What follows are my personal observations of the Budget Impasse in its connection to the Property Tax debate. Some of this comes from my role inside the process as a personal participant and observer, some of it comes from insider sources and some comes from conclusions I’ve drawn based on the first two points.
Make no mistake: The fight for School Property Tax Elimination has made a difference and that pressure put some of our legislators on the defensive. Failing to wear us down, failing to make us go away they resorted to the underhanded political process and ease of lack of Transparency in this state to weave a web of deception in their efforts to silence us. They want us to sit down, shut up and go home….and its not just legislators, their are lobbyists who feel the same way….the last thing they want is an engaged public who understands the issues well enough to see through the careful crafted and deceitful talking points.
Three weeks ago Ron Boltz and I met with Senator Corman’s office to express some concerns about his support for SB 76, School Property Tax Elimination. The Policy staff member indignantly looked at us and asked “What must the Senator do to prove that he supports elimination!” He cited articles in the press and other public comments.
At the time, what we didn’t know was that Senator Corman was already working with the Governor in budget negotiations, joining with the Governor to sabotage the funding mechanisms of SB 76.
For four years all efforts to wear down the grassroots coalition of support for School Property Tax Elimination had failed. The movement instead became stronger, more focused and determined. We pushed and pushed until finally we would have our bill voted on by the full body of the Senate.
It has often been stated that the school property tax elimination bills were the people’s bill. That’s true. HB and SB 76 started under the leadership of David Baldinger who put together a coalition of grassroots groups that spanned the political spectrum and all walks of life. They campaigned for the effort. They used public functions to spread the word, went door to door. They held Town Halls on a political issue that filled rooms.
Having been a part of this from its early days when there was just a handful of groups supporting, I watched as those efforts turned a handful of supporters into a network of over 80 groups across the state. Legislatively, during those first three years, we picked up legislative sponsors by engaging them in their offices and through contacting them for the need for this legislation.
Our opponents had talking points, we had facts. Our facts were supported through the various vetting efforts on the legislation including the Independent Fiscal Office.
During the three weeks before the vote and following the meeting with Senator Jake Corman’s Office, Ron and I attended other legislative meetings concerning the advancement of the legislation. During those meetings Senator Corman’s support, at least in words, never wavered but, unknown to us, it was all a ruse. Advancing the School Property Tax Elimination Bill was going to interfere with a carefully brokered behind the scenes scheme to push a budget plan that would increase the tax burden on working families across the state.
During this time period we knew we had the votes in the Senate. Then, one by one they began to peal away. We would later discover that they were targeted by lobbyist’s opposition and leadership in an attempt to cause the bill to fail. McGarrigle was the first to cave to the pressure. Having run on the issue and having released statements once elected that he was a supporter, even participating in the photo op, a little more than a week before the vote, after attending a breakfast with the Chamber Of Commerce (one of our opponents), McGarrigle had his name struck from the co-sponsors on the bill. Kim Ward followed.
Ward had been a supporter of the legislation from the day it was introduced. Now, after 4 years of supporting the effort, during the last week she withdrew that support to become one of the most vocal opponents of the legislation according to our sources in the caucus meetings.
As we all know, the vote was supposed to take place the week before. Minor technicalities were claimed that required a postponement of the vote. David, Ron and I were contacted about this and we received lengthy explanation of why this postponement was necessary. We were told that this would sure up the legislation making it more possible for success. We were told that came directly from Jake Corman’s office. We agreed to the postponement based on that information.
Looking back now, it was all a ruse in order to buy them more time to try and move supporters away from voting for the legislation.
At first we were told that the vote would take place the following Tuesday. We were also told that they wanted to keep this under wraps because we didn’t want to give our opponents a heads up. Then, on Monday, at 11:00, during an internal meeting with legislators where Dean Klopp, Ron Boltz, my wife and I attended we were told the vote would take place Monday night. As we sat in the meeting all of us smelled that something was wrong. It also became obvious that many of our legislators had supported the concept but never really studied the legislation as they raised questions about the bill based on misinformation used by opponents as talking points. They talked about the need for capping future education spending, which was in the bill. Other points addressed in the bill but misrepresented by our opponents, came out. Senators Folmer and Argall knew the mechanics but I wasn’t so sure about others in the room. Still, we had the votes, just barely, but we had the votes basedon what we we told in that room during that meeting.
