Friday, July 31, 2015

Report Finds Room for Budget Compromise in Tax Relief Plans

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service

PHOTO: A new report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center finds the tax-relief plans of House Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf are a good starting point for budget compromise. Photo by Stephanie Frank.
PHOTO: A new report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center finds the tax-relief plans of House Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf are a good starting point for budget compromise. Photo by Stephanie Frank.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - It's been a month of budget gridlock in Pennsylvania after Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the Republican Legislature's spending plan, claiming it is unbalanced and would lead to a $3 billion deficit. However, a new report finds common ground for compromise in the tax-relief plans proposed by House Republicans and the governor.

Economist Stephen Herzenberg, co-author of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center report, said a lot of overlap exists between the two plans on property-tax reform.

"Many places get a similar reduction in property taxes under each plan," he said, "and those reductions in property taxes are paid for in similar ways, with an identical personal income-tax increase and a similar increase in the sales tax."

Wolf vetoed the budget in part because he said it drastically underfunds the state's schools.

Herzenberg said a detailed, side-by-side comparison of the two tax relief plans makes the governor's proposal look "surprisingly good" in many areas of the state represented by Republicans who champion lower property taxes. He said "128 of 238 rural school districts in Pennsylvania do better under the governor's plan - more property tax relief for homeowners under the governor's plan."

Herzenberg acknowledged that Wolf's plan would distribute less in total tax relief than would the House plan - about $3.8 billion compared with around $4.8 billion. Still, he said, hat's a good starting point.

"Reform on property taxes is not a panacea," he said. "It doesn't solve the whole budget challenge by itself, but it would be a huge step forward."

The report is online at pennbpc.org.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Food Report: Hunger on Rise in Philadelphia

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service

PHOTO: A new report on hunger in the Philadelphia area finds that emergency food providers are challenged to keep up with the growing demand. Photo by Greg Stotelmyer.
PHOTO: A new report on hunger in the Philadelphia area finds that emergency food providers are challenged to keep up with the growing demand. Photo by Greg Stotelmyer.
PHILADELPHIA - Over the past year in Philadelphia one in four people faced times when he or she did not know where to find a next meal.

Tom Mahon, communications manager with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, says that's one of the findings from the organization's survey of the region's 700 emergency food providers.

The report also discovered nine out of every 10 providers either ran out of food, or had to provide less to those in need, at some point during the past 12 months.

"That's startling," says Mahon. "It just reinforced to us that we really can't rely solely on food pantries and soup kitchens, and other charitable organizations, to bring an end to hunger in our region."

Mahon says the report illustrates that while food pantries and soup kitchens are the last line of defense, they can't always meet the need, a need that is growing.

The coalition found 58 percent of the feeding programs sees more people now than a year ago, while another 34 percent reports a steady demand. Mahon says less than five percent reports a drop in the need.

"All you hear about mostly now is how the country as a whole is rebounding and we're kind of getting back on track to where we were pre-recession," he says. "It might be the case for some but for the folks that are in need, in desperate need of food assistance, it actually seems to be getting worse."

Mahon says the survey found a lack of food donations was a major barrier for three out of every five feeding programs.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

New Medicaid Research Shows Long-Term Benefits for Pennsylvania Kids

Dan Heyman, Public News Service 

GRAPHIC: As Medicaid turns 50 years old this week, many are praising its impact on Pennsylvania children and families. Research from several studies indicates that kids who get services from Medicaid do better with health, school and employment throughout their lives. Graphic courtesy Center on Budget Policies and Priorities.
GRAPHIC: As Medicaid turns 50 years old this week, many are praising its impact on Pennsylvania children and families. Research from several studies indicates that kids who get services from Medicaid do better with health, school and employment throughout their lives. Graphic courtesy Center on Budget Policies and Priorities.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Medicaid turns 50 years old this week, and the impact it's had on the lives of children in Pennsylvania and around the nation is being praised, both by advocates and academics.

Nearly half of Pennsylvania's children receive services though the healthcare program, created primarily for poor families and those with disabilities. Joan Alker, executive director with theGeorgetown University Center for Children and Families, is part of a coalition that has researched how kids helped by Medicaid do later in life – and she says it makes a profound difference.

