Posts Tagged Senator

Winners and Losers


One of the many quirks of our political system is that each year there are winners and losers among politicians whose names are not actually on the ballot.  This year is no exception.  Neither Governor Tom Wolf nor State Senator Scott Wagner was up for election this year, but results of the balloting sent their career paths in opposite directions.

Governor Wolf has had a tough first two years in office dealing with a Republican-controlled legislature. His efforts to dramatically expand government spending, and to implement the historic tax hikes needed to pay for that agenda resulted in the longest budget stalemate in state history.  Legislative Republicans won.

Tuesday voters rewarded the GOP with even larger legislative majorities. Democrats in the state senate are now on life support.  Two Democratic incumbents were defeated by challengers; a third Democrat seat went Republican after the incumbent gave up several months ago and resigned from the ballot.  Combined, the three seats give Republicans a 34-16 edge and something rarely if ever seen in state government: a veto proof majority.

Meanwhile, across the rotunda in the House of Representatives Republicans saw their already historically high majority expand by three seats as four incumbent Democrats and one incumbent Republican lost.  The Republican pick-ups came in southwestern Pennsylvania which has been trending toward the GOP for several election cycles.  In fact, the most endangered species in Penn’s Woods might well be the non-urban legislative Democrat, with only a handful of Democratic lawmakers representing districts outside of the state’s urban cores.

All of this matters because next year’s state budget battle is shaping up to be even tougher than the first.  Republicans caved into Governor Wolf’s spending demands this year, but failed to fully fund the budget.  That coupled with revenue sources that either never materialized or have failed to meet projections presages a major fiscal fight next year.

Not only have Republicans added to their numbers, but this year’s legislative elections moved both chambers further to the Right.  Moderate state senators like Cumberland County’s Pat Vance and Lancaster’s Lloyd Smucker have been replaced by far more conservative legislators.  The continued drift of the House GOP caucus from moderate southeastern dominance to conservative central and western Pennsylvania influence means tougher sailing for those wanting to raise either taxes or spending.

Governor Wolf also saw his agenda rejected in another race; that the battle for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat.  The Democratic nominee, Katie McGinty, was Governor Wolf’s first chief of staff and architect of the tax and spend plan that triggered the epic budget battle.  Incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey made hay of that effectively painting McGinty as out of touch with the financial needs of average Pennsylvanians. He won, she lost.

How then do the fortunes of one state senator rise on all of this? Senator Scott Wagner was an establishment pariah when he ran for an open seat in York County in 2014.  Shunned by his own party Wagner accomplished an historic first in Pennsylvania: He won a special election on a write-in defeating both party nominees.

The upstart senator has quickly gained clout and was tapped by his colleagues to lead the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.  The SRCC as it is known is tasked with recruiting, funding and electing Republicans to the state senate.  After playing a major role in helping to win several seats two years ago, Wagner effectively recruited candidates like Senator-elect John DiSanto of Dauphin County who upended Democratic incumbents last week.  Much of the credit for the senate’s now veto-proof majority goes to Wagner.

This is important because Scott Wagner has made no secret of his desire to run for governor in 2018 and is widely expected to announce his candidacy within weeks.  Having built a strong senate majority gives him a leg up both on the Republican nomination and on a grassroots organization for the battle against Tom Wolf who is expected to seek re-election.

Thus the 2016 election has set the stage for the beginning of the next big electoral battle in Pennsylvania. Political fortunes have risen and fallen. And the never ending cycle of campaigns has already begun anew offering no respite for weary voters.

(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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Governor Wolf PERCs Up


After just one year in office it is clear Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is the most spendthrift governor in the nation.  After all, his proposed and still unresolved 2015-16 state budget called for a tax hike greater than that of all other 49 states combined.  It was a bit startling to see this ultra-big government advocate actually announce he was going to shutter a state agency.

You might think fiscal conservatives would applaud his move to close the Public Employees Retirement Commission (PERC) an obscure state agency that most Pennsylvanians don’t know even exists.  But, any time a politician acts out of character it is a good idea to dig deeper into his or her motives.  Such is the case with Governor Wolf’s proposed elimination of PERC.

According to its website, the Public Employees Retirement Commission is responsible for “monitoring public retirement plans in Pennsylvania, studying the retirement needs of public employees … develop objectives and recommend legislation to the Pennsylvania legislature.”  PERC further administers various mandated reporting on the health of public employee pensions and funnels state funding to municipal pension systems throughout the state.