We were told they were going to go to caucus and then there would be a vote. The attempts to keep this vote from lobbyist’s knowledge had failed (or did it, was it a ruse all along to have fewer SB 76 supporters there and far more lobbyists opposing it?) The Capitol Rotunda was filled with opposing lobbyists standing around like vultures waiting to pounce on prey.
Ron Boltz can attest to what I’m about to say but we spoke individually with lobbyists who told us they personally supported the legislation but the firm or organization they represented had taken an opposing position and that position is what they were paid to represent. When you hear things like that you begin to see how corrupt this process has become. These individuals would sit in hearings and testify against 76 using developed and rehearsed misrepresenting talking points when deep down inside they supported the legislation and they knew it worked. They were willing to lie for a paycheck.
One of those opposition talking points is that SB 76 didn’t actually eliminate the school property taxes. I remember during a Senate Hearing on the bill where I was asked to testify on behalf of SB 76, this issue was brought out during the testimony from American For Prosperity. The point was made by Rob Teplitz who knew full well that what he was saying was not true. AFP responded by saying that they would oppose the legislation based on that point. It was all absolutely not true.
After sitting through all the opposing testimony, testimony where the PSEA had a seat at the table as did Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and Keystone Research Center as though they are three separate organizations even though the PSEA controls all three), it was now my turn to speak. As I took my place at the table to make the case for the bill, the one voice of support for the legislation and a citizen’s voice at that, lobbyists and members of the Finance Committee left the room. They didn’t want to hear the truth about the legislation, or maybe it was just that they didn’t want to hear from someone who wasn’t being paid to have an opinion.
The day of the vote should have filled me with a nervous excitement but that wasn’t what I was feeling. I sensed a carefully orchestrated alliance to undermine the bill while feigning support. At this point in time I was still unaware that Corman had already negotiated a budget deal with the Governor and if SB 76 passed, that deal was off the table.While we were fighting to put money back into the pockets of working families in the Commonwealth, Corman was working with the Governor to develop new ways into our pockets with a budget deal that was to be described as the largest increase in education spending in the history of the Commonwealth.
I want to remind everyone that when the state traded in their Cadillac pension for a Roll-Royce pension package, it was sold to us all by assuring us the state would keep up their end of financial responsibility. Today we have a 47 billion dollar pension liability debt, in part because the state has NOT picked up their part of that tab. There was nothing in the legislation that required them to do so. With the massive expansion of education funding there is, once again, nothing in the legislation that will require that all this money will continue to come from the state so as school districts adjust their spending to accommodate the new increased budget and the state ignores their responsibility the money to keep these record levels of new spending will come to us through our property taxes. Just as it is with the pension debacle, their bad policy becomes the burden of the working families in this Commonwealth.
As I see it, Corman’s efforts and he efforts of others to kill 76 hadn’t worked. In spite of the orchestrated efforts to undermine it, in spite of working behind the scenes to strip votes; In order to kill the bill, Corman, after weeks of claiming to support the legislation, would have to vote no perhaps hoping as Chip Brightbill and Bob Jubelirer once hoped that all this “will just blow over”.
The vote was a tie and it required a tie-breaking vote which was exercised by the Lt Governor embracing that option. I was both curious and offended by the joy expressed when he cast that vote and in his turning to the person to his left and appearing to give them a high five. He acted like a giddy schoolgirl. But then again, at that point I wasn’t aware that Corman and the Governor had been orchestrating the massive spending package behind the scenes. Now it all makes sense.
We were five months in to the budget impasse. The news of the brokered budget deal slowly started to come forward over the next few day but one thing was certain. Every attempt was being made to keep details of that deal from both public and media scrutiny.
At the same time we discovered through vigilance by certain House Members that the lack of Transparency in Pennsylvanian Government allowed the Governor and his administration to tap into nearly 30 billion dollars in reserve funds to spread the tax payer’s wealth around. In the budget deals and hushed behind the door deals, I have to wonder how many of Jake Corman’s friends benefited from that as well. We’ll probably never really know because the way our government works. Doing the unethical is commonplace because laws have been created to make the unethical -the immoral- legal. We aren’t the 5th most corrupt political state for no reason at all and that figure is just based on legislators that get caught.