"A dramatically lower incidence of high blood pressure," she says. "Also, kids had higher rates of graduating from college, less dropping out of high school and a greater chance of having higher incomes than their parents."

States receive federal funding under Medicaid and decide how to best use it, within certain guidelines. Critics in Congress and the Legislature have tried to limit Medicaid, or reduce its funding as a cost-cutting measure.

Michael Race with the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children says some of the good from the program is all but invisible. He says parents of children receiving Medicaid benefits are more productive and miss less work, because with healthier children parents worry less and have to stay home with a sick child less often. He says Pennsylvania kids also enjoy the same kind of long-term benefits described in the Georgetown study.

"That affects the overall well-being of that child in ways far beyond a doctor's office," says Race. "If you have a child who is physically and emotionally healthy, you've basically got the framework for a good, productive, high-quality life."

After five decades, children's advocates say Medicaid has been such a cornerstone for Pennsylvania families it's hard to imagine not having it. While it won't change coverage requirements for children, Pennsylvania did take advantage of an option under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to cover working poor families up to one-and-one-third times the poverty rate.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Toomey Apparently Fails to Press McConnell on Timing for Restrepo Vote

The following is re-posted with permission from People for the American Way Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, originally posted on their "People For Blog" on Thursday, July 14 2015.

Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee last week, but Senate Majority Leader McConnell is expected to delay a confirmation vote unless Senator Pat Toomey intervenes on behalf of a nominee he says he supports.  Consistent with how Democrats in the Senate treated George W. Bush’s Third Circuit nominee from Pennsylvania in 2007, when Thomas Hardiman was confirmed just one week after his committee vote, Toomey ought to be pushing McConnell for a vote this month, before the August recess.

Toomey and McConnell are apparently trying to make Pennsylvanians think Toomey is doing that, but they have not actually stated anything of the sort.  Keep in mind that the key item Toomey is being asked to address is timing, with a vote this month.  Pennsylvania newspaper The Legal Intelligencer reports:

Toomey's spokeswoman, E.R. Anderson, said the senator has already approached McConnell.
“Sen. Toomey supports the nomination of Judge Restrepo for the Third Circuit,” Anderson said in an email to The Legal. “As part of his efforts on this issue, the senator has spoken directly with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to emphasize the importance of getting Judge Restrepo confirmed.”

Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said that while a date for the vote has not yet been scheduled, “Sen. Toomey has been calling us, so it's on the leader's radar.”

Note that Toomey and McConnell omit any mention of timing.  Did Toomey ask for a prompt confirmation vote?  Did he urge McConnell to let the Senate vote this month?  Did he mention the precedent of confirming Judge Hardiman in 2007 just one week after he was approved by the Judiciary Committee?

Considering that timing is the crux of the issue, it is interesting that Toomey and McConnell’s characterizations of their communication both omit any mention of timing.

So will McConnell allow a vote this month?  If Toomey chooses not to press for a July vote, he’ll certainly be making deliberate delay by McConnell much easier.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

With Toomey's Help, Senate Could Confirm Restrepo Quickly

The following is re-posted with permission from People for the American Way Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, originally posted on their "People For Blog" on Thursday, July 9 2015. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee just held a long overdue vote on Third Circuit nominee Phil Restrepo of Pennsylvania.  To no one’s surprise, he has the committee’s unanimous support.  His nomination now moves to the Senate floor, where it is up to Mitch McConnell to schedule a confirmation vote.

