Category Archives: PA Politics

Don’t Let PA House’s Ghost Vote Scandal Fade with 2015

FraudAlert

 Only Vigilance will Bring Results

 

A little over a week ago, as the GOP dominated Pennsylvania House was wrangling over what to do to achieve an almost six month late budget freshman Democratic Governor Tom Wolf might finally sign, a move was made to revert to a budget approved by the also GOP controlled Senate, known as the “framework”.  That general fund budget included $30.8 billion in spending, along with marginal pension and liquor reform, but not the tax increases necessary to pay for it.

Nonetheless, having given up on a move to send the Governor a stopgap emergency budget that he promised to veto, an attempt was made in the House to set the Senate bill up for a vote.  When it was approved by just one vote 100-99, someone told Rep Daryl Metcalfe that one of the yes votes was cast by Rep Peter Daley, who was not on the floor.

On a subsequent motion to reconsider, Rep Metcalfe, a Republican, observed Democratic Rep Mike Schlossberg pushing the voting button of Rep Daley.  This prompted Metcalfe to inform the Speaker, who ordered all members to be in their seats for further votes.

Very quickly the word got out, with tweets claiming “ghost voting” and suggesting that for Schlossberg it’s one man, two votes.  Several media outlets reported on the ghost voting.  At no point, on social media, did anyone defend what most saw as shocking, immoral, dishonest behavior.

As it turns out, a total of three votes were cast for members not present in the hall of the house as the rules require.  In the case of Democratic Rep Leslie Acosta, she was reported to be in Nicaragua.  Republican Rep John Maher claimed he was just steps away due to business in his capitol office, and had his vote cast for him as a courtesy.

The following day I was in the capitol.  Being an occasional visitor, in talking to several trusted friends who are there much more often, in a short period of time I heard some very revealing stories about ghost voting.

First, they all agreed that ghost voting is not a rare event but common practice!  It’s one of those things where, in spite of a rule against it, everyone looks the other way.

Beyond this revelation that would shock the average citizen, who would likely question the practice as a serious breach of the public trust, I was told of a practice where legislators sometimes rig their voting devices with pennies to cast a vote for them when off the floor.  Then sometimes they forget to remove them!  If this doesn’t sound like high school, it gets worse!

On the Senate side the rules allow voting for an absent member, but only when on either capitol leave for business within a 10 mile radius of the capitol, or legislative leave, for business within their home district.  I imagine an example of capitol leave may include appearing at Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico’s office to be charged with a crime.

Even so, when Senate votes are cast for a member on appropriate leave, they are required to be cast by the floor leader of that member’s party and no one else.  Yet as I was told, sometimes the leave type is changed for a member prior to a vote to make it legit.  One known story that goes around is of a Senate member tweeting pictures of himself from an Atlantic Ocean beach while on legislative leave, and yes, having a vote cast on his behalf!

Rep Metcalfe has called for a House Ethics Committee investigation.  He also wants to see house rules changed so members could move to invalidate votes where rules have been broken.  While this makes sense, the Senate likewise should take a look at its rules regarding voting.

If there’s good news in all of this, it’s that someone got caught in the act where the outcome of a vote was possibly affected, and the practice has become publicly known.  It presents a real opportunity to clamp down on behavior that no one has tried to defend, making reform in short order a likely possibility, if (and here’s the if) the issue is not allowed to fade from the public discourse.

Make no mistake.  Everyone wants this incident to be behind them.  A representative of House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody’s office told me today that House leaders from both parties have discussed the ghost voting issue over the past week.  Being the type of thing that can quickly fade from people’s minds, silence can quickly open the door to do nothing, allowing continuance in a comfort zone of corruption.  Constant reminders from an aware public, on the other hand, will likely result in quick action.  On this one, ordinary citizens hold an unusual amount of power.

 

 

Solving PA’s School Property Tax Problem – a Radical Departure From Relief or Elimination Schemes

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Seeking Simplicity & Fairness that’s Self Regulating & Self Limiting

 

Pennsylvania has been kicking around various ideas to either provide relief from or totally eliminate local school property taxes for nearly 40 years.  SB/HB 76 is the current legislation that, while potentially close to passage as the result of unrelenting textbook grassroots support over many years, falls short on several accounts.  In what follows I’ll attempt to explain and offer an alternative.

Funding schemes have created wild distortions in the ratio of local to state funding obligation across our 500 school districts, aided significantly by a hold harmless provision, whereby districts in attendance decline cannot have their state funding cut back.  District obligation of funding ranges from less than 40% to over 80%.  Spending per student is wildly disparate also, ranging 3 times, from about $10,000 to about $30,000.  Some districts run a tight ship while others simply spend too much.  The number of districts itself cannot help but create areas of advantageous and very difficult tax bases, from which to derive sufficient funds locally.

