Posts Tagged problem

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.

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Worm in the Education Apple


There is an old saying in politics that “perception is reality.”  That is how former Governor Tom Corbett got blamed for cuts in funding to public education that never happened.  To this day many Pennsylvanians believe he took an axe to education funding when in fact he left office with more state dollars being spent on K-12 education than at any point in the commonwealth’s history.

To drive the point home, Governor Tom Wolf campaigned promising to be the education governor.  He has done more to damage public education than any governor in recent history. This reality has been cloaked in the perception that he is pro-education.  In fact Wolf is really just pro-union, propping up a system that fails both students and taxpayers.

It is true he has proposed historic increases in education spending – and the higher taxes to fund that spending.  But, the proposed increases in both taxing and spending are so large they have proven politically impossible to implement. The untenable nature of these increases are such that even in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the state capitol some Democrats have refused to go along.

The chances of Governor Wolf getting Republican support for more reasonable increases in k-12 public education spending are high if, as demanded by GOP leadership, reforms to cost drivers are included.  But the governor has adopted a “my way or the highway” attitude which gridlocked the process and produced a historic budget stand-off.

In the process of fighting that battle, the so-called education governor pushed school districts across Penn’s Woods to the cusp of closing due to the lack of state dollars flowing into their coffers.  Worse, many had to borrow money to keep their doors open, incurring costs that took dollars away from students.  His administration, willing to spend money to keep state bureaucracy operating, turned down appeals from school districts for relief.

Even if Governor Wolf were to push his education spending increases through the legislature precious few dollars would ever be spent benefitting students.  That is because the state’s pension system has become fiscally unsound. Its investments are under-performing projections and too generous benefits are draining the system faster than current employees add new dollars.  At the school district level, property taxes are rising to cover costs and the preponderance of any new state dollars directed to education must go to prop up the system as well.

June a year ago the legislature passed significant pension reform.  It was immediately vetoed by the governor who parroted the union line that the system is fine, just underfunded.  Thus an opportunity to at least partially address a major cost driver was missed.  The end result: fewer dollars available to directly benefit students.

Governor Wolf has also been waging a war on charter schools.  Even more so than traditional public schools, charters operate with minimal cash flow.  The epic budget battle resulted in teacher lay-offs, and even the closing of some charter schools.  More will likely close as the governor implements administrative policies aimed at forcing charter schools out of existence.  These policies are designed to deny parents and students valuable educational choices in an effort to preserve the union-dominated monopoly of public schools.

The latest example of Governor Wolf placing union interests over student interests involves legislation that would replace the seniority-based system for determining teacher lay-offs with a merit based system.  In other words, instead of “last in, first out” the best teachers would be retained.  At present, the legislation is on Governor Wolf’s desk – and he has vowed a veto.

Unless you are doing Common Core math, when you add all these factors together what you get is a governor whose every action has harmed students and made the state’s system of public education even more fiscally fragile than it was when he took office.  All of this is being done to prop up the very labor unions that financed the governor’s election.  For taxpayers, and for students, it is a very large worm in the education apple.

(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.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Governor Wolf, You’re No Barack Obama


Imitation, the saying goes, is the most sincere form of flattery.  So either Governor Tom Wolf is in the running for president of the Barack Obama fan club, or the Wolf Administration lacks the capacity for original thought.   In ways big and small Tom Wolf has copied the Obama governing strategy.  The problem for the governor is that the Obama approach relies heavily on levers of power available to the president, but not to governors.

President Obama and Governor Wolf each ascended to the chief executive’s office with skimpy political resumes.  Obama had been a U.S. Senator for only two years when he ran for president. Wolf’s only public service was as secretary of revenue in the Rendell Administration.  Both interpreted their elections as mandates that simply didn’t exist.  Obama’s election resulted from voter backlash over George W. Bush’s unpopular wars.  Wolf won simply because he wasn’t Tom Corbett.

Their campaign organizations were similar.  Barack Obama bested Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 2008.  Clinton loyalists populated the Democratic National Committee and were salted throughout the party structure.  Obama built his own campaign apparatus, Obama for America, which allowed him to essentially bypass the official party.  When Jim Burn refused to step down as state Democratic Party chairman, candidate Tom Wolf formed Fresh Start PA, again running his campaign outside of the formal party machinery.

Seeking to build upon their phantom mandates, both Obama and Wolf took office espousing grand ideas.  Having tacked hard to the Left to win a competitive primary, Wolf named two erstwhile opponents, Katie McGinty and John Hanger as chief of staff and policy director.  McGinty and Hanger are two of the most left-wing policy wonks in the state and immediately proposed a massive expansion of spending, along with a complex reworking of the state’s tax structure that – if enacted – would result in the largest tax hike in state history.  The scope of the proposed tax increase is so large it alone is bigger than the tax hikes proposed by governors of the other 49 states combined.

President Obama also came into office with big ideas.  Most of those grand schemes failed, with the notable exception of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which became law but triggered massive Democratic congressional defeats the following year.  In fact, Obama lost so many legislative battles he settled on a new strategy – bypassing congress and governing by executive order.

