Don’t expect much political change in 2015

Although new approaches seem badly needed, expect the ‘same old, same old’ this year

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

TimesPoliticsUnusualNew year, same old politics.

As 2015 dawns, even with new majorities in state and federal legislatures, as well as a brand new governor and a new county commissioner, things are arguably more the same than different.

In terms of the federal government, it’s not just the Republicans in Congress versus President Barack Obama, but interestingly, its the extreme left/right fringes of the Republican and Democratic parties fighting against their mainstream colleagues — and how much influence they ultimately wield — that could tell the story for 2015.

The bet here is that, at best, a few things get done at the fringes and neither side is able to muster enough votes to do anything meaningful. Bipartisan compromise? Maybe, but the numbers are going to be tough in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

More than likely, we’ll see a lot of stuff introduced and used more to raise campaign cash than to actually govern — typically built around “they’re going to take your guns away” or “they’re going to ban abortion” arguments intended to fire up the right or left base. Neither does much for actual governing, which leaves us increasingly with government by K Street (Washington D.C.’s home of lobbying firms) fiat.

Harrisburg? Its kind of like a scale model version of D.C. with extra dysfunction built in.

The state budget clearly has a structural budget deficit — and as neighboring states seem to be fairing better in terms of the economy, you have to wonder whether the GOP-controlled legislature’s apparent desire to double-down on the economic policies of recent years is such a great idea.

As one looks around the country, it appears that those states that embraced austerity, tax cuts and such — Kansas, Pennsylvania and so on — are swimming in red ink. Meanwhile, that “tax-and-spend” state everyone loves to abuse, California, is multiple billions of dollars in the black. They raised taxes on the wealthiest — and apparently, the not only did the Golden State not fall into the Pacific, and some suggested it would, its economy is thriving.

As folks on both the left and right seem to miss out in their full-throated arguments about tax policy, there’s a sweet spot for taxes — too low and a lack of government spending strangles the economy, too high and it strangles investment and innovation in the private sector.

A common sense middle ground — as was found in the 1990s — may not be sexy, but it sure seems to work.

Another issue continues to be a concern: too much money in the hands of too few. After an aggressive generation of wealth redistribution (not a whole lot ever seems to trickle down) — and a gutting of the middle class — most of the folks who have money don’t spend it.

Raising the minimum wage — as neighboring states are doing — would slightly help this and boost the economy, as virtually every dollar spent by employers would immediately go right back into the economy, boosting both economic activity and tax revenue for the state.

In constant dollars — and these numbers come from the Congressional Research Service — the current minimum wage is notably lower than it was in the period between 1950 and 1981, the period of the greatest growth of the middle class, peaking in 1968 when it was an adjusted $10.69.

A small boost in the state’s minimum wage, from $7.25 to $8 is warranted — as the minimum wage hasn’t changed in nearly five years. Better yet, would tying the minimum to an index — a bit like Act 1 does for public school tax increases — that reflects the state economy and cost of living.

With a moderate adjustment in the income tax and a handful of luxury sales taxes — a 2% surcharge on cars selling for more than $100,000, as an example — Pennsylvania could see both a spark in its economy as well as a real path to closing its structural deficit.

But…there’s zero chance of that happening.

Instead, we’ll see a fight over gas extraction taxes — likely to be a much smaller amount of funding now that the oil and gas markets are crashing — liquor privatization, which should have happened decades ago, school funding, and public pension solutions that do nothing to solve the immediate problem (and won’t for 30 years).

Awesome right?


* * *

If Attorney General Kathleen Kane was unpopular previously — the published reports that she leaked state Grand Jury information, which she denies, and now may face charges herself have made her pretty much radioactive.

Aside from any number of Republican County District Attorneys said to be looking  very closely at running for the post in 2016 (yes, even Chester County DA Tom Hogan, the whispers say), Kane might not even make it out of the Democratic primary if she survives in the job into next year: Northampton DA John Morganelli seems ready to run as well.

From everyone I’ve spoken to — and my own interactions with Kane were a few brief and unrevealing moments during the 2012 campaign — is that she’s not good at getting along with people, appears to have something of a thin skin and lacks subtlety when it comes to settling political scores.

If Kane quits — likely if Montgomery County DA Risa Ferman decides to bring charges — Gov. Tom Wolf will have to appoint a caretaker to the position, leading to something of a feeding frenzy for the post in 2016.


* * *

Meanwhile, there will be races here in the county in 2015.

Aside from a multitude of municipal and school board races, many of which will be both interesting and complicated, we have the county-wide slate for County Commissioner and row offices.

While the likely GOP slate for Commissioner is all but set — Terence Farrell and Michelle Kichline — and Kathi Cozzone seems primed to again run on the Democratic side, the lone mystery is who runs with Cozzone.

There are a handful of names being floated — West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta has been mentioned by insiders — but I wonder how attractive a run would be at this point. As Chesco Democrats really struggle to turn out voters in off-year elections, there’s almost a structural vote ceiling of about 42% for any county-wide candidate.

Even as the percentage of registered Democrats in the county has increased, that ceiling has held steady or even backslid since the mid-2000s when it appeared the party was starting to make real inroads. As a county commissioner race, at least running a truly competitive one, means raising more than $200,000 — that’s a tough ask for any prospective candidate.

Also, with 2016 looming, a year with likely very strong Democratic turnout, virtually any candidate would be better off waiting to run for State Representative. All of the heavy lifting of raising $200K would be rewarded by piggybacking on a likely Hillary Clinton GOTV organization, putting three to five state house seats, one or more Congressional seats and at least one state senate seat in play.

Unless someone who might be a prime candidate lives in an unwinnable district — it’s going to be a tough ask for a serious candidate.

* * *

I like Eric Arneson. He’s been outstanding as a go-to guy, in his role as chief spokesman for Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-9). He’s a pro and genuinely a good guy.

That having been said, I think Gov. Tom Corbett should have held off on naming him Executive Director of Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, yesterday, about an hour after Terry Mutchler, the first person to hold the job, resigned. Mutchler is joining the high-powered Philly lawfirm of Pepper Hamilton.

The whole thing seems a little, well, rushed, overtly partisan and just a bit off, coming 10 days before Corbett leaves office.

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