The impact of the local obligation thus varies considerably across the state for different reasons.  Generally, citizens who have benefited by hold harmless are not complaining.  Others in high growth areas or that have overspent, reside within a challenging tax base, or for whatever reason,  have faced school property tax hikes that have far outstripped inflation.  In the most extreme examples monthly school property tax obligation exceeds the mortgage payment, and homes have become hard to sell while falling in value as demand has been driven away.

Some people have been forced to sell to avoid foreclosure and others driven into it by inability to pay surging property taxes.  It is this extreme, down to where it doesn’t hurt so much, that has driven a powerful, centrally led, unusually well organized, grassroots push to totally eliminate the school property tax.

Sadly, the fervor of the school property tax elimination movement, has crowded out serious discussion of alternatives or sufficient questioning of what could go wrong, to the point that individuals and groups in opposition have mostly maintained that position quietly, to not offend those they normally find allies on liberty and limited government issues.  Departures have even been met with threats and ridicule on occasion.  What follows will risk that wrath.

So what are my objections to and problems with this popular legislation?

First, the problem has not been accurately defined.  All areas of the state don’t favor the huge tax shift that would be necessary with 76.  They’re satisfied with the status quo, suggesting the property tax is secondary to the undeniable problem of the amount of the school property tax in some areas.  There appears to be an amount of school property taxation below which it’s not worth making a fuss.

Make no mistake.  Any substantial tax on real estate has problems, chiefly that it’s difficult to apply fairly, but goes beyond that.  While real estate is no more property than the money in a paycheck exchanged for labor,  or the money withheld from a paycheck (that makes us treat it too lightly),  it represents accumulated wealth, income that’s survived ongoing expenses, wealth that has been purposed by choice, often is near term illiquid, and has uniquely acquired sentimental value over time.  Then that same wealth, apart from any current ability to pay, is repeatedly taxed over and over again.

It’s a form of wealth that is not regularly priced to market as stocks or bonds.  Its value and revaluation by costly reassessment is an educated guess beyond its last known sale price at market.  Some people regularly challenge assessments and others regularly evade permits when making improvements, adding to the unfairness in application.  Yet local taxing authorities rely on the relative stability of the property tax in fluctuating economic conditions, to ease budgeting.

Another problem with the local school property tax elimination scheme is its shift of all funding to the state.  On many occasions I’ve asked local elimination  supporters if they would favor shifting all school funding to the Federal level.  I’ve never gotten one expression of agreement.  They know control would go to the source of the funding, yet are so frustrated with high and rising school taxes they are willing to let the state take over all funding, risking any impositions it may bring.

They make the argument that local districts no longer maintain local control anyway, due to various state and federal mandates.  When I see my local board discuss whether to field a football team, the need to replace the turf, build a new running track, repair a building, sell a building, build a building, decide what instructional materials to use or how much to pay employees, I know this is not true.  I expect there would be less happiness after passing 76, when the state announces all will use the same books and instructional materials because they can make a bulk purchase or that one union contract and pay scale will apply to all districts, just as the pension agreement.

By the promise of 76 to replace all current property tax revenue dollar for dollar, then strictly limit spending increases, by allowing exceptions by local EIT or PIT application, only for specific purposes, for a defined length of time, after approval by no exception referenda, the law seems to place an unfair burden on those who have been most frugal and favor the spendthrifts.  As unexpected needs arise the wasteful, at least for some time, will have more wiggle room to make cuts and diversions.  Call it an odd blessing of wastefulness.

With each district knowing how much funding they will have available without having to ask the taxpayers for more, there will be a force to contain but not cut spending.  The motivation may more likely be to make sure every penny is spent so no one suggests sending less state funding in the future.

While 76 supporters suppose a great benefit in stripping local elected officials of their taxing authority by bumping the state PIT from 3.07% to 4.34%, while calling a 41% hike modest, and the SUT from 6% to 7% over more goods and services, then shielding those revenues in a lock box, and setting limits on yearly increases, they trust state elected officials to leave everything alone down the road.  Future officials could jack up the PIT and SUT, raid the lock box, obliterate the ban on the local school property tax itself, or impose a property tax from the state level.  There should either be promise of something wonderful for the risk, or the much higher hurdle of constitutional amendments.

Supporters’ belief and claims that the tax money shift would magically cause an economic boom should be approached with extreme skepticism.  Almost the same amount of money is removed from Pennsylvania’s private sector economy.  A free ride would exist but would be small, from non citizens paying the increases in the SUT while visiting or passing through.

There are winners and losers.  Accepting claims property values would jump 10% or more is good for people who own property, or realtors’ commissions, but it heightens the barrier for young people saving for a down payment, after being impacted by a 41% hike in the tax on their income and paying higher taxes when they make purchases.  Big winners are retired people whose spending needs are less and face no state tax on pension income.

We should have been curious along the way, why professional conservative organizations have never been more than neutral with their positions on 76.  If there was confidence 76 would yield the economic boom predicted, based on sound academic study produced by their extensive research staffs, it’s hard to believe organizations like Americans for Prosperity, Commonwealth Foundation, NFIB, or the PA Manufacturers Association would not have been solidly in support.

76 is not without risks and even supporters admit it is not perfect legislation.  The amount of the tax shift to replace all money raised by local property taxes now is close to $14 billion.

One nagging question remains.  Why do liberty minded, limited government types, especially at the forefront of promoting 76, on this one issue, submit to entrusting government at a higher level, more distant from the people?

So, if not 76, then what?

To start, I agree with 76 supporters that any scheme to offer school property tax relief without total elimination risks return of even higher taxes locally and overall in the future.  Further the distortions caused by hold harmless need to be eliminated by whatever change is made to the current system, and if not done at once, likely will remain forever.

Assuming the core local funding (apart from spending) problem really lies in the ratio of state to local funding responsibility, with the property tax itself a secondary but important issue, the first step should be to more equally distribute state to local funding by defining the ratio.

The local districts, for their part, would be free to spend whatever and however they see fit.  But if districts completely control spending, and the state commits to a defined funding obligation, isn’t that crazy?  It certainly could be.

To avoid that obvious hazard, districts should be empowered with a moveable state to local funding ratio they can control, to or against their favor, depending on how much they actually spend per student relative to their peers.  While they are free to spend as much as they want, as spending per student rises relative to other districts, funding for that portion of spending shifts rapidly and heavily to local responsibility.  Heavy spenders could not expect to impose their largess on others.  This would force attention to the margins of local spending choices, by a realization that each district is in competition with others to not just contain but reduce spending and become more efficient.  Its integrity could only be confounded by the improbable collusion of all 500 districts with each other.

I’ll note here that this proposal will require some small immediate tax shift to state PIT and SUT, but far less than the massive shift required by 76.  The goal is to more equally share state and local funding obligations, then keep it that way, as defined by a funding ratio statute.

With that I suggest the following 5 steps:

1) Rank all 500 districts by actual total spending per student as determined by average daily enrollment, or preferably, average daily attendance.

2) Establish funding ratio breakpoints by relative spending per student.  While for illustration only (actual breakpoints would have to be determined by study) I suggest the following :

Up to 60th percentile funding = 60% state : 40% local

60th-70th percentile = 50% state : 50% local

70th-80th percentile = 40% state : 60% local

80th-90th percentile = 20% state : 80% local

>90th percentile = 0% state : 100% local

This means any district keeping spending per student below the 60th percentile would only be responsible for 40% of its funding.  The ratio of state funding responsibility is purposely tilted toward the low end, with the idea of elimination of some of the dubious factor adjustments for items like number of English as a second language students or free lunch eligibility, etc. that are applied today.

3) Give districts much more leeway in how to meet their local obligation by options to shift away from the traditional assessment based property tax.  Such may include EIT, PIT, sales tax, flat per capita tax, flat per registered vehicle tax, higher real estate transfer tax, or even property taxation that is always based on the last known value established by the purchase price at market, thus eliminating assessments, with only one exception, for sales among friends or family, at below the true open market price.

4) Provide an opportunity for districts to slightly shift their funding obligation onto the current users of the system by allowing a charge of up to 3% of their total spending per student as a per student tuition.  This small imposition of ownership, “skin in the game”, so to say, would likely provoke very significant response expressed as more pressure on elected boards to find efficiencies.

5) Investigate consolidation of districts to average the effect of pockets of poor tax bases across wider geographic and economic areas.

That’s the concept.  Yes, it requires a certain leap of faith, but confidence in its viability is vested in the predictability of how people react to properly presented economic incentives and constraints when making free choices in their self interest.  Competition is key to achieving a spending and funding scheme that is both self limiting and self regulating, while allowing free choice and government that resides close to the people.

PA Race for Governor: Tom Wolf Ducks Equal Time on Hometown Radio Show

Ducks

leaves locals lacking – The wolf’s not quacking

With the 2014 election now less than one week away, Democratic candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, has been curiously ducking repeated invitations, both on air and off, to join NewsRadio 910 local talk show host Gary Sutton for an interview.  The station, WSBA, is based in candidate Wolf’s hometown, York, PA, and airs Sutton’s show Monday thru Friday from 9am to noon.

While born in York, PA, Wolf grew up in Mt. Wolf, a small community also in York County.  Sutton is native to Manchester, PA, a small community adjacent to Mt. Wolf, separated only by the names and a railroad track.  To anyone not knowing better, the two small towns appear as one.  With only a few years difference in age, Wolf and Sutton would have attended the same school district and were acquainted in their youth.

Both went on to distinguish themselves.  Wolf eventually became owner and head of his family’s building supply business, and acquired political aspirations, serving in Governor Casey’s administration and then as Governor Rendell’s Secretary of Revenue in 2007-2008, after selling the business in 2006.  His 2010 reacquisition of the business precluded his desire to run for Governor in that year.