Governor Wolf’s copying of the Obama playbook fails to take into account that Democrats controlled both houses of congress during his first year in office.  Wolf has no such luxury.  In fact, he began his term with Republicans solidly in control of the state senate and holding a historically high number of seats in the house.  In another major departure from the Washington model, the GOP majorities in Harrisburg are cohesive with effective leadership, unlike the hapless Republicans in congress.

Like Obama, Tom Wolf has opted to run a perpetual campaign rather than trying to govern.  Obama for America became Organizing for America as the president attempted to politically bludgeon Republicans into bending to his will.  Likewise Governor Wolf has set up his own PAC and called in help from the Democratic Governors Association attacking Republicans for blocking his tax and spend agenda.

The problem with this strategy is it leads to gridlock.  Washington has been beset by a series of high profile budget battles. Wolf vetoed the GOP-passed state budget and talks are at a stalemate.  Worse for Wolf, the president’s ace in the hole is his bully pulpit.  Obama can count on a compliant national news media to beat the drums against Republicans.  At the state level few media organizations have reporters at the capitol and state issues gain little public attention.  That makes it considerably more difficult for Wolf to put voter pressure on a legislature that simply won’t give in to his demands for more spending and higher taxes.

Finally, President Obama has consistently out-messaged national Republicans framing issues to his advantage. Tom Wolf has failed to do so.  More spending and higher taxes play well in the Philadelphia region, but nowhere else.  It is a message that quite simply won’t sell statewide.

By not grasping the structural differences between the Obama approach and governing Penn’s Woods Tom Wolf has wed a policy agenda that cannot be achieved.  Thus the budget stand-off in Harrisburg will continue until the governor realizes he is no Barack Obama and accepts the reality that Harrisburg is a very different place than Washington, D.C.

(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.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Immigration Focus Misses the Problem


Donald Trump’s comments on illegal immigrants have ignited the latest firestorm to engulf the herd of candidates seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.  But by continuing to focus on illegal immigration the debate misses a much larger problem: the sad state of America’s relationship with our neighbor to the south.

Two wars and instability in the mid-east, Russian aggression, and Chinese economic warfare have pushed U.S.-Mexican relations to the foreign policy back burner.  David Shirk, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. summed it up well saying: “I think the challenge, the problem is that Mexico is actually quite important to the United States, but (President Barack) Obama is so embattled on so many fronts that he hasn’t been able to give Mexico the bandwidth that it deserves . . .”

U.S. – Mexican relations have been fraught with difficulty and conflict for centuries.  President James K. Polk, out of a sense of Manifest Destiny, fought the Mexican-American War which ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo establishing the Rio Grande as the border between U.S. and Mexico and giving the United States what is now the American southwest.

It’s hard to tell whether or not Mexico still harbors a grudge against losing nearly one-third of its territory centuries ago, but the current state of relations between the two nations is hardly what one would expect given our close economic ties. That bond was strengthened by enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement during the Clinton Administration making the United States Mexico’s top trading partner.

Census data shows that since 1980 Mexicans have been the largest immigrant group into the United States.  From 1990-2010 more than 7.5 million immigrants, many illegal, have poured over the border into this country.  Some have moved on, to Canada, Spain and even Guatemala, but most have stayed.

The scope of the problem is clear, but upon even casual reflection so too are the causes.  The Mexican economy is in the dumpster and the nation is riddled by internal conflict between the government and drug cartels, and among the drug cartels themselves.  Add in a healthy dose of government corruption and it is clear the Mexican state is dysfunctional leading many citizens to give up hope and move north in search of a better life.

Problems begin with the government itself.  “Corruption and weakness in Mexico’s judicial and police sectors have largely allowed the drug trade to flourish,” concluded a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.  And flourish it has; 90% of the illegal drugs entering the United States originate or arrive via Mexico.  Mexico is the prime source of marijuana and methamphetamines sold in the U.S.  This trade comes at a significant cost, as more than 60,000 Mexicans have died in domestic drug-related violence since 2006.

U.S. – Mexican relations hit a low point last year when the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto allowed U.S. Marine reservist Sgt. Andrew Tahmoressi to languish in a Mexican prison for 214 days after he inadvertently wandered over the border.  The irony of Mexico holding one American who crossed the border while millions of Mexicans cross into the U.S. unfettered was not lost on many.

With its economy in shambles, corruption rampant and the drug trade pervasive immigration to the United States, legal and illegal, has continued at a brisk pace slowing only during the Great Recession when U.S. job opportunities also dried up. As the U.S. slowly recovers from that recession, the pace of immigration is also likely to accelerate.

All the while the American political establishment continues to fixate on the symptom rather than the cause of the problem.  Unless and until Mexico can get its own affairs in order, immigrants will continue to stream north.  Mexicans would be less likely to leave family and cultural ties behind to face an uncertain fate in the United States if they were safe, secure and had economic opportunities in their homeland.

Much of this, unfortunately, is outside the ability of the United States to fix.  Massive corruption and political instability are matters which Mexico must address internally. But U.S. foreign policy must focus more intently on our southern neighbor to quash the drug trade and to foster a more robust Mexican economy.  By so doing we will stop addressing symptoms and begin to cure the cause of the immigration problem.

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

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment