PA Legislators Accept Free Vacations with Ethics Committee Approval

Over the weekend, the AP released a report detailing privately funded trips which were taken by members of the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation on the dime of special interests groups.  The amount of trips taken by PA members has increased substantially since the 2007 conviction of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, with the number rising from 17 in 2008 to 47 last year in 2013.

Leading the big spenders is Rep. Charlie Dent, who accepted $47,041 for seven trips last year, and has thus far been gifted $44,688 for privately funded travel in 2014.  Most notably, Dent racked up a $24,621 bill on a weeklong trip with his wife to Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan, at the invitation of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, and on the dime of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMC).  The reason given for the trip was a meeting with the Japanese prime minister concerning trade policy, a purpose that Dent also parlayed into an excursion to Germany earlier this year; a vacation which cost the USAFMC over $10,000.

While the other members of the PA delegation did not tally bills as large as Dent’s the AP report is still worth checking out for the specifics of their individual expenses, including hotel rooms in Palm Beach, Florida, for $450-per-night.

Technically speaking, all of these trips are legal, since they are privately funded and do not use taxpayer money.  In the House, representatives are required to receive approval from the House Ethics Committee in advance, and then disclose all paid-for expenses within two weeks of their return, with similar practices being followed in the Senate.  The issue with this lies in the leniency with which the Ethics Committee has begun to give these trips the green light.

Earlier this month, the House Ethics Committee came under fire when they quietly eliminated a requirement which made the personal financial forms necessary for each member.  After intense scrutiny however, the Committee reinstated the forms, but it still strikes me as shady that they attempted to eliminate the requirement in the first place.

Although these trips appear harmless because of their private funding, the groups who pony up the money are special interests groups who attempt to sway legislator’s opinions.  While the trips aren’t outright bribes, it stands to reason that a weeklong all-inclusive vacation is a pretty quick way to a person’s heart, and it can endear the lawmaker to a special interest group on a quite personal level.

With that said, some of the trips detailed incurred minor expenses, and often sent legislative staff members to important events via bus or car with normal hotel accommodations.  However, with the number of approved excursions increasing rapidly, it stands to reason that many of the trips being taken are unnecessary, and should be denied by the appropriate Ethics Committee.

A faceless campaign contribution is one thing, but a free vacation with the wife at an extravagant hotel, screams corruption to me.  After Abramoff’s conviction, members of Congress banned lobbyists from being involved in travel, and took a hard stance against accepting gifts or junkets such as these.  Unfortunately, seven years later, it seems that the lessons learned have worn off, and increased regulation of the two Ethics Committees within Congress may be necessary.

Posted in Ethics, Issues, US House, US Senate

Four State Lawmakers Want to Squash Philadelphia’s Pop-Up Beer Gardens

Last week, the Daily News reported on a quirk in the PA liquor code which allows vendors who own liquor licenses to use inexpensive $500 off-premise catering permits to serve alcohol at the temporary pop-up beer gardens that have been springing up this summer in Philadelphia.

The success of these outdoor beer gardens is spooking some other drinking establishments, prompting a few legislators to write to the PA Liquor Control Board urging them to reinterpret the law before the beer garden scourge spreads to other PA cities.  The letter, signed by Republicans Chuck McIlhinney and John Taylor, as well as Democrats Jim Ferlo and Paul Costa, cites the issue as a matter of “grave concern.”

Now, although the beer gardens take advantage of this loophole, they have done nothing but good for the city of Philadelphia.  Repurposing abandoned lots, generating new tax revenue, and providing beautiful outdoor venues for Philadelphians to enjoy summer nights in the city doesn’t sound like much of a “grave concern” to me.   If the pop-up gardens were forced to pay the exorbitant fees for a regular liquor license, they would surely be priced right out of existence, turning the vacant lots right back into..well, vacant lots.

These kinds of economic development projects which engage the community are exactly the type of ventures Philly-area lawmakers should be striving to promote. But these four lawmakers apparently think bar owners’ special interests outweigh the interests of most residents.

If you want to keep the pop-up beer gardens going, our friends at the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus put together a petition, calling on legislators to support them.  If the gardens do lose their liquor licenses over something ridiculous like this, I’m sure voters will remember the actions taken by these four lawmakers come election time.

Posted in Economic Development, Economy, Elections, Issues, State House, State Senate

#PABudget: Pension Payments and Tom Wolf’s First Term

Bram Reichbaum is right that Tom Wolf is probably going to have to do…something about pensions.

It’s not worth talking about on the campaign trail, but it is time to start tuning in to this issue because pension payments are about to start ramping up over the next few years, and the Wolf administration is going to need to find another $2 billion a year by the end of his first term.

It’s not catastrophic or anything – the budget is about $29 billion – but it’s a pretty decent chunk of money. We were talking about a lot of pain from a $1.2 billion budget hole this time, and people were worried about that.

Another point to make about these projections is that while these are Corbett administration numbers, and some readers are probably tempted to think the Corbett administration is overestimating the threat level because they want to soak unions, in this case they’re underestimating the threat level to make their own plan look good.

They’re actually presenting a very rosy picture of the situation, assuming a 7.5% annual return. That’s an absurdly high rate to assume, so realistically we could be talking about an additional $3-4 billion responsibility per year relatively soon.

Again, not catastrophic. But it is $3-4 billion worth of spending cuts (preferably tax expenditures) or tax increases that the next Governor is going to have to identify in the 2015-2016 budget.

From a purely partisan perspective, there’s no reason for Tom Wolf to get baited into discussing these issues during the campaign. But it is time for the Blue Team wonks to start kicking around a plan to find that amount of money, because these days I’m hearing a lot of Democratic candidates double and triple-counting the revenue from the natural gas severance tax. We can use it for education, or the budget, or transportation, but the severance tax alone is not going to pay for it all.

I don’t think there is any reason for Democrats to vote for any “pension reform” bill that changes defined-benefit plans for anyone, or cuts benefits for anyone. 401Ks are a failure of a retirement savings policy. We do have the option of not changing our pension plans, and just paying for our pension responsibilities by cutting tax exemptions and expenditures. But we have to think beyond just the severance tax.

For instance, many of our tax expenditures go toward subsidizing fossil fuels. PennFuture says we could be getting about $2.9 billion a year by eliminating these subsidies.

We should also accept the federal Medicaid money, fully close the Delaware loophole with combined-reporting, and explore joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (conditional on the energy-importing states accepting some reforms). Over the long term we can try to overturn the Uniformity Clause and introduce a progressive structure to PA’s income tax.

There’s plenty of stuff we can do to raise that money, but the Democratic Party needs to start having a conversation with itself about what the Wolf plan should be.

Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, Issues

#PAGov: Corbett Screwed

Another week, another round of doomy predictions for Republican Governor Tom Corbett this November. This week National Journal called him a “dead man walking” and Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight thinks only Tom Wolf could lose this race for Tom Wolf at this point.


Posted in Elections, Governor

#PABudget: A Timeline of Tom Corbett’s Excellent Misadventure

Trailing by double-digits in the polls entering the month of June, Tom Corbett needed to hit a walk-off homerun on the 2014-15 budget to have any real chance at re-election in the fall.  What we got instead from the Governor resembled something more like a three pitch strikeout:

June 2nd- Governor Corbett makes it known that he wants to balance a budget with spending cuts and one-time transfers, and that his two biggest priorities are pension reform and liquor privatization

June 4th- Corbett endorses the flawed Tobash “hybrid” pension reform plan which does nothing to fill the $1.5 billion budget gap

June 10th- In an interview with reporters, Corbett says that if there is pension reform, he will consider tax increases to fill the budget gap.

“If we can’t get pensions done, I’m not open to anything,” he said.  “They’ve got to move on it.”

June 17th- Corbett tells reporters his is prepared to stay past the June 30th budget deadline, if legislators do not reform pensions.  He also states that he will not support tax increases until something meaningful is done with “cost-drivers” like pensions.

June 19th- Corbett’s budget secretary Charles Zogby gives an interview in which he states that all options are still on the table, while blaming Ed Rendell for the current budget mess

June 26th- With the GOP fractured over the Tobash plan, Corbett holds a press conference continuing to urge the Republican-controlled legislature to pass meaningful pension reform

June 29th- With the budget deadline a day away, Corbett links the Philadelphia cigarette tax to a positive pension reform vote from Philly Democrats, further alienating himself from the City of Brotherly Love

“If there is a positive pension reform vote, there will be a cigarette tax for Philadelphia.  It’s in their hands.”

June 30th- The legislature passes a $29.1 billion spending plan which does not raise taxes, and it makes its way to Corbett’s desk for his signature in time to meet the midnight budget deadline.  Corbett refuses to sign it, instead continuing to lobby for pension reform from the members of his own party who control the General Assembly

July 2nd- Corbett holds a press conference where he gives a budget update that rivals Seinfeld as the best programming about “nothing” on cable.  He is still reviewing and considering the document

July 10th- After ten days of review, Corbett finally signs the budget, but exercises his line-item veto on $65 million in General Assembly funding and $7.2 million in legislative-designated spending, essentially declaring war on the legislature.

So to recap, before the month of June, Governor Corbett wanted to deliver an on-time budget, which did not raise taxes, and satisfied his two priorities of liquor privatization and pension reform.  However, with a legislature with GOP majorities in both chambers, he delivered on exactly one of his four main goals, by hashing together a spending plan that will likely force Pennsylvania into an even bigger budget deficit next June.

What are most puzzling to me are Corbett’s actions at the very end of the budget process.  Why not meet the budget deadline and run on the platform of delivering four on-time budgets to Pennsylvania?  By waiting as long as he did to sign the budget, the Governor did nothing except break his on-time budget promise and piss of the entire General Assembly by throwing them under the bus for the lack of pension reform.