Sutton, according to what he often references on his show, taught history in high school as well as coaching basketball.  At some point he transitioned to talk radio, distinguishing himself as a local host with the ability to regularly attract big name figures for interviews on national topics, while maintaining a distinctively local flavor.  While he personally leans conservative, Sutton strives to keep his show focused on ideas rather than ideology, welcoming all points of view in lively discussion and search for the truth.

According to Sutton, he invited Tom Wolf to appear on his show even before Wolf won the Democratic primary nomination.  Invitations were also extended to the Corbett campaign, causing frustration for Sutton, as neither campaign was very responsive to his invitations. Finally the Corbett campaign responded with a request for time on air and the Governor was interviewed Thursday, October 23 on the Gary Sutton Show.  Mr. Sutton duly noted his station’s obligation to provide equal time to candidate Wolf, in accordance with FCC regulation.

According to Mr Sutton, it was during that October 23 show when he finally heard back from Jeff Sheridan, with the Wolf campaign.  Sutton said Sheridan told him “it was my fault for not getting back to you”, but that they would still confirm nothing as far as an interview.  On his show the next day, Sutton again extended the invitation, even telling the Wolf campaign they could name their time and he would shuffle his schedule to accommodate them.  As of midday Wednesday October 29, less than one week before the election, Sutton had not received a response.

While it’s understandable the business of any campaign is to win elections, and media appearances should be in those markets most likely to have a positive effect, it’s also curious why any candidate would not make exception for a prominent media outlet in his hometown, especially with the common history of Mr. Wolf and Mr. Sutton, even if simply for courtesy.

It makes folks wonder if something more is afoot in Tom Wolf’s avoidance of Gary Sutton’s show.  Sutton has made on air suggestions that he would like to hear more specifics of Wolf’s positions on the issues.  He has also, while emphatically denying endorsement, stated, for the first time ever in his radio career, that his personal vote will be for Governor Tom Corbett, a decision contributed by candidate Wolf’s perceived lack of clarity as opposed to Corbett’s.

In the event Tom Wolf decides to emerge from the shadows to address his hometown community directly before the election, his time is quickly running out.  WSBA has gotten a request from the Corbett campaign to be on Sutton’s show on election day.  If an arrangement is concluded, this will require equal time for Tom Wolf, if requested, presumably in addition to that for Corbett’s appearance on October 23.

Both campaigns were shown copy of this article and invited to add short comments in response prior to its publication. Republican candidate Governor Tom Corbett’s campaign responded:

It seems the last thing Tom Wolf wants to talk about and share details on is his 188% income tax hike on Pennsylvania’s middle class families and small businesses. We always appreciate Gary’s flexibility and hospitality in hosting Governor Corbett as time allows.

Democratic candidate Tom Wolf’s campaign provided no response.  In the event they do prior to Friday October 31, it will be added to this space.

This article was shared to WatchdogWire-PA

Final Thoughts on an Historic but Flawed PA Special Election

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Pennsylvania’s March 18th special election to fill the 28th district senate seat vacated by the resignation of Senator Mike Waugh only lacked normalcy.  Everything about it was wrapped in controversy, suspicion, confusion, arrogance, and incompetence, ultimately producing a profoundly surprising historic outcome, as Tea Party outsider and Republican unnominated, Scott Wagner, won an unprecedented write-in victory helped, in no small way, by public disgust over vicious attack ads directed at him by the GOP establishment.  Added to this was the possibility, due to improper selection of eligible precincts, the election could be contested as invalid, leaving uncertainty and chaos in its wake.

Avoiding possible chaos, hearing no challenges, Scott Wagner will be sworn in Wednesday April 2, as the first ever Pennsylvania legislator elected by write-in.  Not only that, his margin of victory was so huge that the York County GOP Committee-picked nominee, sitting House member Rep Ron Miller, subsequently dropped out of the May 20 primary, which will select candidates for a new full state Senate term beginning 2015, effectively ending his 16 year career in the legislature.

The issue of the election’s validity was raised due to its being held in a time of redistricting transition, and the revelation that another special election for a vacant state House seat had been held only seven weeks prior, on January 28th, set up using existing boundaries, whereas the March 18th Senate election was set up using the adopted, but yet to take effect, new district boundaries, each to fill vacant terms expiring November 30, 2014.

This suggested nearly 50,000 citizens were being disenfranchised, as another nearly 36.000 had been improperly enfranchised, becoming a daily topic of discussion by local talk show host Gary Sutton on WSBA radio.  Only the size of Wagner’s margin of victory, itself driven by public reaction against the vile attack ads from his own party, rendered validity moot, as his nearly doubling the vote totals of each of his two opponents left no room for argument that, even had the election been set up properly, the outcome could possibly have been different.

