Posts Tagged trouble

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

Of Rainbows and Unicorns


Once upon a time in the woods of Penn the benevolent overseer of the land wished to bestow upon his subjects many favors.  Believing in the superior wisdom of his court, he set out to do away with the evil forces that allowed some to rise above others.  To do so he needed more treasure, so he pledged to take from the rich and give to the poor.  But alas, he soon found there were not enough rich to supply the bounty he promised, so he began taking even from the hard working peasants.

And a great sadness descended upon the land.  The benevolent overseer stroked his beard and decreed his populace suffered from a lack of self-esteem.  If only his subjects would think more highly of themselves they would gladly offer up more taxes to the kingdom.  But, upon finding they too would have to render unto the overseer part of their own meager fortune, a great restlessness occurred among the masses.

Seeing this, the knights of the legislature sprang into action and vowed to lead the people to the land of lower taxes and less government.  They promised easier access to wine and liquor to restore the kingdom’s sagging spirits.   And they vowed the government would get out of the way and let people work hard and keep more of their shekels for their own families.

Thus did a great battle take shape over the destiny of his kingdom.

“I will lead you to the land of glittering rainbows and prancing unicorns,” claimed the benevolent overseer.

“We love you!” shouted the scribes and town criers.

“We can’t afford it!” wailed the wage earners.

“We will come to your rescue!” pledged the knights of the legislature.

And the fight commenced.

Governor Tom Wolf has put his first budget on the table. It is a complete redesign of the state’s tax paradigm, with the end result being a $4.6 billion increase in state spending.  He calls his budget progressive and a fresh start for Pennsylvania.  Republicans who control both houses of the General Assembly call it “dead on arrival.”  Many adjectives have been used by the media to describe the spending plan.  I like the term “fairy tale.”

It is a fairy tale because Governor Wolf’s proposals completely ignore the reality of the political situation in Harrisburg.  Even with complete control of the governor’s office and the legislature Republicans were unable to come to grips with pension reform, liquor privatization, and a systemic budget deficit.  As a result of last November’s election, the General Assembly has become more Republican and more conservative and the Governor’s office has been transformed into a virtual Left wing think tank.

For reasons too numerous to detail here, Pennsylvania state government is one that makes change incrementally.  Bold, sweeping action of any type on any issue happens rarely and then only when there is some level of agreement between factions of the two political parties.  Currently, Democrats are a unified and unbending block, and the capitulation wing of the Republican caucus has been rendered impotent by the sheer number of more conservative members elected in recent election cycles.

As if this were not enough of a prescription for gridlock, the Governor has opted to double down on his so-called progressive agenda. The only possible outcome is an extended period of confrontation.   This will happen because neither side will be able to back down without paying a hefty political price.  The governor is beholden to labor unions and will block Republican efforts to address budgetary cost drivers like public employee pensions.  Across the aisle, Republicans enjoy their current large majorities because of conservative legislators sent to Harrisburg to cut spending and prevent tax hikes.

By making his opening bid confrontation rather than compromise Governor Wolf has created a climate in which acrimony and gridlock will flourish.  That is unless one or both sides abandons the constituencies which elected them to office.  That could happen; if you believe in fairy tales.

(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