A Governor must be a leader and find a way to deliver on his priorities, even when he meets resistance from a legislature comprised of his putative allies.  Instead of leadership, Tom Corbett’s actions throughout the budget process show a lack of awareness and an inability to govern or even communicate effectively with members of his political party or his voters.

The Governor has consistently said that he “didn’t come to Harrisburg to make friends,” which has become evident as members of the legislature from both parties have ripped him for his leadership throughout the budget process.  By putting himself into this war with the General Assembly, Corbett has positioned himself to run against Harrisburg in the November elections as an “outsider” as he did in 2010.  He will the blame the political system for his lack of accomplishments during this budget, as well as Ed Rendell for Pennsylvania’s budget crisis, and urge the people of the Commonwealth to give him four more years in office to enact his priorities.

Although the “outsider” strategy may have worked in the last election, the label hardly makes sense for a man who has held the most powerful job in Pennsylvania politics for four years, and whose party enjoys majorities in both houses of the legislature.  Corbett can run against Harrisburg and the corruption within the system, but at this point, he is part of it.

Besides, if an “outsider” can’t deliver on meaningful reform by cooperating with his party in the legislature, rather than spurning them, maybe this “outsider” wasn’t the right man for the job in the first place. For the people of Pennsylvania, it has become evident that Tom Corbett is part of the problem, no matter how much he will try and distance himself from it.

Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, State Politics

Thank Bob Casey For Supporting Senate Dems’ ‘Hobby Lobby’ Fix

Bob Casey personally opposes abortion rights, which sometimes finds him on the wrong side of the Democratic base on certain votes, but in the case of Senate Democrats’ Hobby Lobby fix, he wants to do the right thing. Criticizing politicians is more fun as an activist, but thanking them when they do what you want is just as important.

We’ve dinged Bob Casey here on the blog a few times for various things, but we want to extend a hearty thank-you to him for being a team player on this specific bill, and for his long-standing support for contraception access as a means to reduce the number of abortions.

If you’re happy with his actions here, please take a moment to send him a note via this contact form, or even better, send a letter to the Editor of your local paper thanking him for being on the right side of this isse.

Posted in Elections, Health, Issues, US Senate

#PABudget: “Republicans in Disarray” Narrative is a Direct Result of Democrats’ Party-Line Vote

Just to make sure Democrats understand the political success of their budget strategy, the circular firing squad we’re seeing play out between the Corbett administration and Republicans in the legislature wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the Dems’ party-line vote against the budget.

The party-line vote shined the bright light of accountability on Republican lawmakers, and they’re squirming under the magnifying glass. If the Dems had bailed Republicans out with some political cover for their budget, it would have papered over the disagreements in the Republican caucus and none of this drama would be happening.

It turns out that when you make the Republican majority govern by itself, there’s a lot of internal disagreement in the caucus, and now the question Democrats want voters to be asking themselves heading into the elections is front and center: can the Republican party actually govern to our liking, or do we want a different party in charge?

Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, Issues, State House, State Senate

#PABudget: The Republican Budget in One Photo

All you need to know:

Nick Field has the actual details, but the photo suffices.

(photo credit: Bradley Bauer, AP)

Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, Issues

These Five Philly-Area Lawmakers Voted Against the Cigarette Tax

Anthony Williams was the only Democrat to vote to delay the cigarette tax, and that’ll cost him in the Democratic primary for Philly Mayor next year. But forget about that for now.

These Republican lawmakers all benefit from a strong Philadelphia economy, and their constituents won’t pay the cost of our local cigarette tax, but they voted to mess with our school funding anyway.

These are all districts within reasonable distance for GOTV, and Philadelphians who can afford it should really donate to their challengers. This stuff is going to keep happening next year if we don’t flip the state Senate this year.

Senate (see the roll call)

Bob Mensch, challenged by Jack Hansen.

Chuck McIlhinney, challenged by Steve Cickay.

House (see the roll call)

Justin Simmons, challenged by Mike Beyer.

Dan Truitt, challenged by Sandra Snyder.

Duane Milne, challenged by Anne Crowley.


Posted in Education, Elections, Issues, State House, State Senate

PA Local Gov Employment Down 5.9% Since the Start of the Recession

Obviously there’s a lot of duplication and waste inherent in Pennsylvania’s fragmented system of local government. When there are 2562 municipalities for 67 counties, clearly a great many local services could be administered more efficiently if local service providers could take advantage of some economy of scale.

Just look at how many police departments and planning commissions we have:

So in theory, there are some local government redundancies that could be ok if they resulted from consolidating services and municipal mergers. But in practice, this isn’t how we’ve been going about reducing local government employment in the recession. We could be combining municipalities and tax bases. We could be combining police departments and planning commissions. Instead, we’ve just been starving the existing under-capitalized local governments, and getting worse services.

The state Republicans’ cuts have forced local governments to either raise local taxes or lay off public employees, and in total, they’ve cut about 5.9% of local public employment since the recession began, according to this data from Governing.

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Posted in Budget, Economy, Issues