So let’s review some of the reasons McConnell should let the Senate vote to confirm him quickly:
  • The vacancy Restrepo would fill has been designated a judicial emergency.
  • There’s a second vacancy on the same court, adding to the strain on the serving judges, as well as the parties before them.
  • Restrepo has the bipartisan support of his home state senators.
  • He has been vetted and approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee.
  • The vacancy Restrepo would fill has been open for more than two years already.
  • He was nominated eight months ago, way back in November of last year.
  • The Senate needs to make up for lost time, since committee chairman Chuck Grassley refused to even hold a hearing for Restrepo until seven months after the nomination.  (Senator Pat Toomey’s collaboration with Grassley by withholding his “blue slip” made that delay possible.)
  • Restrepo would expand experiential diversity on the Third Circuit, becoming the first judge on that court to have experience as a public defender.
  • He’d be the first Latino from Pennsylvania on the Third Circuit.
  • Everyone on the ABA panel that looked at his qualifications agreed that he was qualified.  In fact, a substantial majority of the panel said he was “well qualified,” which is the highest rating.
 Now let’s look at the reasons McConnell might have for refusing to hold a timely confirmation vote:
  • The nominating president is a Democrat.
  • The nominating president is a Democrat.
  • The nominating president is a Democrat.
It’s pretty clear that the reasons for a quick confirmation vote are a lot better than the reasons for delay.  But given McConnell’s appetite for obstruction, it’s equally clear that he is more likely to choose needless delay.
The person best positioned to help Restrepo is McConnell’s fellow Republican, Senator Toomey.  As noted above, despite his public statements praising Restrepo, Toomey collaborated with Grassley when the committee chair was looking for a way to delay the nominee’s hearing.  Appropriately enough, Toomey got slammed in the Pennsylvania press for this until he finally relented.

Then when faced with the knowledge that the committee would needlessly delay its vote by at least two weeks unless he intervened with Grassley, Toomey not only did nothing, he offered an amazingly lame explanation for his refusal to stand up for Restrepo.

It makes you wonder just how much Toomey’s statements of support are worth.

Toomey can do better.  He can talk to McConnell, who has every reason to be responsive to members of his caucus.  And while Toomey’s talking about the needs of Pennsylvanians, he can also remind McConnell how the Democratic-controlled Senate treated George W. Bush’s Third Circuit nominee from Pennsylvania in his last two years.

Like Restrepo, nominee Thomas Hardiman was a district court judge; he had been nominated to the federal bench by Bush earlier in the president’s term.  Like Restrepo, Hardiman was nominated to fill a judicial emergency.  And like Restrepo, Hardiman had the unanimous support of the Judiciary Committee.

And in March of 2007, then-Majority Leader Reid scheduled a confirmation vote just one week after the committee vote.

So is a confirmation vote for Restrepo this month too much to ask?  Perhaps the question is whether it’s too much for Pat Toomey to ask.

Pennsylvania Farms Crucial to Chesapeake Bay Health

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)
PHOTO: A federal court decision this week has cleared the way for what conservationists say needs to happen to clean up Pennsylvania waterways and tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, particularly by reducing polluted runoff from farms. Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
PHOTO: A federal court decision this week has cleared the way for what conservationists say needs to happen to clean up Pennsylvania waterways and tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, particularly by reducing polluted runoff from farms. Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)Foundation.

HARRISBURG, Pa. – A federal court victory has cleared the way for what conservationists say needs to happen on Pennsylvania farms to help meet the goals of a Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.

A federal appeals court ruling this week reaffirmed the legality of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, which spans six states and the District of Columbia.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation president Will Baker says the current bay blueprint plan offers "real hope" for a healthier bay, along with potential economic benefits of $22 billion per year – but he says the state is far behind where it needs to be in cleaning up farm runoff.

"The focus needs to be on agriculture, and needs to be on Pennsylvania," he says. "If not, the entire program could fail once again."

Baker says the good news is farms can reduce their pollution inexpensively, and will benefit from doing so. National farm and developer lobbying groups have sued to stop the federal and multi-state coordination, describing it as a pattern for over-regulation.

With Pennsylvania's cleanup plans lagging, Baker says the best way to catch up is to deal with farm runoff – fertilizer and livestock waste – and federal and state assistance is available to make that happen. He says adding fences, trees and buffers to protect streams, and reducing fertilizer use, makes sense for farmers.

"If you're applying less fertilizer and getting the same return, that's going to be good for water quality, good for the quality of your well water, and it's going to be good for your bottom line," he says.

