Posts Tagged united state

Eye of the Storm


By Lowman S. Henry

As August melts into September the halls of the state capitol building are relatively quiet. This is a marked contrast to a year ago when state government was in what turned out to be the early phases of the longest budget stalemate in state history.  This year the budget, or at least the spending part of it, was done reasonably close to the constitutionally-mandated June 30th deadline, the revenue component followed several weeks later.

But is this just the eye of the storm?

In capitulating to too many of Governor Tom Wolf’s spending demands the state legislature larded up the budget with nearly $1.4 billion in new expenditures.  This despite claims of a $1.5 billion dollar “structural deficit” the governor claimed needed to be addressed.  Even those using Common Core math can calculate that left the state nearly $3 billion in the hole.

To pay for this spending orgy some $650 million in new taxes were cobbled together, and accounting gimmicks employed, to produce a “balanced” budget.  But the budget isn’t really balanced and even that $650 million contains projected revenue that will never actually materialize.  For example, lawmakers planned to charge the state’s casinos $1 million each to purchase 24-hour liquor licenses.  Apparently nobody thought to ask if the casinos wanted such licenses, as there now appears to be no takers.

The budget also includes revenue from on-line gambling.  The problem is legislation has yet to be passed authorizing on-line gambling.  After adopting the budget, the General Assembly adjourned for a two month recess delaying any possible revenue from that source deep into the fiscal year.

And, predictably, the taxes that were hiked on existing businesses are having a dramatic negative impact.  A 40% tax imposed on vaping supplies is driving many vaping stores – almost all of which are small businesses – out of business.  That means not only will projected revenue from the tax fall short, but the state will also lose out on sales tax revenue as the stores shutter their doors.

That Republicans in the legislature caved into $1.4 billion in new spending defied logic.  The GOP had fought an epic budget battle with the governor the previous fiscal year and won. Not only did they win, but not a single lawmaker seeking re-election was denied by voters due to the budget fight.  After posting a historic win, Republicans essentially forfeited the next game.

All of these elements are coming together to produce the perfect fiscal storm as budget talks begin for next year.  Don’t forget that “structural deficit” of $1.4 billion hasn’t been addressed.  A significant portion of the new taxes enacted this year will fail to materialize.  And, Governor Wolf continues to demand a lengthy menu of spending hikes – and the taxes to pay for them.

Making matters worse the governor and the legislature have not been able to agree on how to deal with cost drivers, particularly the skyrocketing cost of public employee pensions.  Pension costs are gobbling up the lion’s share of any new revenue produced by a still slow-growing state economy.  Republicans have passed pension reform only to see it vetoed by Governor Wolf. There are new legislative proposals on the drawing board, but they fall woefully short of resolving the problem.  Even if some reform is enacted it will likely have minimal impact on the upcoming 2017-18 state budget.

Given all of this, will Republicans stick to their pledge that without addressing cost drivers they will not enact broad-based tax hikes – such as raising the personal income tax, expanding and/or raising sales taxes – or  will they again cave into the governor’s tax and spending demands?  Much rides on the outcome of this looming budget fight, primarily the fiscal health of the commonwealth.

But, 2018 is a gubernatorial election year and this budget will be enacted as the campaign heats up.  Governor Wolf, if he seeks re-election, will want to show his base voters that he delivered the goods of higher spending.  Republican voters will judge the GOP-controlled legislature by their ability to resist higher spending and more taxes.  Add these competing political imperatives to the state’s perilous fiscal circumstances and we should brace ourselves for the second wave of the hurricane.

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

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

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Governor Wolf Posts 82% Disapproval Rating


Malaise: Business Owners Turn Deeply Negative

Governor Wolf posts 82% disapproval rating

Governor Tom Wolf, who owned and operated a mid-sized business before running for office, has become enormously unpopular with his former peers posting the second highest negative rating for a governor in the 20-year history of the Keystone Business Climate Survey.  The September poll of business owners and chief executive officers found 82% hold a negative view of the governor’s job performance while 12% say he is doing a good job.

The governor’s budget proposals lie at the heart of the business community’s disapproval. Eight-one percent say the Wolf tax and spending plans would harm Pennsylvania’s business climate, 64% say they would do significant harm.  Further, Wolf gets the lion’s share of the blame for the budget impasse.  Fifty-eight percent say the budget stalemate is the governor’s fault, just 6% blame legislative Republicans.  Another 32% say both the governor and the legislature are to blame for the lack of a state budget.

