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

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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

Illogical Response to Simple RTK Request – Pennsylvania DPW Digs in on Healthy PA

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Healthy PA is Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s idea for unconventional optional Medicaid expansion that would require a waiver from the Federal Government.  As part of the process the Department of Public Welfare held a series of hearings around the Commonwealth, soliciting public comment via strictly limited three minute turns at the microphone.  Written comments were accepted at the same time or separately through January 13, 2014.  This video is the Power Point presentation that preceded public comments at each meeting.

I was able to get a total of nine minutes to comment by attending three of the eight hearings.  At two of the hearings I spoke unscripted and at the Harrisburg hearing January 9, read a prepared script which I then left as a written submission.

My intention was and is to publish some observations on the hearings.  I took notes but made no recording, especially since the presenter’s comments were being transcribed either by manual input or voice recognition and appeared on a large screen facing the audience in real time.  DPW says they intend to publish a summary of the comments with responses prior to the waiver request submission, but I wanted the verbatim account in the transcripts, both to read comments of others and publish my own unscripted remarks as they were presented.

I called DPW to let them know what I wanted.  They said I would have to go through Right to Know to get records they never suggested do not exist.  So that is what I did in a simple straightforward request.  Today, within the required period, I got an answer.  My request is being delayed for up to 30 more days for the following reasons:

    • Your request is under legal review to determine whether a requested record is a “public record” for purposes of the RTKL
    • The extent or nature of the request precludes a response within the required time period.

I simply cannot buy either of these excuses.  How can they solicit public comment, which anyone had the right to record, obviously make a direct transcription of it, and then suggest it may not be part of the public record?  Then too, why would it take longer than a week to give the records to anyone who properly requests them?  Would the fact that they know me to be a detractor from Healthy PA have anything to do with their response?

Also I wonder why any of this should be necessary.  Yes, I did have a right to record the event but chose to not do it.  That said, how much trouble would it be to require all public meetings to be voice recorded (if not video also) and posted within hours online so anyone unable to attend in person could listen?  It seems that would be a very easy but very significant improvement to our Sunshine Act and Right to Know laws, greatly improving transparency, as well as saving costly clerical efforts in situations like this.

While I’m waiting for bureaucratic determination involving legal experts, what follows is my prepared text I read at the final Healthy PA hearing in Harrisburg on January 9.  Among what mostly amounted to various interest groups slithering up to the Federal money trough, or those objecting in favor of unaltered Medicaid expansion, or those complaining of any suggestions whatsoever of personal responsibility (as exist in Healthy PA), or even one arguably socialist Republican house member passionately pleading to not delay grabbing Federal money one more day, there was this:

Comment to PA DPW hearings on Healthy PA

Despite its good intentions Healthy PA is a misguided and dangerous additional step in the direction of fiscal insanity.  First let’s think about the insidious lure of “Federal” money.  Federal money IS our money.  It comes from the pockets of Pennsylvanians or is imposed as a crushing debt on our children. 

While Healthy PA is not exactly an expansion of the existing failed structure, we know there are better approaches to the entire Medicaid program.  We can see the results of situations where people are empowered with ownership of accounts they control.  We know how spending one’s own money can control overuse, encourage wise use, and reduce fraud.  Healthy Indiana showed how money can be saved by giving it away-such is the power of ownership! Knowing this we should insist that any expansion only be considered after first changing how we run the existing system, using savings wrung from it, except in this “partnership” arrangement the rules only go in one direction, from the Federal Government top down.

We also know of suggestions to boost the number of and participation in free charity clinics, where doctors can operate outside the crush of burdensome regulations.  We’ve passed Act 10, and HB1760 sits in our Health Committee and would not need a Medicaid waiver.

While any state would put itself at an extreme financial disadvantage by exiting the Medicaid program entirely, we also know that if every state did so we would all be better off.  The added layer of Federal bureaucracy and administrative expense could be used to treat needy sick people. 

Think then where we are today.  Here we stand asking a powerful central authority to give us permission to do what should be the absolute right of free sovereign states and people under a constitution unique in the history of the world.  This is America upside down.   This is a great nation in decline.  Healthy PA is further participation in that decline, and it’s time we stop allowing it to continue and expand. 

Rather than making a stand for commonsense solutions we do understand, by becoming leaders for freedom, educating our citizens to what really would work to the extent they understand and demand it, we succumb to expediency, dare I say, political expediency, in an election year.  It’s time we act like the sovereigns we are and end this bowing to a powerful central authority in Washington DC that is changing the fabric and face of America.  Thinking beyond ourselves to generations yet to come we would set Healthy PA aside and choose a different path.

