s primary was rendered virtually meaningless. Sure, delegates had to be elected to the national convention, but the nomination had been decided.

Every four years there is talk about moving Pennsylvania’s primary to an earlier date, perhaps to so-called “Super Tuesday” in early March, but nothing ever comes of the idea. So, as in presidential contests past, small states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and even other industrial states like Michigan and Ohio got to impact the choice of the nominee while we here in Penn’s Woods watched from the sidelines.

Four years ago state Democrats did get a big say in the Obama/Clinton race, but that brief spurt of relevance was an exception to the rule. This year, lacking the glitz of a presidential contest, voter turn-out was abysmal. So many down ballot races – for congress and for seats in the state legislature – were decided by in some cases less than a quarter of the registered electorate.

Despite tepid participation in the primary election, voters did manage to deliver a message or two. The race with the most political ramifications was the five-way contest for the Republican nomination to take on incumbent U.S. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. That race turned into a virtual referendum on the once vaunted Republican Party endorsement process. That process was shredded by voters as they relegated the endorsed candidate, Steve Welch, to third place.

The Welch defeat marks the first loss of a Republican Party endorsed statewide candidate in a non-judicial race in over three decades. Part of the reason for voter rejection of the party pick was the heavy-handed manner in which the Welch endorsement was forced on Republican State Committee members by Governor Tom Corbett and party leaders. The fact is Welch would never have been endorsed without that support, and his candidacy never did develop any real grassroots appeal.

Party apologists will contend that the personal financial wealth the winning candidate, former Tea party activist Tom Smith, brought to the race was a deciding factor. But, Welch is wealthy himself and put over a million dollars of his own money behind his candidacy. And, former State Representative Sam Rohrer finished second having spent few dollars, but earning a wave of grassroots support. Welch failed to dominate with either money or manpower – two advantages normally associated with the party endorsement.

This year’s GOP endorsement debacle has politically wounded an incumbent governor and called into question the effectiveness of the party apparatus in a vital presidential election year. The Republican State Committee should re-evaluate the future of party endorsements. The process this year both divided and weakened the party, calling into question its utility going forward.

Part of the reason for this is that the endorsement process has degenerated from truly democratic selection into a tool by which party and elected leaders exert their control over who gets nominated. The GOP has already split into “establishment” and grassroots conservative camps with the latter gaining influence with each passing election cycle. Forced endorsements only inflame the grassroots further aggravating that divide.

None of this is good for the party, and neither will it yield good government. This year’s presidential election is shaping up as one of the most important in generations as voters decide whether to continue down the soft socialistic path of the Obama Administration, or return America to its historic traditions of individual liberty.

That battle will ultimately unite all factions within the GOP. But going forward, the Pennsylvania Republican Party must ditch the endorsement process and restore individual liberties within the walls of its own house.

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(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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