Business Climate

One year ago, for the first time since the Fall of 2004, more of the business owners/CEOs participating in the survey said that business conditions in Pennsylvania had gotten better (20%) during the preceding six months that felt it had gotten worse (19%).  By last Spring those number had slipped significantly into negative territory with 13% saying business conditions had improved and 33% saying the state’s business climate had gotten worse.  In the current (September 2015) survey, 42% say the business climate in Penn’s Woods got worse over the past six months, 6% say it has improved.

Optimism for improvement of the state’s business climate in the coming six months has faded since last Spring.  Only 6% expect business conditions to improve headed into the new year, down from the 12% who expressed optimism last Spring.  Those who expect the business climate to get worse rose from 44% in March to 49% in the September survey.

Employment levels are also slipping.  Fifteen percent of the owners/CEOs said they have increased the number of employees in their business over the past six months, 21% said they now employ fewer people.  Looking ahead, 14% plan to add employees in the coming six months, 16% expect to have fewer employees.

Sales are also down.  Twenty-eight percent of the businesses participating in the survey say their sales have decreased over the past six months, 27% say sales are up.  There is a bit of optimism for the future, however, as 25% project an increase in sale over the upcoming six months while 18% are bracing for a decrease.

State Issues

The ongoing state budget impasse remains a top issue. Governor Wolf has put the biggest proposed tax hike in the nation on the table, the Republican-controlled legislature refuses to go along. Owners/CEOs participating in the Fall 2015 Keystone Business Climate Survey are not willing to see a resolution of the budget stalemate at any cost. Ninety percent said they do not want a new state budget if it will result in a significant increase in their taxes.  Nine percent say they are willing to pay significantly higher taxes if it would result in an immediate budget resolution.

Education spending is one of the sticking points in the budget.  Governor Wolf is demanding significantly higher spending.  But the poll found business owners disagree with the need to spend more on K-12 public education.  Forty-four percent say the state already spends too much on public education and another 30% feel current spending levels are about right.  Twenty-two percent agree with the governor that too little money is spent on education.

There is strong agreement with the Republican legislative position that the public education pension system must be reformed before any increase in spending is approved. Eighty-seven percent see pension reform as a prerequisite to spending more on education, 10% disagree.

Looking at the budget generally, 69% agree that any resolution to the state budget impasse must include a plan to privatize Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor store system.  Twenty-two percent do not link liquor privatization to a budget resolution.

Asked which statement most closely describes Governor Tom Wolf’s budget proposal 45% said it is a significant increase in spending, 21% identified it as the biggest spending increase in state history and 15% correctly identified it as a tax and spending increase greater than that proposed by all 49 other states combined.  Two percent termed the budget a “modest increase” in state spending.

By some estimates Pennsylvania spends about $700 million a year on individual grants or tax breaks to certain companies or industries. Such grants are viewed by some as “economic development,” by others as “corporate welfare.”  Thirty-two percent of the business owners/CEOs said such grants should be eliminated entirely and taxes reduced on all businesses.  Eleven percent favor the elimination of such grants with the savings used to balance the state budget.  Forty percent would reduce, but not eliminate economic development grants, and 4% think more money should be spent on such projects.

Job Approval Ratings

Eighty-two percent disapprove of the job being done by Governor Wolf, up from the 70% who held a negative view of the governor in the March 2015 poll.  That number is the second highest disapproval rating for a governor in the 20-year history of the Keystone Business Climate Survey surpassed only by the 86% negative rating received by Governor Ed Rendell in September of 2009. The only elected official with a lower job approval rating that Governor Wolf is President Barack Obama. Eighty-eight percent of those participating have a negative view of the President’s job performance, 10% view him in a positive light.  U.S. Senator Pat Toomey received a 47% positive job approval against a 28% negative rating.  U.S. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. didn’t fare as well, 64% disapprove of the job the senior senator from Pennsylvania is doing, 15% approve.  The business leaders are also not pleased with the job being done by federal fiscal officials.  Forty-four percent disapprove of the job being done by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen, 21% approve.  U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is viewed negatively by 42%, while 11% approve of his job performance.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is under indictment for allegedly leaking secret grand jury information.  Sixty-eight percent disapprove of her performance in office, 8% approve.  However, 43% say she should not resign from office and is innocent until proven guilty.  Forty percent think she should resign and 10% want her to be impeached.