Questions remain as to suspicions of collusion raised by Senator Waugh’s resignation, his constitutionally questionable appointment as executive director of the Farm Show Expo, run by a Bureau of the Department of Agriculture, by Governor Corbett, and Lt Governor Cawley’s issuance of the writ for the special election, all within hours.

The smell and speculation of conspiracy was aided by Waugh’s August 9, 2013 announcement he would not seek reelection, Scott Wagner’s announcement of intent to run shortly after, and known differences between Wagner and GOP party insiders.  Was this a plot to keep Wagner out?

Setting the special election March 18th with a primary election only 9 weeks ahead added more fuel to the fire, as this would result in additional cost to the taxpayer estimated to exceed $200,000 as opposed to holding the special election in conjunction with the May 20 primary.  This brought speculation also that, because there is no primary for a special election, and the county party committees would select the nominees, outsider Scott Wagner would have to face an incumbent in the May primary, to lessen his chance of success there.

With some in the public from both parties upset over an unnecessary $200,000+ expense, the York County GOP committee unwittingly, by selecting any sitting house member at the time, did something that could have doubled the expense, had their chosen nominee won.  Had Rep Ron Miller won the election, yet another special election to fill his vacant seat would not have been an option, in spite of early indications from local GOP officials that it would.

The election code is clear in stating that, on the occurrence of a vacancy, the presiding officer shall within 10 days issue a writ for a special election at least 60 days forward, unless the vacancy occurs within 7 months before the expiration of a term, in which situation there is no special unless the presiding officer makes the case for one.  Waiting for the May 20 primary, therefore also, would have ended the ugly possibility of $400,000+ in two special elections.

It is worth noting here that some also complained about the special election candidate nomination process, being hand picked by the county committees.  Often they were the same people also upset by the $200,000 extra expense, by scheduling the election apart from a primary only 7 weeks hence.  Here, though, is where it cannot be both ways.  Either accept the committee selection process as prescribed in the code, or accept imposition of an added expense of holding a primary for the special.  Those are the choices.

As a final thought on the boundaries used for the 28th district senate special election being incorrect, as radio show host Sutton pressed the validity issue, he reported his repeated attempts to obtain answers of clarity from the Lt Governor’s office, the Department of State, and the local Board of Elections all resulted in unreturned calls, not what would be expected of those capable of and anxious to defend their actions.

Then also, there is one curious post election observation.  Sometime between the election and Saturday March 22, all the “Find My Legislator” information at the General Assembly website was changed to the new district boundaries for Senators but not members of the House. In my case, where Newberry Twp, York County will be moving from Senator Teplitz-15th to Senator Folmer-48th the website now tells me Senator Folmer is my Senator presently.  Questioning Senator Teplitz, who periodically has staff available in the Newberry Twp building, he confirmed that nothing has changed.  Until the end of November his staff will still be there the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of every month as always.  So it seems a mistake, luckily complimented by a decisive outcome aided by arrogance in political advertising, that saved a potential challenge of an election, is now being smoothed over with a lie.  Oh, my!

While the historic but flawed Senate 28th special election of 2014 suggests clarification of the code to guide in times of redistricting transition in the future, the next time it can happen is beyond current sight.  With no expectation of political gain by addressing it now, it is likely the same issues of confusion will arise again, when memory of this experience will long have been forgotten.

Note: This article shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 4/3/14

 

Further Evidence Brings Clarity – Shows PA Senate 28th Special Election Invalid

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Significant new discoveries and research should finally bring clarity to the confusion surrounding the scheduled March 18 special election in York County to fill the unexpired term of Senator Mike Waugh in the 28th district.  Allegations of significant disenfranchisement of some and improper enfranchisement of others become more certain by examination of new evidence, making any reasonable defense of this election’s validity impossible.

The story of probable disenfranchisement first broke with an article published both at the blog FreeMktMonkey.com and WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania on March 3.  While the first article got some notice and sparked some interest, it was a subsequent follow-up article published March 9, that provoked daily discussion and debate on the Gary Sutton Show, a local call-in talk radio format airing 9am-Noon Monday through Friday on York based WSBA 910.

At my suggestion, following a call to their newsroom, the York Dispatch published their own article on March 13.  Unfortunately the York Dispatch article only heightened the confusion, which further fueled talk show interest and prompted my search and discovery of additional evidence that will shortly make the issue more clear.

Further confusion injected by the York Dispatch article was not the fault of its writer, Christina Kauffman, in that she had no reason to distrust her sources.  They were the experts, assumed to know what they were talking about.  Yet digging deeper suggests her sources were presenting incorrect assumptions rather than facts.

Likewise, Nikki Suchanic, director of York County Department of Elections and Voter Registration, also cited in the York Dispatch article gets her information from the Pennsylvania Department of State, which would be the source of any confusion on her part.  This leaves  Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State, also cited in the article, as the ultimate source of heightened disinformation and confusion.