Submitted January 9, 2014

Todd Keefer, York County

Note: This article shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 1/27/14

Pa Transportation Bill Revisited and a School Board Meeting

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Whether revenue increases in Pennsylvania’s new transportation bill were tax increases in violation of a governor’s promise or added user fees never interested me much because really, in the end, what difference does it make?  On November 25, 2013 Pennsylvania Governor Corbett signed into law a bill to raise $2.3 Billion annually for the state’s transportation infrastructure.  That’s an amount roughly 8% of the entire state general fund budget, and an increase of 40% over existing transportation expenditures.  Those arguing its necessity claimed the state had failed to keep up with repairs and we had a lot of catching up to do before something really tragic happened, usually involving a school bus full of children.

I had no objection to spending whatever necessary on what I consider a core function of government and understood what some didn’t want to admit, that tax contributions per mile had gone down due to vehicles becoming more fuel efficient.  Part of any increase would be, in reality, a restoration of taxes (or fees) previously adopted and paid.  No one had complained as they were paying less over time, a point not disputed even as it was mostly ignored.

Still, many fought to stop the increase, especially among the most fiscally conservative legislators.  Times were still tough after all.  Rep Steve Bloom argued for prioritization of projects within transportation and no increase.  He voted against the bill and the wishes of our Governor and party leadership.  So did my Rep, Mike Regan, along with others, who, in the process, learned about the application of party pressure to get in line.

I respect these legislators and others who stood their ground.  On the left or the right, progressive or classic liberal, on any particular issue goose stepping is still goose stepping.  I like legislators that can show they have a mind of their own, stand on their principles and then defend their decisions.  We need more of them.

Thinking back, I remember tweeting in favor of increased transportation funding, but without tax increases, by “earning” the funds by doing the hard work, the Bloom prioritization, plus promoting legislation likely to save money and bolster revenues.  I urged tying in pension reform, right to work, and prevailing wage reform, but shouldn’t have stopped there.  It could have been used as an opportunity, a very useful exercise, for legislators to challenge each other to find waste that could be cut throughout the entire state budget.  Everything on the table.  Get serious time.  Stop with the business as usual.  Dreaming!

My thoughts returned to the transportation issue last Thursday evening at a West Shore SD school board meeting.  The topic was repairs to structural failure on an 87 year old middle school building.  The entrance side of the building is brick.  The necessary repair work is on the right side of the entrance, and will require repointing the brickwork as part of the much larger project.  The architect provided a base estimate, with repointing the unaffected left side of the entrance as a $58,800 add on.  The total base estimate is around $700,000.  Of several potential add on items, the additional repointing was the one most highly suggested by the architect, but with no mention of particular urgency.

It was then mentioned that due to tough economic times, the possibility of getting bids well below estimates was a distinct possibility.  Hearing that, one member of the board immediately suggested that would be an opportunity to seriously look at the additional repointing.  Yikes!  What about the opportunity to save the taxpayer some money?  Must they look for ways to spend potential savings simply because it had been budgeted?  There had even been earlier discussion of having in house maintenance employees do repointing work. What about that?

It exposed a pet peeve.  So many times I’ve encountered politicians, claiming staunch fiscal conservatism, who identify waste only to immediately suggest other uses they deem more important rather than suggesting returning the savings to the taxpayer.  Even they, once they’ve got it, are often inclined to want to keep it.

It was that school board meeting experience and the pet peeve that drove my thinking back to the transportation issue.  Remember, the state had fallen woefully, and some argued dangerously, behind on road and bridge repair and upkeep.  So they needed significant catch up money on top of that required to satisfy today’s ongoing needs.  That’s fine and quite understandable, except a day will come when the backlog is caught up.  Will anyone then think of returning those unneeded funds to the taxpayer?  Was it ever suggested to write such a provision into the bill?  Or will projects that would otherwise never have been considered, with little notice, fill the void in spending to the new budget?  Yep, once they’ve got it!

Note: This post shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 1/21/2014

Points of Confusion in Pennsylvania School Property Tax Reform Efforts

For especially the past two years an urgency to do something about severe problems with the exploding amount of the school property tax in some Pennsylvania school districts has been a hot topic among an array of grassroots organizations and affected individuals.  Early on, intense grassroots support focused on HB76/SB76 (aka HB1776/SB1776 in the previous legislative session), a plan to totally eliminate the school property tax, and shift all school funding to the state by increasing the sales tax from 6% to 7%, covering more goods and services, and increasing the personal income tax 41% from 3.07% to 4.34%, as the only answer to the problem.  This was happening as other states are looking for ways to eliminate their income taxes to enhance their attractiveness and fortunes.  Confusion.