Legislative chambers continue to be viewed negatively by the business owners/CEOs.  Only ten percent have a positive opinion of the job being done by the United States Senate, 15% approve of the job being done by the U.S. House of Representatives.  The state legislature fared better: 31% approve of the job being done by the Pennsylvania Senate, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives earned a 34% job approval rating.

Presidential Race

Business community support for presidential candidates closely mirrored current nationwide polls. Donald Trump leads the pack at 26% followed by Dr. Ben Carson at 23%.  Carly Fiorina registered 7% followed by Ted Cruz at 7% and Scott Walker (who has since exited the race) at 6%.  The rest of the field, including all of the Democratic candidates, scored at 5% or less.

Methodology

The Fall 2015 Keystone Business Climate Survey was conducted electronically between September 14, 2015 and September 21, 2015.  A total of 324 business leaders responded.  Of those 80% are the owner of a business; 14% are the CEO/COO/CFO; 2% a local manager and 1% a state manager.   Twenty-nine percent of the respondents have businesses based in southeastern Pennsylvania, 21% in southcentral Pennsylvania, 17% in southwestern Pennsylvania, 9% in northwestern Pennsylvania, 7% in northeastern Pennsylvania, 5% in the Lehigh Valley, and 5% each in north central Pennsylvania and the Johnstown/Altoona area.  Complete numeric results of the poll are available at www.lincolninstitute.org.

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Demystifying the Judicial Branch


With five statewide appellate court seats up for election – including three on the Supreme Court – an unusual political spotlight is focused this year on the judicial branch of government.  Partisan control of the Supreme Court, yes there is such a thing, hangs in the balance as a wide range of future policy issues and ultimately congressional redistricting will end up before the justices elected this year.
This also presents a unique opportunity to pierce the mystique spun by the legal profession that the courts are somehow special, above the realm of politics and political maneuvering and of higher stature than the other two – supposedly co-equal – branches of government.  The courts are not, and should not, be considered special.  Different, indeed, as each branch of government has its own distinct and unique role.  But special it is not.
Just as labor unions exert out-sized influence over the legislature, the legal profession via the Bar Association holds sway over the selection of judges, particularly at the state level.  Through a secretive vetting process the Bar Association rates the candidates with an eye toward influencing the party endorsement and election processes.
Given the fact that lawyers are but one sub-set of the electorate with a stake in the judiciary, the degree of influence the Bar’s recommendations have had in the past jeopardizes the fairness of the courts.  The carefully crafted illusion is that Bar Association recommendations are somehow the bestowing of superior wisdom on a clueless electorate.  In fact, the Bar ratings are just the views of yet another special interest group.  An important special interest group, yes, but an interest group nonetheless.
Voters should approach the Bar Association’s ratings in that light.  Further, their ratings should be viewed with all the suspicion of a Brian Williams war story.  Members of the evaluation commission are selected in the absence of any public input, their deliberations are secret and the factors weighing on their recommendations are kept from public view.  This total lack of transparency is the exact opposite of the endorsement processes of the political parties where those doing the endorsement are themselves elected by voters, the endorsement meetings are open to the media, and the votes of state committee members recorded for all to see.
A controversy has arisen over the Bar’s ratings this year because they are refusing to recommend Commonwealth Court Judge Ann Covey for a seat on the state Supreme Court.  Judge Covey was endorsed by the Republican State Committee pitting the party against the Bar.  Covey, refusing to play by the Bar Association’s rules, has publicly criticized the recommendation process and questioned its fairness.
Further eroding the Bar Association’s credibility is the fact that the current Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Justice Tom Saylor, was not recommended by the group in his first run for a judicial post.  Given the fact he has now become the top jurist in Penn’s Woods, the Bar is left with considerable egg on its face.
The current mess created by the Bar Association also adds one more argument to those who oppose the merit selection of judges.  If the legal community conducts its recommendation process in secret, what kind of back room deals might we expect from merit selection?  Further, the formerly staid recommendation process has now become embroiled in controversy as a result of its own failings.
It is time for voters to take charge.  The state Supreme Court races will top the ballot this year meaning there is no presidential, senatorial or gubernatorial race to steal the spotlight.  The state’s news media need to step up and cover the court races like they would other statewide races because the positions merit that level of debate and scrutiny.  And voters need to educate themselves, both in the primary and general elections, about the candidates so they can make an informed decision when going to the polls.
This is an opportunity for We the People to have an impact on a vitally important and co-equal branch of state government.  It is time to push aside the mystique of the judiciary.  We must take this election with the same degree of seriousness we do in electing our governor and our legislators.
Because in the end judges matter.

(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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