It is Mr Ruman who was quoted as saying, “…technically the new maps take effect when they are approved.”  Also attributed to Mr Ruman was that “the old representatives and senators will continue to help their former constituents until November 30, when the session ends (required by the Constitution in even numbered years, as new terms begin Dec 1, even though the newly elected are not sworn in until the first Tuesday in January)”.  Ruman asserts that citizens who will move into new districts immediately became “former constituents” of their current elected representatives as of the May 8, 2013 Supreme Court approval of new redistricting boundaries, on which this election is being based.  Why should we doubt the “expert”?

Enter the evidence: First, in the just referenced article on the court approval, upholding the new redistricting plan, it was ordered “…to be used for the next round of legislative elections in 2014”.  There was no suggestion of immediate implementation as to representation.

Then this important clue: A search found there had been another special election subsequent to the May 2013 delayed redistricting approval.

On September 6, 2013, well after the court’s action, 78th House District Representative Dick Hess died in his 14th term.  Following the election code, presiding officer, Speaker of the House, Sam Smith, issued a writ for a special election within the required 10 days, on September 16, 2013.  A special election to fill the vacant house seat was scheduled and held on January 28, 2014.  Jesse Topper, the Republican candidate selected by committee members from the counties involved won the election, was sworn in Feb 10, and now represents the 78th district in the house until the end of Rep Hess’s unexpired term ending this year.

Significantly, Topper’s January 28 special election presented no enfranchisement issues, currently contributing so much confusion and consternation in the Senate 28th District, because it was conducted on the existing (old) district boundaries!  Articles at the time reported this fact, also confirmed by pulling up election results from Huntingdon County.  The six precincts reported in the vote will all be leaving the 78th to the 81st in the new session to be decided in the May primary and November general elections.

So we have two special elections.  One was set up one way, the other, a different way.  Both cannot be right.  Even in the absence of any specific direction in the election code, which may be the case, the basic concept of tying voting to voters actually represented and commonsense should prevail.

Another piece of guiding evidence exists.  Whether it’s the newly elected Jesse Topper in the 78th House District, or any other current member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a visit to members’ pages on the General Assembly website still shows only the old district maps as the areas they represent.

Press Secretary Ron Ruman’s confusion appears to be in when the newly approved district boundaries apply.  It makes sense, and evidence supports, that upon official acceptance redistricting maps immediately define future district boundaries to be filled in the next round of primary and general elections, not special elections to fill existing terms, where the area of representation has not yet changed.

At this point, clarity should be restored with one exception, what voting precincts to include if the March 18 senate special election were for a senate term expiring 2016 rather than 2014 (half of them do), as discussed in an update to my March 10 article.  That is a situation unique solely to state senate elections and redistricting, since federal senators always represent the entire state and both the state and federal house are on the same two year cycle.  As such, it also should be addressed in needed clarification to our state election code.

A call Thursday to Nikki Suchanic, confirmed the writ issued by Lt Governor Jim Cawley, detailed the precincts to be included in Tuesday’s special election and that her job is to follow the writ.

A call to the Department of State directed me to media contact Matthew Keillor’s voice mail, who never returned my call.

A Friday afternoon call to Lt Governor Cawley’s office, relating my findings was acknowledged by contact Todd Kowalski as raising very good points worthy of legal review.  Mr Kowalski took my email address, but I’ve heard nothing back as of this time.

As a final note, with evidence so strongly suggesting an improperly configured special election March 18th, those feeling disenfranchised may want to cast a provisional ballot at the nearest open polling location.  For complete instructions follow this link and open the tab “Provisional Voting”.

Note: This article shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania

Confusion Reigns in PA on Redistricting, Representation, and a Special Election

KeystoneCops

Last Monday I published an article about the controversial March 18 special election called by Lt Governor Jim Cawley to fill the remaining term of 28th District Senator Mike Waugh, who resigned abruptly on January 13 to take an itself controversial job running the Pennsylvania Farm Show and Expo.  I recapped events surrounding the many twists and turns of a growing drama that now features intense infighting on the Republican side, pitting the party favorite and county committee selected candidate, Representative Ron Miller, against upstart businessman Scott Wagner, who decided to persue a write-in campaign.

While many aspects of this story deserve detailed analysis, I raised an issue no one else seemed focused upon, the unintentional disenfranchisement and improper enfranchisement of tens of thousands of citizens, by an oversight in the Pennsylvania election code that ignores special elections in a year of redistricting transition.  In my article and then in a subsequent letter to the editor of the York Daily Record, I raised the possibility the special election could not be defended as valid and, if successfully challenged, could result in loss to taxpayers of both the estimated $200,000 to conduct it, plus costs of litigation to defend it.

Over the past week, using Twitter, Facebook, email, and phone calls, I promoted awareness of my article in hopes that the special problems I had identified could become part of the wider discussion.  I sent links to elected officials responsible for calling the election, candidates involved in the election, various news organizations, and those who had publicly weighed in with their comments and opinions.

