Spring brings out the senseless in politics

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May brings flowers and Silly Season, Part I

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

TimesPoliticsUnusualAh yes, it’s May. The blooms are on the trees, warm sunshine is here (that is when we don’t get washed away by five inches of rain), the birds are singing and Spring is in the air.

Oh, and the crazy is really ramped up in the political world. From the 158th state house district to Gov. Tom Corbett, the red mist has fully descended on political operatives, candidates and supporters, prompting them to rush right through the silly to the bizarre and, at times, incomprehensible.

Lets start with the big guy, Gov. Tom — who was in the area Wednesday for an alleged question and answer session with the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce, more on that down the page.

Corbett’s media minions were (possibly literally) frothing at the mouth with serious allegations of plagiarism by Democrat Tom Wolf for allegedly plagiarizing “A fresh start” from a fictional campaign on the TV show, House of Cards. No, seriously, this is actually what had many Corbett operatives’ respective undergarments in a tightly wadded bunch this week.

Let us, for the moment, forget how deeply and profoundly silly this is (or for that matter how deeply lame Wolf’s motto is — is Pennsylvania running out of political consultants with an IQ above 100?), this is not the smartest thing for Team Corbett to get all hot and bothered by.

Why? Because some obnoxious columnist might point out the governor and his pals in the legislature have a plagiarism problem of their own, and one that is arguably a bit more troubling. You may or may not have heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC, largely backed by conservatives and business interests, writes legislation and sends them off to legislators with the idea that they adopt them. That, in an of itself, is no big deal — a lot of organizations do this, it is a normal part of the legislative process, and one seen from small townships to every level of government — those “model” laws are usually just a starting point, they get reworked, tweaked, sometimes entirely rewritten and modified to match local needs

‘I will be elected as Rose Queen of the Tournament of Roses Parade before the state legislature adopts a 10% extraction tax.’

But here’s the problem: the Pennsylvania state legislature has on more than one occasion passed ALEC-written legislation with virtually no changes. A prime example: the VoterID law, which ended up being shot down by the state Supreme Court.

Corbett signed that law — tacitly, or worse — endorsing a lazy approach from one of the highest-paid legislatures in the nation. Whether it was a good law or a bad one (I tend toward thinking the latter), the issue to me is that our highly compensated legislators didn’t actually write it and the governor rubber-stamped that behavior.

So, to then rip on Wolf for using a bland, hackneyed campaign slogan that happened to be used by a TV campaign (and dozens and maybe hundreds of others) is more than a little hypocritical.

As for Corbett’s performance Wednesday, meh.

It didn’t help that he was given softball question after softball question by Sue Schick, the CEO of United Healthcare. Instead of the unrehearsed give and take — and dare I say it, passion — we saw from the governor earlier in the year at an event in Caln, Corbett had little to say beyond his normal stump speech: which is boiled down to “more jobs, less taxes.” Yawn.

A lot of questions were left unasked — first and foremost: would the governor have any flexibility on an a natural gas extraction tax as many of his fellow Republicans in the legislature are now calling for?

Although he alluded to the poor revenue numbers — likely meaning that the budget he presented in February would run a $1 billion deficit — he wasn’t exactly forthcoming on what cuts he would make, assuming any tax increase is off the table, to close the gap. If expected mild funding increases for school funding are replaced by cuts, a number of local school districts could be feeling the pain, and potentially, since they are required by law to finish their budgets before the state, could see budget deficits for the 2014-15 school year.

As the extraction tax continues to be an issue, and a clear differentiator in the fall election, it will be interesting to see how Corbett manages it.

Along the same lines, I’m not sure it is smart politics for Rob McCord to hammer his fellow Democrats for not supporting a 10% extraction tax. Even those with only a minimal memory of Pennsylvania politics know this: I will be elected as Rose Queen of the Tournament of Roses Parade before the state legislature adopts a 10% extraction tax. In other words, neither is ever going to happen. So, no, don’t ask me when I plan to shave my legs.

A bit of history: Gov. Ed Rendell and State Rep. Dwight Evans tried very, very hard to jam a 10% extraction tax through the legislature. As the kids say these days: “Epic fail.” While many GOP legislators would have gone for a tax in the 4 to 5% range, Evans and Rendell would not negotiate. At all. The result: no tax, just a variety of impact fees.

So, in the greatest tradition of primary candidates trailing by double digits, McCord is embracing this utterly failed and doomed strategy that will only appeal to the extreme left of the Democratic Party. While there seems to be enough public consensus that some sort of tax should be levied — and it seems likely a Democratic governor would be able to cobble enough votes to get a 4% tax passed — 10% makes it impossible for Republicans to support and tough for some Democrats in the legislature to back.

Desperate move? Yeah, a little.

Of course, this time of year doesn’t just bring out the worst in statewide candidates, but also those running for the state legislature.

Our local poster child? Note  the comments of Republican Roger Howard — battling Cuyler Walker for the GOP nomination for the 158th District State House seat — on the Race Horse Development Fund.

Howard, I think, misunderstands both how the fund works and public school funding program and how extra funds would be allocated.

Again, a history lesson. Way back in 2004, when I was running for State Representative, I was one of the few Democrats not waving the pom-poms and cheering for the slot machine bill, as advocated by Gov. Rendell. Aside from the fact that I thought — and said so at the time — the revenue estimates were wildly optimistic (numbers beyond what Atlantic City was bringing in at the time), I thought that the potential long-term damage to the horse racing industry would be extensive, if not fatal. And as horse breeding and racing was and is kind of important to the state’s economy and even more important to the local Chester County economy, I was worried about the long-term impact of the bill. I’ll also note: without the RHDF, there wouldn’t be a horse racing or breeding industry left in this state and thousands of jobs would have been lost — and a scary amount of revenue would be missing from an already broke treasury.

Without that money, the entire industry is placed at peril — and a ripple effect, from feed stores, to carpenters would see financial hits. It’s not hard to see that the impact on the state’s economy would be large — it would hit local property values and school tax revenue, as well as state revenue from a $4 billion industry in the state, with a much larger price tag that the roughly $250 million expected to be paid out to horsemen.

Second, slots revenue is declining, so this is, at best, a questionable revenue stream to begin with.

Third, Howard’s funding number for the individual districts is wildly optimistic, based on the total number of districts that would qualify under the plan he supports — 211 school districts — and doesn’t account for the basic education subsidies (not to mention the hit in local real estate tax revenue) that would likely have to be reduced, because of the drop in net tax income to the state. A minor side effect: more than 300 school districts that get more than 35% of funding from the state would likely see overall declines in funding — hitting the commonwealth’s most struggling districts harder.

Frankly, I don’t understand why Howard picked this “hill to die on” — with the strong influence of the horse community in the 158th, this is the political equivalent of dousing ones self with gasoline and standing at the intersection of Routes 926 and 82.

Why not, instead, rail with some justification about how QVC got more than $8 million in “film” tax breaks? There’s a government subsidy that clearly doesn’t pass the smell test — and one where Howard might have gotten traction rather than derision.

There probably a dozen state subsidy programs — totaling more than a billion dollars — that deserve scrutiny, so why Howard picked this one is beyond me.

Whatever the reasons, like McCord’s stance on gas extraction, this policy statement doesn’t appear to be moving the voters.

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