This trip takes us through the tall weeds of Pennsylvania’s arcane and convoluted public employee pension system, but the bottom line is PERC is responsible for monitoring the health of municipal pension systems and in the process of performing that duty raises a red flag when such plans are headed into financial trouble.  As such it performs an important watchdog function especially at a time when a significant number of municipal pension systems, especially in cities, are under fiscal stress.

In addition to providing independent oversight of municipal pension systems, PERC is required to administer the process of distributing some $250 million annually to municipalities.  According to a news release from State Representatives Stephen Bloom, Seth Grove and Keith Greiner, that amounts to 20% of the contributions that are made annually to municipal pension funds.  The representatives, Republicans all, voiced concern that without those funds many municipalities would be forced to raise property taxes.

Concern over the potential demise of PERC has produced something rare in Harrisburg, bi-partisan agreement.  State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, said: “If people think there’s a (municipal) pension problem now, wait until municipalities don’t get their (Act 205) payments.”   That DePasquale, who has been one of the more rational voices on fiscal matters would sound such a warning speaks to the seriousness of the issue.

To complicate matters further Governor Wolf plans to shut down PERC without seeking legislative approval.  Using the “pen and phone” approach popularized by President Obama, the governor says the agency is simply going to cease to exist.  Republican lawmakers are crying foul pointing out the governor has no authority to close an agency authorized by an act of the General Assembly.  So not only does Governor Wolf’s plan to sunset PERC put public pension plans at risk and likely trigger municipal tax increases, but it creates a constitutional crisis as well.

Pension reform has been a major component of the ongoing budget battle between Governor Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature.  Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, among others, has vowed not to consider any of the governor’s proposed broad-based tax hikes until the state’s pension crisis is resolved.  Why then would Wolf want to complicate matters by tossing PERC under the bus?

Perhaps because Governor Wolf simply refuses to admit there actually is a pension crisis. In his view, pension systems across Penn’s Woods are just fine – all they need is more money.  As a captive of big labor the governor is committed to blocking any and all attempts at pension reform instead favoring throwing billions more in taxpayer dollars into systems at all levels that are simply no longer viable.

While many municipal pension funds, especially those administered by townships, are financially secure, state employee funds and those in larger cities must either be reformed or taxpayers will see historic tax increases.  That Governor Wolf would open a new front in the pension battle by moving to shutter PERC shows not only is he not serious about pension reform, but he will do everything in his power to prevent it from happening.

(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.)

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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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Divided They Stand


For the past four years Republicans have had a partisan, if not governing majority in all parts of state government.  In a couple of weeks a new Democrat governor will take office ushering in an era of divided government.  Given that the GOP was stymied while holding the governor’s office, what are the odds anything of significance will be accomplished over the next four years with Tom Wolf in that position?

Here are three possible scenarios ordered by their increased likelihood of actually happening:

Scenario 1:  Newly installed Governor Tom Wolf abandons the far Left-wing positions he adopted last spring to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary and adopts a pro-growth strategy.  For starters, he shelves the labor union’s approach to the state’s public pension crisis and admits there actually is a problem. He works with the Republican majorities in the legislature to adopt comprehensive pension reform, and then moves incrementally to loosen the state’s monopoly on the wholesale and retail distribution of wine and spirits thus generating the revenue needed to increase funding to education and other Democratic spending priorities.

Scenario 2:  With enhanced majorities in both the state House and the state Senate, buttressed by more conservative leadership in both chambers, Republicans press for and pass pension reform, liquor privatization, paycheck protection and other policy priorities held hostage by a minority of southeastern GOP legislators in the last session of the General Assembly.  Despite the fact Governor Tom Wolf vetoes all of these measures Republicans draw a bright line in the sand demonstrating to voters the difference between their pro-growth agenda and the Democrats’ big government agenda.

Scenario 3:  Governor Tom Wolf emboldened by the far Left ideologues on his staff and united Democratic caucuses in both chambers pushes forward a union-dominated agenda and crusades for higher taxes.  A majority of Republicans in both chambers stand firm, but amid media criticism labeling the GOP as “obstructionist,” enough Republican legislators in both chambers break ranks and give Wolf the votes he needs to enact his agenda.

The latter scenario is what played out during the Rendell Administration when Democrats stood united and labor unions were able to peel off just enough Republican votes to achieve their goals.  During those years, House Republicans were the bulwark against run-away spending, but weak GOP leadership in the state Senate coupled with the power of southeastern Republicans beholden to the unions shattered Republican resistance.

