#PA3: Mike Kelly: Everything Basically Terrorism Now

When the usual predictable messaging on environmental regulations fails to resonate with voters, what’s a Republican Congressman to do?

Use harsher and nuttier words to make the same point:

“You talk about terrorism — you can do it in a lot of different ways,” he said. “But you terrorize the people who supply everything this country needs to be great — and you keep them on the sidelines — my goodness, what have we become?”

When asked to clarify what he meant by that, Kelly said he used the word “terrorism” broadly, E&E News reports.

“When a government can level on you taxes and regulations that makes it impossible for you to compete, then you’re going to stay on the sidelines,” he said.

Note that Teh Terrorism that Kelly thinks the Obama administration is doing is making it prohibitively expensive for coal companies to build new coal-fired plants.

Posted in Elections, Environment, US House

The Onion: ExxonMobile and Chevron Locked in Bidding War for Pat Toomey

File under “barely false”:

With both sides increasing their initial offers for the prized asset, multinational energy companies ExxonMobil and Chevron Corporation are currently locked in a fierce bidding war to obtain a lucrative Pennsylvania senator, sources confirmed Monday.

“This legislator represents an incredibly valuable commodity in the energy world, and both ExxonMobil and Chevron appear to be willing to pay whatever is necessary to acquire him,” said oil and gas industry analyst John Blakey of the ongoing, back-and-forth bidding process for U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA), noting that both of the politician’s potential owners are enthusiastic about the prospect of utilizing the treasured beltway resource for multiple terms.

“Granted, securing such a highly profitable elected official won’t be cheap—it never is. Both of these companies know that if they are fortunate enough to gain possession of this senator, the acquisition will pay dividends for years to come.”

In more serious news, federal regulators will be holding 4 public hearings about 178-mile greenfield natural gas pipeline spanning Northumberland, Sullivan, Columbia, Schuylkill, Lebanon and Lancaster counties — Pat Toomey country, mostly.

Posted in Elections, Energy, Environment, Issues, US Senate

#PAGov: Wolf Wants to Go Halfsies With Localities on Education Funding

The national average for state share of education funding is 48%. Tom Wolf is proposing taking the state share up to 50%.

During the Rendell administration, the state’s share of education funding got up to a high of 44%, and under Tom Corbett, it went down to 32%.

Wolf would pay for the change with a progressive increase in the state’s income tax, and a dollar-for-dollar decrease in local property taxes. The state Constitution’s Uniformity Clause prevents us from creating a progressive rate structure for the state income tax, so Wolf is proposing a jury-rigged version.

He’d create a universal exemption for the first x dollars of income, and then raise the income tax rate. He’s not willing to commit to a number yet for the exemption, which is a little annoying, but he says it’s because he wants to get the latest numbers on income and tax distribution before committing.

It’s a good deal for progressive redistribution, a good deal for urban places like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh where state funding can help free up more money in the budget for other things, and  it’s a good deal for beleaguered school districts which have weathered three years of cuts and property tax increases from the Corbett administration.

Corbett’s dirty little secret is that a huge part of school funding is mandated but not funded by the state, so when the state cuts below a certain point, that forces local tax increases. It’s a back door way of raising taxes that (he thinks) doesn’t leave fingerprints behind, but voters figured it out anyway, and are largely blaming Corbett, not local officials, for these tax increases.

The land portion of the property tax is a progressive tax, so I don’t want to see us get away from this too much – especially as Thomas Piketty says a growing source of wealth inequality is housing (and really land). But the hyperlocal funding of schools is a huge problem for service inequality, which in my opinion is a more important priority at state and local level than tax progressivity or income or wealth inequality.

Posted in Education, Elections, Governor, Issues

#PAGov: No, the Wolf Organization Isn’t Using the Delaware Loophole

Thomas Fitzgerald cleared this up last week, and now the Wolf campaign has an ad up refuting it.

A new attack ad from Gov. Tom Corbett (R) accuses Democratic opponent Tom Wolf of hypocrisy because, it says, his building-products company takes advantage of a loophole to avoid corporate taxes while he favors more taxes on the middle class.

One problem: the Wolf Organization, though it is chartered in Delaware, says it pays corporate taxes in Pennsylvania and the 27 other states where it does business. State law allows many corporations to avoid Pennsylvania tax by listing assets in Delaware, the so-called “Delaware Loophole.”

This is a pretty awkward line of attack for PA Republicans.

On the one hand, Republicans say they closed the Delaware Loophole. But if that were true, how come Corbett’s accusing the Wolf Organization of using it?

Republicans want to be able to use political attacks on tax avoidance, because it’s an unpopular thing, but they don’t actually want to close the Delaware Loophole with combined reporting.

It’s a strange dance, and it’s actually the reverse of the national party’s “don’t hate the player, hate the game” stance on international business tax avoidance.

Posted in Elections, Governor

Why Is This Guy Still Allowed to Buy Alcohol in Pennsylvania?

This asshole got arrested for drunkenly ramming his car into an SUV with a pregnant woman and kids inside. This is his second DUI.

Why should he still be allowed to buy alcohol in Pennsylvania? Shouldn’t we create a list of people like this, which alcohol sellers have to check IDs against, who can’t be sold alcohol?

Generalized Prohibition was a bad and unworkable idea, but it seems reasonably easy administratively to do personalized Prohibition for specific problem-drinkers. It’s far from 100% of the solution, but it seems like a pretty good idea. Especially if we could get multiple neighboring states to pass the policy and use the same registry.

And then the rest of us could stop getting treated like children or alcoholics by LCB’s alcohol regulations.

Posted in Health, Issues

Audit of DEP Finds Shocking Evidence of Republican Environmental Policy

The 146-page report, prepared by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, was sweeping in its criticism of the Department of Environmental Protection’s handling of gas-well inspections, and its failure to provide timely and thorough information to citizens between 2009 and 2012.

“The DEP was underfunded, understaffed, and inconsistent” in its regulation of Marcellus Shale well activity, DePasquale said at a news conference.

The allegations are damning, but is anyone remotely surprised that Tom Corbett’s administration did a shit job protecting the environment? You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that they were doing a shit job on purpose.

The less DEP enforcement there is, the more polluters get to offload the costs of their filth and garbage onto the public and make more money. That is what being a Republican is all about. This is what they do when you elect them.

Doesn’t anyone remember former Corbett DEP head Michael Krancer? That guy’s priors on natural gas regulation were interchangeable with a gas lobbyist’s.

(via Amy Worden)



Posted in Miscellany

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