Sen. Toomey Worries about Nation’s Fiscal Future

Speaking to the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters on Monday, US Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) told the crowd that America is headed down a dangerous financial path.  “If we don’t get off this path, we will have a financial crisis that probably could make 2007/2008 look tame by comparison,” he explained after the speech. 

He’s referring to the pitfalls of a national debt of $15-trillion dollars, and growing.  Calling it a disgrace that Democratic leaders in the US Senate don’t even plan to produce a budget, Toomey has introduced his own spending plan for the second straight year.  It would balance the budget within eight years, and raises no taxes. 

Pat Toomey (R-PA)

Pat Toomey addresses the media in Hershey on Monday.

He’s cautiously optimistic, but says a balanced budget will require presidential leadership.  “I think the voters are going to reward the candidate who’s willing to solve this problem,” Toomey says in reference the likely General Election matchup of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. 

While Toomey has not endorsed a Senate candidate in Pennsylvania’s primary, he’ll be monitoring Tuesday night’s returns closely.  “Among the Republican candidates that I know in this field, which is three or four of the candidates, I think all would be allies of mine in trying to restore fiscal sanity and insisting that the government have a responsible budget.” 

Steve Welch, Sam Rohrer, Marc Scaringi, David Christian and Tom Smith are all vying for the Republican Senate nomination, and the chance to challenge Democratic incumbent Bob Casey in November.

Ranking State Lawmakers’ Greatest Achievements

Puzzled by the disconnect between the seemingly hard work that goes on at the state capitol and lawmakers’ perpetually poor approval ratings, two Temple University interns set out to study Pennsylvania’s most important laws of the past 40-years.

The results could be considered the General Assembly’s “greatest hits” album, and they’ve been published in the Temple Papers on the General Assembly

A diverse group of 148 lawmakers, former lawmakers, aides, journalists and professors responded to the survey – ultimately ranking statutes on both impact and achievement. 

There were no major statistical differences in how Democrats and Republicans responded, according to Joseph McLaughlin, director of Temple’s Institute for Public Affairs.  “I think given the political environment that we’re in, that was somewhat surprising,” he says. 

Pennsylvania’s 1971 personal income tax law received the top rank for impact, but it fell to 5th when judgments were factored into the equation.  “There were respondents who disagreed with that tax,” McLaughlin explains. 

The 1992 Children’s Health Insurance Plan ultimately topped the list of the General Assembly’s greatest achievements, because most respondents believed that its effects were positive.

The researchers also examined whether divided government has been an obstacle to passing important laws.  The answer was “no.” 

After removing two laws that involved legislative action under both divided and unified government, they found that 14 of the top 25 statutes were enacted during a time when there were different parties controlling the legislative chambers or governor’s office.  “That’s kind of a reminder that even though we get discouraged by gridlock and so forth, in the past we’ve been able to overcome that at the state level,” McLaughlin concludes.    

The Temple Papers on the General Assembly are intended to broaden our understanding of the legislature.  Two volumes have already been published; four more are on the way.

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 04.20.12

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week. Professionally produced and delivered every Friday, Roundtable includes commercial breaks for local sale and quarterly reports for affiliate files.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

Capitol View from East Wing

Public Hearing Pending on New Legislative Redistricting Plan

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is gearing up for a May 2nd public hearing on a new preliminary plan.  Anyone who’d like to address the panel at the capitol hearing must submit a written request by Wednesday.  Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court threw out the Commission’s first attempt

The revised preliminary plan was adopted with a 4 – 1 vote last week.  One of the observers was Amanda Holt, the Lehigh County piano teacher and graphic artist whose own stab at mapmaking showed the Supreme Court that it can be done with greater respect to the integrity of political subdivisions.  “I felt like there was a lot of talk about compromise, and my concern would be that our constitution not be compromised in this process,” Holt says of the latest LRC meeting. 

Holt hasn’t formally requested it yet, but she’d like the chance to address the panel again at next month’s public hearing.  “Citizens have been able to make a difference in this process, and bring light to our constitution, and help parts of our constitution that were ignored in this process,” she says. 

Watching the process since the LRC’s first public meeting in March 2011 has been Common Cause Pennsylvania Executive Director Barry Kauffman.  “I’m always the optimist, hopeful that we can still make some tweaks in the proposed plan, still have it better serve the people of Pennsylvania,” Kauffman says of the latest public comment period. 

The Commission’s revised plan would split about half as many municipalities as the remanded 2011 House and Senate maps.  The new maps are supposed to be in place for this year’s legislative elections, but the Supreme Court ordered that the 2001 maps remain in place until the process is resolved.

PennDOT says “Just Drive”

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation  has launched a new effort to highlight safety for National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.  It’s a simple message, “Just Drive”.

Spokeswoman Erin Waters says drivers need to focus on the task at hand.  She says your only responsibility while driving, is to focus on driving.  

Waters says they want people to consider they have their own life and the lives of people around them in their hands.

It’s not only a slogan; it’s also a web Waters says it has resources for drivers and information on distracted driving.  According to estimates for 2011, more than 14 thousand crashes in Pennsylvania involved a distracted driver, resulting in 58 fatalities.

Waters says drivers also need to wear their seatbelts, not drive impaired and look out for pedestrians, motorcycles and all other vehicles.

Lawmakers Debate Downsizing in Election Year

Every two years, 228 of the General Assembly’s 253 seats are up for election.  2012 is one of those years, but what makes it unique is that it’s the first time that lawmakers are giving serious consideration to the idea of legislative downsizing.   