But, the playing field has changed a bit since Rendell retreated to the City of Brotherly Love.  For starters, although voters rejected Tom Corbett’s bid for a second term, they embraced the Republican agenda by sending enhanced GOP majorities to both chambers.  For a variety of reasons GOP legislative candidates tilted further to the Right in 2014, and that proved to be electorally successful.

More importantly, the composition of the state Senate’s Republican caucus has changed dramatically.  The union-backed Republican Majority Leader Domenic Pileggi was ousted by the more conservative Senator Jake Corman.  Republicans trounced Democrats in traditionally-Democratic districts picking up two seats in southwestern Pennsylvania.  And, exposing as fraudulent the excuse that southeastern Republicans have to toe the union line to get elected/re-elected, newly minted state Senator Tom McGarrigle defeated an actual labor union leader to win an open seat in Delaware County.

Tom Wolf ran a campaign that was big on ideas and lacking in specifics.  That leaves him a bit of wiggle room, but at least at the onset his administration is likely to push the broad agenda outlined during his campaign.  The tenor of the next four years will become clear in the GOP response to his policy initiatives.  The big question to be answered is will this be a replay of the Rendell years where each battle ends with Republican capitulation, or have the voters affected enough change for the GOP to stand firm behind the policies on which they campaigned?

My only prediction is we won’t have to wait long to learn the answer.

(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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This Week on Lincoln Radio Journal: U.S. Senator Pat Toomey


Radio Program Schedule for the week of December 6 – December 12, 2014

This week on Lincoln Radio Journal:

  • Eric Boehm has news headlines from PAIndependent.com
  • David Taylor from the PA Manufacturers Association and Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation discuss what the new Republican-controlled U.S. Senate means for Pennsylvania with U.S. Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA)
  • Lowman Henry has a Town Hall Commentary on Attorney General Kathleen Kane

This week on American Radio Journal:

  • Lowman Henry talks with Prashant Khetan from Cause of Action about the White House obtaining confidential taxpayer records from the IRS
  • Andy Roth of the Club for Growth has the Real Story behind how congress might deal with the impending fiscal cliff
  • Eric Boehm and Matt Kittle have a Watchdog Radio Report on states going to court over President Obama’s immigration executive order
  • Dr. Paul Kengor from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College has an American Radio Journal commentary on why some governors may lead the 2016 presidential pack

Visit the program web sites for more information about air times. There, you can also stream live or listen to past programs!

http://www.lincolnradiojournal.com

http://www.americanradiojournal.com

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Tinkering with the System


Days before the November election I was listening to a radio talk show and the topic of discussion was a prominent Democrat who suggested that congressional terms should be made longer.  Specifically, he suggested having U.S. Senators serve for eight years rather than six and electing members of the U.S. House of Representatives to four year terms instead of two.

The reasoning behind suggesting such a change was to limit the number of opportunities voters have to impact the system to ensure more stability in the federal government.  Prompting the discussion was voter propensity to deal President Barack Obama mid-term electoral set-backs compromising his ability to enact his policy agenda.

Interestingly, when someone dislikes the verdict of the voters or an elected official misbehaves the search goes on for a systemic weakness to blame.  Inevitably, the “solution” to such non-existent problems is to remove from those rascally voters the ability to express their will through the electoral process.

Such is the case in Pennsylvania where recent episodes of elected officials behaving badly have prompted calls for systemic change that, in the end would erode the power of voters and diminish the ability of “We the People” to impact the composition of our own government.  Specifically, structural “reforms” that would enhance the power of elites to the detriment of grassroots voters include reducing the size of the state legislature and enacting the merit selection of judges.

The recent forced retirement of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffrey for excessive use of the send button on his computer has re-energized the merit selection movement.  Presumably, a merit selection committee would have asked McCaffrey if he liked to forward along pornographic e-mails, he would have admitted such, and thus been eliminated from consideration.  Likewise the last justice to be impeached, Rolf Larson, would have admitted his addictions to the merit selection committee and informed them of his plan to use staff to acquire prescription drugs illegally.

It is folly to believe a merit selection committee would be error free in its choices.  The only sure outcome of merit selection is that the selectors and those who select the selectors would gain incredible influence over one-third of state government with no voter oversight or recourse.  True, voters are often ill informed when it comes to judicial candidates, but the same can be said for many other offices as well.

