Harrisburg 'bipartisanship' hurts residents in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Budget
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.

I’ve always said that there is not enough Philadelphia media coverage of the legislature in Harrisburg. These representatives spend billions of tax dollars, write laws and regulations that affect all of us, and are paid a lot of money to do relatively little. Yet, they are not really on our local radar screen.

The local Philadelphia media gave little or no analysis of the big Pennsylvania Senate vote on the current budget, in which by a vote of 26-24, they voted to raise or impose new taxes on our gas, electric and phone bills. They voted to place a severance tax on natural-gas drillers. They voted to borrow hundreds of millions from future tobacco settlement revenue. Finally, they voted to strike a 78-year-old ban on selling fireworks and to place a new 12 percent tax on selling them, in addition to our current 6 percent sales tax on most items.

If this body were controlled by Democrats, I would see this as the normal course of business. Republicans control the state Senate, 34-16. That means Republicans could have passed a budget that would be veto-proof. Four Democrats voted against this budget. That means that 14 Republicans voted for it, thus betraying the promises they made to voters when they ran that they are the party of less government and lower taxes.

I like what Lowman Henry wrote on the Lincoln Institute website about what happened: “The sordid truth is that Harrisburg is not divided by political party dedicated first and foremost to political self-preservation putting up a united front against taxpayers and job creators.”

I agree with his theory that party leaders got together to determine who would vote in favor and who would vote against the bill. They gave political cover to Democrats in competitive districts by allowing them to vote against the taxes. He also wrote: “A few Republican Senators who actually favored the bill but who would face conservative primary challenges if they voted for higher taxes were given a ‘pass’ to vote against the plan. Those Republicans representing more moderate districts and less likely to face a serious primary challenge voted for the tax plan.” They are all win by attacking the taxpayer.

I believe that local Republican Sens. Tom Killion, Tom McGarrigle and John Rafferty, all of whom voted for the tax, were part of this cynicism.

In addition to this outrage, Republicans voted for something called the “First Chance Fund,” which is associated with this year’s budget. According to the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee, in a letter to the Republican leadership, “The idea of the First Chance Fund appears to be to pay scholarships for children of incarcerated parents by attaching a 1% surcharge on all large contracts procured with the Department of Corrections.”

These Republicans make the point that Democrats and some Republicans have been weak in passing restitution bills for victims of crime. They say, “We intuitively can understand the negative effect that the absence of a parent can have on a child. But while the absence of an incarcerated parent may be ‘compared to the death of a parent,’ we can also intuitively understand the actual death of a parent by homicide has no less deleterious effect on the blameless child of that victim.

“Taken to its logical conclusion, the First Chance Fund could result, for example, in the child of an inmate who murdered a police officer receiving a scholarship while the child of that police officer killed in the line of duty gets nothing.”

I’m told that this provision was necessary to get the votes of Democrats.

The bottom line with all this is that voters, particularly Republican voters, should be aware of what these representatives are doing in Harrisburg. Do they really believe we are undertaxed? Do they really believe public schools are underfunded? Do they really think they can sneak this First Chance Fund into law?

As Henry wrote in his piece, to these legislators, bipartisanship means working against citizens. This revenue plan was a cynical attempt to prop up all the incumbents in Harrisburg. I like his advice: “Remember that the next time you hear someone crying out for bi-partisan cooperation.”