Friday morning I received a twitter response from one I had informed that gave me momentary pause.  Representative Seth Grove, in no way behind calling the election or selecting the Republican candidate, but someone with whom I exchange views, sent me a tweet in response to a tweet I had sent him, linking my letter to the editor and suggesting that “We have a problem”.

Rep Grove responded that there is no problem because “[the] Senate is operating that [as if] redistricting was [in] effect on 12/1/2013”.  I mentioned “momentary pause” due to every writer’s fear that something was overlooked, causing erroneous conclusions based on faulty information or assumptions, leading to embarrassment and retractions.  Fortunately I had the remembrance of other encounters to bolster my assertions, and related them to Rep Grove.

Since I’m myself in an area of change by redistricting, moving from representation by Senator Teplitz to that of Senator Folmer, I had questioned Senator Teplitz about my confusion as to when the change would become effective.  He confirmed to me that that would not happen until the end of 2014 and he would continue to represent me until that time.

Also the York County Republican Committee, as referenced in my original article, stated their awareness of a problem, stemming from an oversight in the election code, that would cause a disconnect in who was allowed (or denied) the vote verses the areas they represent, for the balance of the unexpired term to be decided by the special election.

Yet there were and remain signs of confusion.  Sometime prior to Senator Waugh’s resignation, while walking through the halls of the state capitol, seeing staff employees through the glass, and quite ironically, I poked my head into Senator Waugh’s office, and asked what they knew of the change in representation by redistricting.  Their opinion was, like that of Senator Teplitz, that representation would not change until the end of 2014, but they related a story of confusion.  They told me how, in an area within Senator Corman’s district that will be moving to that of Senator Teplitz, Corman’s staff was already sending constituents to Senator Teplitz, who was then referring them back to Senator Corman, leaving constituents feeling unrepresented in redistricting limbo. [SEE UPDATE]

As a further test of my understanding or lack thereof, on Friday, March 7, I called the district office of Senator Lloyd Smucker, since he has represented areas of York County that will be moving into the newly defined 28th district, those areas I contend will be improperly enfranchised in the special election, allowing citizens to vote for someone who will not represent them for the duration of Waugh’s unexpired term that ends at the end of 2014.

I asked Senator Smucker’s staff simply if, in their opinion, they still represent those areas of York County that will be leaving his district.  They said they think they do but are unsure and trying to get answers.  They indicated they’ve contacted the Department of State and still aren’t certain so their policy has been to serve anyone who calls their office.  So it seems one thing is quite clear.  Confusion reigns!

Update March 10:

Two items: First, Senator Teplitz contacted me to deny that his office ever left any citizens in redistricting limbo by sending them back to Senator Corman’s office.  On that, I thank Senator Teplitz for his feedback, for reading my article, and take him at his word.

Second, in the spirit of Thomas Sowell who, in Applied Economics, cautions against not going beyond stage one thinking, that there’s danger in assuming one ever knows enough, I’ve realized my conclusions are only on firm ground to a point, beyond which things become murky.

I remain confident in my assessment of the current Senate 28th district special election as to disenfranchisement or improper enfranchisement by allowing voting along new district lines to fill a vacancy based on the old district lines.  This holds true because the unfilled term expires at the end of 2014 and would apply to any house vacancy, since they all expire at the end of 2014.

For any Senate seat expiring 2016, however, and half of them do, the situation is completely different.  In this case, it could be argued, that areas leaving the district at the end of 2014 deserve the vote for whomever will represent them until that time.  It also could be argued that those newly entering the district at the end of 2014 deserve the vote for whomever will represent them in 2015 and 2016.  In this situation should both the old and new areas (relative to the existing district) be allowed to vote in a special election?

The level of complication almost argues for simply accepting the status quo as a system that’s not perfect.  Yet, the current situation with the Senate 28th, or any like it, is akin to taking 15% of PA citizens, telling them they won’t have a vote for our next governor, so we can allow an equal number of NY citizens to vote for a governor who will never represent them one day!  I don’t see a difference and can’t imagine anyone who would argue for such an absurdity as that!

Note: This article shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 3/10/14

PA Senate 28th District Special Election / Special Problem – $200k Thrown Away?

Pa Redistricting Website Interactive District Map Green=Old Red=New

Pa Redistricting Website Interactive District Map Green=Old Red=New

The saga of a suspiciously pre-scripted March 18 special election to fill the term of a vacated senate seat in Pennsylvania’s 28th district in York County continues.  Heretofore unreported special circumstances that could only happen in a redistricting year add even more confusion, as unintended consequences disenfranchise tens of thousands of citizens, raising serious questions of the election’s validity, that may provoke challenges resulting in its becoming a $200,000 total waste to taxpayers.