Reducing the size of the General Assembly is another “reform” that would diminish the impact of voters while giving leaders greater control.  A smaller legislature would mean larger districts.  Candidates must spend more to be elected in larger districts, thus the role of campaign cash would grow while the ability of less well financed candidates to compete through grassroots campaigning would be lessened.  Do we really want to make money in politics more important?

At the national level, lengthening the terms of congressmen and senators would severely curtail the ability of voters to express their will.  The framers of the U.S Constitution intended for the House to be volatile, representing the momentary views of the people.  Senators were granted six-years terms to be the “cooling saucer” of those who could take a longer term view.  It was and is a good compromise that has served our nation well.

The old saying that our system of government is the worst there is – except for all the others remains true.  Constitutions are written and systems are established so the framework of government is timeless and not whipsawed by the winds of current events.  Any system is only as good as the men and women who serve within it.  The key to better government lies not in changing the system, but in being more vigilant on whom we select to represent us.

(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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Crunch Time


It is crunch time in Harrisburg.

The next 60 days will likely be the most productive – or unproductive – period of legislating under the capitol dome this year.  From budgets and taxes to liquor privatization and pensions, a wide range of controversial and difficult issues vie for legislative attention.

Most importantly, the state constitution requires a budget be adopted by the close of business on June 30th.  Lawmakers don’t always fulfill their constitutional obligation.  Under former Governor Ed Rendell the commonwealth went eight straight years without passing a budget on time. It has been a source of pride for Governor Tom Corbett that his three budgets were done by the deadline, but revenue shortfalls and election year politics threaten that streak.

But this year, budget aside, June 30th looms as a very important date.  That is because the General Assembly traditionally adjourns immediately after passing the budget for a two and a half month summer vacation.  Last year, even with the governor’s top three legislative agenda items unresolved, the legislature left town.  When lawmakers return in mid-September the General Election will be just six weeks away.  With every member of the state House and half of the state Senate up for election, you can bet the mortgage nothing controversial will get done during the Fall session.

For decades the legislature would return to session for two weeks after the General Elections in a so-called “sine die” session to complete business.  However, such sessions have fallen into disrepute because they were often used so members who lost or were retiring could cast politically difficult votes knowing they would never again face the electorate.  As part of the meager reforms that took place during the backlash over the infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise vote, sine die sessions have either not been held or limited to routine administrative business.

Depending on the outcome of the gubernatorial election, this year could test the resolve of leaders to not call a sine die session.  Despite its control of both chambers the GOP has not been able to agree on key issues.  Should the Democratic nominee win the governor’s race, then the last chance to forge an agreement on such issues and get them signed into law will come in November.  After that, Republican dominance would end.  If, however, Governor Corbett is re-elected, sine die becomes irrelevant and legislative battles will wait until the new session convenes in January.

Adding to the drama is that each major issue is complicated by associated issues.  The budget, for example, also depends on the outcome of a Democratic push to enact a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drillers and lavish election-year spending on education.  Under the House-passed bill privatization of the state’s liquor stores would inject much needed cash into the system, but the Senate has yet to come up with the votes to pass that legislation.

Meanwhile other big issues are at play.  After decades of talk and debate there actually are two property tax reform bills gaining traction.  The problem is the bills take significantly different approaches to shifting property taxes to other forms of taxation triggering an internal battle over how to proceed.

And then there are key labor power issues.  Most notably there is a push for Paycheck Protection, or outlawing the automatic deduction of labor union dues from government workers’ paychecks.  That bill appears to have enough votes for House passage. But, organized labor has a stronger foothold in the Senate GOP caucus, so the fate of the bill is up in the air.  Governor Corbett has pledged to sign the legislation.

Illustrating how difficult it is to get anything accomplished in the current legislative and political climate is that a bill which would eliminate loopholes in state law that actually allow stalking, harassment and the making of threats to use a weapon of mass destruction during a labor dispute remains unresolved.  Polls show nearly 90% of voters want to make such actions illegal.  Both the House and the Senate have passed a bill to do so – but the Senate added some language that the House has yet to agree upon.

The failure to pass a law with such widespread support calls into question the ability of the legislature to deal with more complicated issues like pension reform.  The sad fact is it will take an enormous effort by the governor and legislative leaders to accomplish anything of substance given the political climate in which they are currently operating.

(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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