If Pennsylvania doesn't make enough headway to reduce farm runoff, Baker says the federal government may have little choice but to impose more stringent rules on municipal wastewater treatment – a move he says would be unpopular and expensive for taxpayers.

He adds that Governor Tom Wolf has, so far, said he can't make an important bay cleanup meeting in Washington at the end of the month.

"We think it's especially important for Governor Wolf to be there, because Pennsylvania is the one state that is behind," says Baker. "We hope he can make time in his schedule."

Baker notes that half of the bay's water comes from the Susquehanna River watershed.

Monday, July 6, 2015

What's Likely to Occur in Pennsylvania Budget Standoff?

 Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: With Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Republicans far apart on matters like education funding, one economic analyst says the GOP appears to be using a budget crisis they helped create to push for sweeping changes. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania House Archives.
PHOTO: With Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Republicans far apart on matters like education funding, one economic analyst says the GOP appears to be using a budget crisis they helped create to push for sweeping changes. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania House Archives.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Analysts predict Pennsylvania's budget standoff will be short and not too damaging – but they warn that could change if either side holds out for extreme ideological positions.

Economist Mark Price, research director at thePennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, says Gov. Tom Wolf's budget and the Republican legislative plans he vetoed are far apart on paper – but he expects the two sides will take a serious approach to negotiating a deal this week.

Price says after deep cuts to public education over the last four years, some steps look like common sense to much of the public.

"There is a strong likelihood it'll be resolved quickly, and it'll be resolved in a way that'll lead to more education funding," he says. "It will likely include a drilling tax to help fund that. The other changes are much more uncertain."

Unlike most gas-producing states, Pennsylvania does not have a gas severance tax. Legislative Republicans have criticized the governor for trying to impose a new tax on a growing industry.

GOP leaders have also said they won't pass a budget that doesn't privatize the under-funded public employee pension system, and they are pushing to sell off state-owned liquor stores.

In Price's view, Republicans appear to be using a budget crisis they helped create to push for big changes they couldn't get with the last governor – even though he was also a Republican. Price says the two sides risk a damaging government shutdown, but he says they'll probably back away from the brink.

"In the short run, the disruption from this kind of disagreement should be fairly small and not important," he says. "Although they should've taken care of this earlier. The question is how long it's going to take the governor and the Republicans to come to some sort of agreement."

The governor has called for a $1 billion in new school funding. The Republican budget includes an $8 million increase. Price adds it also uses a number of one-time accounting measures that would help close the deficit for one year, but make it worse in the future. For his part, Gov. Wolf also wants property tax relief, something the GOP has called for in the past.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Groups Want Congress to Stop Net Neutrality "Sneak Attack"

Dan Heyman, Public News Service 

PHOTO: More than 60 organizations have sent a letter calling on Congress to remove a rider in its budget bill they claim would block the FCC from implementing net neutrality rules. Photo credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr Commons.
PHOTO: More than 60 organizations have sent a letter calling on Congress to remove a rider in its budget bill they claim would block the FCC from implementing net neutrality rules. Photo credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr Commons.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - More than 60 civil-rights and public-interest groups have sent a letter urging Congress to protect the Federal Communications Commission's decision to keep the Internet open.

They're protesting a rider attached to a must-pass government funding package. Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy, is with the group Free Press. He says the provisions, buried inside a spending bill that's 150-pages long, would cut funding the Federal Communication Commission needs to enforce net neutrality rules.

"This is one of the more sneaky ways to do it, is to actually slip a couple lines of language into a budget appropriations bill," says Karr.

Advocates claim that by eliminating the FCC's ability to protect net neutrality, the appropriations bill would have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights and the economy. The American Library Association, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation were among the groups sending the letter.

In February the FCC responded to nearly four million public comments when it decided to protect the openness of the Internet - no fast lanes for corporations and slow lanes for average citizens. Karr says since the ruling, an entrenched phone and cable lobby has worked to punish the FCC in the courts and now in Congress.

"The public, on the issue of net neutrality, has been overwhelmingly in favor of open Internet protections," says Karr. "So we're seeing the backlash of that decision."