To recap the story, on August 12, 2013 it was reported that Senator Mike Waugh announced he would not seek reelection to another term in 2014.  The next month businessman founder of Penn Waste Inc., Scott Wagner, announced his intention to run.  By January 2, 2014, when the York Daily Record reported the Wagner campaign had already raised $267,730 in contributions, and still over a month and a half away from February 18, when candidates could begin circulating petitions to appear on the May 20 primary ballot, Wagner remained the lone candidate to announce his intentions to enter the race.

Then came January 13, the day of surprises and intrigue.  In what could only have been an orchestrated series of events, Senator Waugh announced his immediate resignation to take a job as executive director of the Farm Show and Expo Center, having been appointed by Governor Tom Corbett.  Later the same day Lt. Governor Jim Cawley issued a writ for a special election to be held on March 18 to fill the remainder of Waugh’s term.  Scott Wagner said he would seek the Republican Committee nomination to run in the special election and indicated he thought it would be based on the old district boundaries due to be replaced by court delayed redistricting as the 2014 primary and general elections would use the new district boundaries for the first time.  That would make sense, but as will be explained soon, he was wrong.

From there everything changed quickly as Representative Ron Miller and two others entered the quest for the GOP slot in the special election.  Controversy swirled on everything from the constitutionality of Waugh’s Farm Show appointment by Corbett, to the necessity of holding a special election apart from the primary election only 9 weeks later at an estimated $200,000 cost, to whether the whole series of events was a plot to stymie the chances of Scott Wagner because of his known differences with the party leadership.

On January 18 Scott Wagner withdrew his consideration for the special election and on January 23 Rep Ron Miller was selected to represent the GOP in the special election.  Wagner never surrendered his quest for a state senate term of his own, still intending to enter and win the primary and move on to the general election.  Subsequently, on claimed urging of supporters, Scott Wagner announced on February 17, he was renewing his effort to win the March 18 special election as a write-in candidate.

In a campaign email sent out February 25, the Wagner campaign provided information on the write-in process and the location of polling places.  Apart from his earlier beliefs, Wagner’s email indicated the special election would be based on the new district lines, not the old ones.  This raised obvious questions and concerns.

Either the winner of the special election would represent the area defined by the new district map, leaving some citizens with no representation and others with double representation, or the winner would still represent the old district, meaning that the disconnect would be in who was allowed (or denied) the vote.

A call to the York County Republican Committee office on February 26 confirmed it was the latter.  The problem was recognized at the local level.  It was explained as an oversight in the election code that failed to account for special elections in a year of redistricting transition.  The code required all elections after the beginning of the year to use the new district lines.

Perhaps it was assumed that the voter disconnect would be of little consequence since the vast majority of the district would be left unchanged.  A closer look paints the truth of the situation.  The results are rather stunning.

Based on the 2010 census Pennsylvania’s population was 12.7 million.  Each of the state’s 50 senate districts, on average, must represent about 254,000 citizens.  Identifying those areas that either entered the 28th district or were removed from it by redistricting and looking up census data for each reveals an affected population of 85,541 or 33.7%, fully one third of the total for an average senate district in Pennsylvania.

More specific, anyone living in York County Townships East Manchester, Jackson, Penn, or Boroughs Hanover, Manchester, Mount Wolf or Yoe, with a combined population of 49,815 (19.6% of an average senate district), since they were part of the old district but not the new, will be denied voting for whomever replaces Waugh in representing them.  They will be disenfranchised.  No voting machines or polling places will be available.

On the other hand, anyone living in York County Townships Chanceford, Heidelberg, Hellam, Lower Chanceford, Lower Windsor, Paradise, or Boroughs East Prospect, Hellam, Wrightsville, or Yorkana, with a combined population 35,726 (14.1% of an average senate district), since they were not part of the old district but are in the new one, will be allowed to vote for someone not representing them for the balance of the unexpired term.  Voting machines and polling places will be open where they live.

There simply can be no way to defend the validity of such an election.  The obvious remedy would have been to legislatively change the election code prior to announcing a special election in order to fix the flaw.  Scheduling the special election on the primary election day would not have corrected this problem, and perhaps would have only added confusion, even as it would have eliminated the approximate $200k extra expense.

A call to the Department of State on February 28th was met with a “not our problem” answer, that the senate, specifically the Lt Governor, called the special election, and they were just following instructions. They suggested those denied their vote could cast a provisional ballot outside their precinct but that the vote would be later rejected if not deemed cast by a qualified elector.  In this case who knows what that means?  Meanwhile what about those being allowed to vote improperly?  Would those votes be stricken?

Calls were also placed to the offices of President Pro Tempore, Senator Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader, Senator Pileggi.  In the event they may claim to be unaware of the problem, they can’t say so now.  A call to Lt Governor Cawley’s office resulted in a message for Mr Todd Kowlaski, who never returned the call.

Note: This article shared to WatchdogWire-PA