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country.

“It will make the legislative process more efficient because members will be able to communicate better and understand the other person’s problem,” says Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson), who gave the issue immediate clout when he sponsored the constitutional amendment last year. 

But activist Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA says that – as reforms go – this is sleight of hand.  “It’s something that diverts your attention to things that are a whole lot more important,” Potts says.

Democracy Rising’s 2012 Public Integrity Poll did find 62% of Pennsylvania voters support downsizing the General Assembly.  That’s significant, but Potts says it’s fairly low on the list of improvements that Pennsylvanians would make.  He points to the 72% who want to change the system for redrawing legislative districts, the 74% who want to limit campaign contributions, and the 93% who want lobbying reforms. 

Speaker Smith’s legislation (HB 153) was originally penned to reduce the size of the 203-member House by 25%.  It was amended on the House floor to also include a similar reduction in the Senate, from 50 to 38-seats.  It passed the House earlier this month with a vote of 140 – 42.  A spokesman for the Senate Republicans says their chamber is expected to take up the measure in May or June.

A constitutional amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before it can be put to the voters in the form of a ballot referendum.  HB 153 is designed to take effect following the 2020 census.


Buffett Rule Appears to be Big Election Year Tax Battle

President Barack Obama is pushing it; his likely Republican challenger rejects it; and the US Senate can neither advance nor kill it.  At issue is the so-called Buffett Rule, which would ensure that Americans whose incomes exceed $1-million dollars pay a minimum tax rate of 30%. 

“This is a gimmick, it’s a political gimmick,” US Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) said on the Senate floor this week.  Toomey believes the ongoing debate is an effort to engage in class warfare and distract from the Obama administration’s economic mismanagement. 

But Keystone Research Center labor economist Mark Price says you can’t pay down the nation’s massive budget deficit without raising additional revenue.  “Very wealthy households are able to take advantage of tax loopholes to pay less of their income in taxes than many middle class Pennsylvania families,” he says. 

In their Buffett Rule analysis, Price and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center examined seven of the richest zip codes in the nation.  What they uncovered was an effective tax rate of 17.2%.  By comparison, they found that 99% of the Commonwealth’s taxpayers live in zip codes where the average tax rate is higher. 

Pennsylvania is home to roughly 10,000 millionaires, but Price believes the Buffett Rule would only impact between 1,000 and 4,000 of them. 

The Buffett Rule’s namesake – billionaire investor Warren Buffet – has just revealed that he’s been diagnosed with an early stage of prostate cancer.  In a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett indicated that it is not life threatening or debilitating.

New Policy May Ease Compliance with Voter ID Law

The Department of State estimates that 99% of eligible voters already have an acceptable form of photo ID under Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law, and they’re simplifying the process for many of the rest. 

Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele announced a new policy, Wednesday, which will allow eligible voters with an expired driver’s license to obtain a new non-driver photo ID without having to produce a birth certificate or other proof of identification. 

Secretary Carol Aichele

The theory is that if you have an expired license, you’re already PennDOT’s system, and you’ve already produced proof of ID.  “You don’t even need to produce your expired license.  You just need to give your name to the PennDOT customer service representative and they will locate your information from the database,” Secretary Aichele explained at a capitol news conference.      

Aichele believes this will be especially beneficial for senior citizens who no longer drive.  The new process also applies to expired non-driver photo IDs.    

Next Tuesday’s primary election will mark the “soft roll-out” of the Voter ID law, which means voters will be requested to produce a photo ID – but it will not be required.  “Voters not showing acceptable ID will be given a handout listing the photo IDs that are acceptable in November, and how they can get a free photo ID from PennDOT for voting purposes,” Aichele says. 

The state is budgeting $1-million dollars to cover the cost of issuing those free ID cards to eligible voters who affirm they need them for voting purposes.  Such ID cards would normally run you $13.50

“It is our intent to make sure every eligible voter in Pennsylvania has a photo ID,” Aichele says.  The goal of the new Voter ID law is to ensure the integrity of every vote.

Holocaust Commemoration: Never Forget and Never Again

Victims are being remembered, and survivors are being honored.  Radio PA’s Matt Paul takes us inside the 2012 Civic Commemoration of the Holocaust. Holocaust Commemoration

International Car Theft Ring Busted, More Than Two Dozen Charged

More than two dozen people have been arrested in a $2.3 million luxury car theft ring that shipped vehicles out of the country to overseas buyers.  The Pennsylvania Attorney General and State Police say the 26 suspects from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New York were responsible for the thefts of at least 57 vehicles in the Philadelphia and Newark New Jersey areas. The investigation was known as “Operation Wheels of Fortune.”

While many cars were taken from dealerships, at least 17 were taken in carjackings or other violent incidents. Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office says the investigation is ongoing.  He says there’s a booming international business and a demand for these types of vehicles and someone will try to figure out how to make money on that.

Frederiksen says luxury vehicles and SUVs would often sell for 25 to 30% more in West Africa than they would in the United States.  Some of the stolen vehicles were recovered at the docks where they were to be loaded on shipping containers bound for West Africa.

Frederiksen says part of the operation involved an organized effort to steal cars from dealerships in the Philadelphia area.  The thieves would then contact a broker, or middle man, to deal the cars. He says the buyers were a group of individuals from Philadelphia and New York would were making arrangements to ship cars quickly out of the country.

Frederiksen says they intercepted what was believed to be an organized network of thieves, brokered middle men and a group of individuals looking for cars to ship overseas.  He says they don’t believe these were the only people doing this.