No matter the outcome, HB/SB76 will be remembered by the tireless efforts of primarily one citizen, Mr David Baldinger, a person with the salesmanship of PT Barnum and the lure of a pied piper of populism.  A well organized website, extensive email list, and countless visits to group meetings to sell his concept bore fruit in bicameral, bipartisan, simultaneous introduction of legislation in our state capitol for two straight sessions.  Claims are that over 80 grassroots and other organizations now stand behind the idea of total elimination of the school property tax, that is forcing some out of their homes or making it very difficult to sell properties in select areas.  “We never truly own our homes” is an often mentioned phrase as well as HB/SB76 “were not bills written in Harrisburg”, and are the “people’s legislation” are all frequently heard at rallies.

For someone like myself, perceived flaws in total school property tax elimination and the shift of all school funding to the state revealed something ugly and disturbing in the conservative grassroots movement.  Zealotry could trump discussion and debate.  Members of most tea party and 912 groups were expected to be lock step supporters.  Mr Baldinger had whipped a frenzy among the ranks that left no room for dissention.  When I challenged my own affiliated group to debate internally at a meeting, and even offered to lead the discussion, I was ignored.  Alternatives, which I’m prepared to put on the table, could not be considered. There was never room on the agenda for that.  School property tax elimination had become a religion, with David Baldinger its reverend, and most grassroots organization members his fiercely loyal congregation.

Those times I did attempt to raise objections with members of supporting groups, I found others who listened, a few who agreed with me quietly, but have also been yelled at, and stomped away from.  I’ve heard that one very conservative individual was even threatened for not toeing the school tax elimination line.  Inside the capitol legislators have described Mr Baldinger to me as a mean spirited bully.

I see objecting legislators not as agents of large special interests out to get and destroy his bill, as Baldinger would assert, but concerned elected officials who share many of my perceived flaws. Neither Baldinger nor his zealous supporters ever seem to ask or wonder why none of the preeminent conservative professional policy organizations in the state, Americans for Prosperity, the Commonwealth Foundation, or Empower PA, among others, have ever taken more than a neutral position in their support of the  school property tax elimination effort.  Confusion.

As an alternative to HB/SB 76 Rep Seth Grove introduced HB1189, that would give individual school districts more taxing options to replace or even eliminate the hated school property tax locally.  Similar bills have passed in prior years but have never proved successful.  David Baldinger offered an analysis of Rep Grove’s bill on his website, shamelessly calling it “simply another fraud being perpetrated on Pennsylvania taxpayers”, a “useless diversion” and a “worthless fraud”.  Rep Grove was a RINO enemy of the people who had to go!  Usually it’s the political right that derides the left for demonization and vilification of their opposition.  More confusion.

Constituent members of the same local 912 group that seems to not want to debate the merits of 76, as I requested, and whose meetings are held in Rep Grove’s district, attended a town hall held by him December 12.  One member attempted to ambush the legislator with statements he has made compared to what was on or had been removed from his online presence.  I heard few questions to or discussion of the merits of any particulars of his legislation, mostly emotional attacks and attempts to corner the legislator.  The focus had become personal.

Demands were presented to support 76 as the people’s bill, which I heard as an expectation of legislators to act, at least on this legislation, as proxies for direct democracy, which ordinarily the conservative grassroots condemns in favor of a representative republic.  More confusion.

Another 912 constituent member announced to Rep Grove that he would be a primary challenger in 2014.  He tried to entice Grove to come debate property tax elimination at a meeting he will be holding in January along with David Baldinger.  Grove said he would not attend what he characterized as the challenger’s campaign event.

At one point in the meeting, Rep Grove explained how HB76 was dead.  Because it had been defeated as an attempted amendment to his own HB1189 on October 1, rules of the legislature prevent it from reconsideration by the House, either as an amendment or a stand alone bill for the remainder of the session ending 2014.  Only by being substantially changed to something distinctly different could 76 be afforded further consideration, according to Rep Grove.  When I called Rep Grove’s office Dec 16, they restated this position, even if the Senate chooses to pass SB76.

Here comes the real confusion.  In spite of what happened in the House, Baldinger’s organization, with help from the Pa Association of Realtors and others, are pushing forward with efforts to have SB76 reported out of committee and have it approved by a floor vote in the state Senate.

Monday, December 16, according to citizensvoice.com, Citizens Against Property Taxes of Luzerne County (CAPTAX) held a public meeting featuring speaker Chuck Liedike, campaign manager of Real Reform 76, a pro SB76 project of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.  A claim was made that 26, or one more than half, the magic number of senators needed, have now signed as co-sponsors of the legislation.  Victory, they say, could be right around the corner.

At this point I only know one thing.  Either those forging ahead are delusional and ignorant of rules that would prohibit House concurrence on Senate passage of  SB76 or the information put forth by Rep Seth Grove is inaccurate and misleading.  I guess we shall see.

Note: This post shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 12/23/13