Pennsylvania is a leader in this nation in a political system that allows for legislators to dwell in the unethical and immoral and justify it all because its legal. The reason we are 5th in corruption is because of the ease of living in the unethical for so long that they don’t realize, or worse yet just don’t care, when they cross the line from the legal but unethical into the realm of the illegal. It is a careful reminder of our founders warning that the future success of our nation depended on the people in electing representatives of virtue. Yes, character DOES matter!
As far as the budget: On the night of December 6, a 249 page bill, the bill which included the details that the negotiators didn’t want the press or the public to know, popped up in Appropriations. It passed with only one no vote coming from Senator Wagner. Unless they had actually been a part of the budget deal, how could they have gone through this massive piece of legislation in such short order without a single analysis by the Independent Fiscal Office. That bill went in front of the full Senate the next morning at 11:00 where again, a bill that hadn’t been available for public and media scrutiny goes in front of he Senate and is passed with very little dialogue to the opposition. How is it possible that they read this bill unless they were part of the plot to keep this information out of public scrutiny?
That bill was the spending bill. The following day a bill would be voted on to define where the money would come from. Let that sink in for a little bit…..They passed the spending before they knew if they had the money to do all that spending. They passed the spending before they knew if the public was willing to accept the new levels of taxation needed to support the legislation. And then they call themselves OUR REPRESENTATIVES.
They’ve bent over backwards in keeping as much information from the public as possible to force their will on us all and that, my friends, is not representation….that is tyranny.
Throughout this process, we the people have been lied to, lied about and constantly misrepresented. Sure enough, there are some good legislators who are going to be implicated as being a part in this underhanded attempt to withhold information from the public in order to to burden the public harder. THERE IS NO NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT HAPPENED DURING THIS BUDGET IMPASSE AND WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE PENSION EXPANSION OR THE MIDNIGHT PAY RAISE.
This state needs a forensic audit of all the spending that took place at the state level while withholding money collected from taxpayers intended for local county, municipal and school district funding. How does a state spend 30 billion dollars in 6 months when 30 billion is the entire state budget for a year? Do you honestly mean to tell us and expect us to believe we have 30 billion dollars just lying around the Capitol to be used for whatever, whenever and then you tell us you need to raise our damned taxes to make ends meet?
If they truly wanted to represent you then you would be a part of this process. They wouldn’t be working to hide things from you, they would want you to know. If they truly wanted to represent you they wouldn’t lie to you on the campaign trail about the things they “passionately support: and then go to Harrisburg and not do a damned thing to advance the issue except participate in planned and orchestrated photo-ops. Then when it comes time to actually cast a vote, turn the opposite direct and vote against the legislation they told you they supported in order to win your vote.
Yes, the vote for School Property Tax Independence failed. That doesn’t mean the fight is over…far from it. It’s not over until we say its over.
Absolute failure only takes place if you fail to learn from the experience and we have learned much. Primarily in the process is that we have representatives who mislead their intentions to the public, deliberately withholding information the public needs in order to ram spending bills through that will hurt the average family in this state because you don’t matter to them. Yes, they talk the talk but when it comes time to walk the walk they deceive and betray the public while delivering speeches and talking points that would put most snake-oil salesmen to shame. Of course they’ll deny this….who would actually admit to it….but actions speak louder than words and its time to stop listening to them and start watching them because the majority of them are lying to us.
So what are you going to do about it all? Are you going to just sit back and take it, allowing allow them to continue to control you by making you think you can’t make a difference or are you going to take this to the ballot box. For some of you that means actually waging a campaign to defeat the seated incumbent, for others that means working in those campaigns to fight back against the slings and arrows that will come at them from the politically controlled county political committees.
Once elected are you willing to stay engaged to make sure the cronyism of the lobbyist machine doesn’t contaminate your newly elected representative. Once they get inside the Capitol those lobbyists will be pouncing on them daily as will other legislators who are still in place and playing the lobbyists cronyism game. They need you to help keep them rooted in reality and not in the delusional world of Corporate and public sector greed.
The kind of government we get is the kind of government we deserve because if you aren’t willing to become engaged and stay engaged, then you are part of the problem! You help forge the very chains of political slavery that they seek to use in binding you.