Karr adds that the funding package is inching closer to a vote before the full House, but there's still time for members to remove the provision.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Study: Raising Pennsylvania's Minimum Wage Shouldn't Hurt Employment

Dan Heyman, Public News Service 

GRAPHIC: New research from the Economic Policy Institute indicates raising the minimum wage will not slow employment. Federal figures show the minimum wage has not kept up with workers' education levels or with inflation. Graphic courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute.
GRAPHIC: New research from the Economic Policy Institute indicates raising the minimum wage will not slow employment. Federal figures show the minimum wage has not kept up with workers' education levels or with inflation. Graphic courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed raising Pennsylvania's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and new economic research suggests that shouldn't hurt employment.

Critics of increasing low-end pay say it prices some workers out of the job market.

David Cooper, a senior economic analyst with theEconomic Policy Institute, says that used to be the standard thinking among economists, but a lot of recent studies have compared employment in one location that raises the minimum with a neighbor that doesn't.

Cooper says to their surprise, economists found very little difference in job numbers.

"Given the research, any effect on employment that would happen from these increases that we're seeing right now, it's going to be very small, whether it's positive or negative," he states.

Wolf's proposal would also index the minimum to inflation, so it would keep pace with the cost of living.

Cooper says one study looked at 600 pairs of counties along state borders, and the higher minimum didn't cause significant job losses. He says researchers found that with the higher wages, employers are getting lower turnover and higher productivity, more than enough to make up for the cost of the higher pay.

And he says many minimum-wage employers are in businesses that see higher consumer demand when low-income families have more money.

"That means there's more customers coming through the door, in the retail sector in particular and in fast food,” he explains. “Presumably, a lot of those workers go out and shop in retail and buy fast food."

Cooper says the federal minimum wage hasn't been raised in years. He says since Pennsylvania still uses the federal minimum, that suggests Wolf's proposal shouldn't cause problems.

"Just strictly in purchasing-power terms, we could have a minimum wage of at least $10 an hour, or $10.10, as was talked about in Pennsylvania, and we would be no higher than we were 50 years ago," he stresses.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If Judiciary Committee Delays Restrepo Vote, Blame Pat Toomey

The following is re-posted with permission from People for the American Way Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, originally posted on their "People For Blog" on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.  

The Judiciary Committee has announced that it will hold an executive meeting this Thursday morning, and a vote on Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo is on the agenda.
But with very, very few exceptions, President Obama’s judicial nominees have learned that being scheduled for a committee vote is not a guarantee that the vote will happen.  In fact, once Obama became president, Republicans exercised the right of the minority party to have a committee vote “held over” (delayed) by at least a week without cause in all but 12 instances for President Obama’s judicial nominees, which is an unprecedented abuse of the rules.  They have continued this practice as the majority party.
Yet there have been exceptions.  For instance, the nominee to replace Arizona’s murdered Judge Roll did not have her committee vote needlessly held over.  Nor did six Arizona nominees up for a vote on the same day last year at a time when that state was facing a judicial emergency.  In those cases, the state’s senators were willing to ask their fellow Republicans not to hold up vitally important committee votes.  Politics and partisanship took a back seat on those days.
There surely isn’t any doubt about the need to fill the Third Circuit vacancy as soon as possible.  It has been formally designated a judicial emergency by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, meaning there just aren’t enough judges to handle the caseload.
Plus there’s a ticking clock: On July 1, Judge Marjorie Rendell will be taking senior status, thus creating yet another vacancy on a court that isn’t effectively handling the first one.  As for Restrepo himself, he has the strong support of his home state senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey.
With the Senate out next week for its Independence Day recess, holding the vote over will delay it by at least two weeks, to July 9.  Why should Judge Restrepo’s committee vote be delayed for two weeks?
This is an opportunity for Pat Toomey to show leadership.  He can – and should – push for a committee vote this week.  If he has any influence among his colleagues, they will listen to him.
Pat Toomey says he supports this nomination.  His words have been wonderful.  But now is the time for deeds, not words.