Third and State

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On Redistricting Reform, Good Intentions Are Not Enough

July 15, 2018 - 4:04pm

The first rule of politics, like that of medicine, is do no harm.

And the intention to do no harm is not enough, you need a strategy to ensure that your actions actually avoid doing harm directly or indirectly.

Once again, Fair Districts PA (FDPA) and March on Harrisburg, in two separate ways, are potentially doing harm to our political system in Pennsylvania. 

FDPA and March on Harrisburg have been protesting Governor Wolf, demanding that he call the PA General Assembly back for a special session to pass a redistricting constitutional amendment before the clock runs out sometime this month. 

I will point out in a moment that the focus on Governor Wolf is misplaced and potentially dangerous. But the deeper problem is that calling the General Assembly back into session makes no sense if you don’t have a reasonable goal for them to accomplish and, importantly, a strategy to attain that goal. 

Here the reform groups differ, although the actions of both of them are problematic. 

March on Harrisburg says it wants to see the General Assembly pass the original versions of SB22 and HB722, also known in the House as the Samuelson bill (or the Samuelson amendment to the Folmer version of the Senate-passed SB22.)  

We support that goal. But we see no way to make it reality. A majority of the House – with far more Democrats than Republicans – have co-sponsored it. But the leadership of the House so far will not support it. And when Senate Democrats tried to pass it, all Senate Republicans voted against it. 

The lack of any strategy to pass the Samuelson bill is, we presume, why FDPA, after rightly and strongly supporting the Samuelson bill a few weeks ago, has changed course again. Yesterday FDPA released and praised a letter from Senators Scarnati and Corman to Speaker Turzai saying that the Senate would be willing to compromise on the Senate-passed SB22, which is not the Samuelson redistricting proposal, but the harmful Folmer redistricting proposal, by passing a version of the bill that removes the judicial redistricting provision (also known as the Aument amendment.)  

FDPA says this is progress, which we take to mean that the group would once again accept the Folmer redistricting plan rather than the original Samuelson plan.

But as we – and March on Harrisburg – have pointed out, the Folmer plan is faux reform. It would give the majority party, which for the foreseeable future will be the Republican Party, control over redistricting for both congressional and state legislative districts. Were it to pass this year and next and then be adopted by the voters – and they rarely vote no on a constitutional amendment – we would be stuck with this disastrous plan for generations. 

Why has FDPA retreated again from supporting real redistricting reform? We are loath to speculate about their motives. But it appears that they either still don’t understand why the Folmer plan is bad, despite their own consultants from the Brennan Center telling them to reject it, or they are desperate to claim victory. 

So, March on Harrisburg has no strategy for victory if the General Assembly returns. And FDPA has a strategy that could lead to a disaster if it returns. Thus, we question the wisdom of encouraging Governor Wolf to call them back to Harrisburg. We are also concerned about the General Assembly enacting other pernicious legislation if it returns to the Capitol. Nothing keeps them from running a regular legislative session once they return to Harrisburg at which they could pass destructive legislation like work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid.

We also question why FDPA and March on Harrisburg have been spending the last few weeks focused on asking Governor Wolf to call the General Assembly back into session to enact redistricting reform. This effort is wholly misguided. The governor’s action is neither necessary nor sufficient to enact redistricting reform. His commitment to redistricting reform is unquestionable, as was shown by the critical support he gave the effort to revise congressional districts this year. If anyone is to blame for the impasse on redistricting reform, it is the Republican leaders of the General Assembly. They have the power to call the House and Senate back into session at any time. And their unwillingness or inability to secure the Republican caucuses to coalesce in support of genuine redistricting reform is the major barrier to progress. All of us who support redistricting reform should be putting the onus on the Republican leadership of the General Assembly, not Governor Wolf. 

But FDPA and March on Harrisburg seem determined to be “nonpartisan” not matter what violence that stance does to the truth and good political strategy. We are a nonpartisan organization, as well. But being nonpartisan does not require advocates to ignore reality. And the reality is that the Republicans have controlled the General Assembly for years and have consistently sought to restrict our democracy by, for example, enacting Voter ID laws and by gerrymandering congressional and state legislative districts. 

Just this year, the Republicans have undermined the goal of redistricting reform multiple times. To begin with, most of the supporters of the good redistricting bills introduced earlier in the year in the House, HB722, and Senate, SB22, were Democrats, along with some Southeast PA Republicans. Then, Republican Chair Daryl Metcalfe with the support of Republican members of the House State Government Committee mangled HB 722 beyond recognition. Much the same thing happened in the Senate, where the Republican chair of the Senate State Government committee, Mike Folmer, led an effort to amend SB22 in ways that gave the General Assembly far too much control over the redistricting process. On a straight party line vote, all Republicans voted against an effort by Senator Vince Hughes to fix the Folmer plan. And then, adding insult to injury, the Republicans, in another straight party line vote, added an amendment by Senator Aument that would have enabled the majority party to gerrymander newly-created districts for the election of appellate court judges in the state. 

Democrats did develop an amendment strategy to kill the Senate-passed SB22 in the House. But that was the only way to kill a very bad bill – one that FDPA unconscionably supported. It was the right strategy and, should the General Assembly come back to Harrisburg, we would urge legislators to do the same thing again. 

That is the reality. When March on Harrisburg and FDPA blame “both sides” for the failure of redistricting reform, they are creating alternative facts that are far-removed from the reality we have seen this year. And all the good intentions can’t rescue a political strategy from creating disaster when it is based on a seemingly willful misreading of the political circumstances in which we live. 

KRC Files Affidavit in PA School Funding Lawsuit

July 10, 2018 - 1:43pm

Last week petitioners in Pennsylvania's school funding lawsuit filed a brief and affidavits refuting the claim made by the Republican leader of the PA Senate, Joe Scarnati, that the lawsuit was rendered moot because the state adopted a school funding formula in 2016.

The brief details how state funding increases have not kept pace with rising mandated costs, including pension expenses. Because of this, aggregate state funding available to school districts for classroom costs have effectively decreased by $155.3 million since 2013.

In addition, according to an affidavit filed by KRC Labor Economist Mark Price, funding gaps between low- and high-wealth districts have significantly increased since the case was filed. Four years ago, a typical high-wealth school district spent $3,058 more per student than a typical low-wealth school district. Today that difference has grown to $3,778/student.

In other words, four years ago, high-wealth districts spent $76,450 more for each classroom of 25 students than low-wealth districts. Today, they spend $94,450 more.

Read Mark Price's full affidavit here.

In a statement about the court filing, Maura McInerney, Education Law Center legal director, sums up the current state of school funding in PA, "Our affidavits from school districts, parents, and an economist make clear not only that the state has failed to fix a broken funding system, but conditions are actually getting worse, with painful consequences for school children. Petitioner school districts don't have sufficient funding to hire desperately needed teachers and support staff, repair crumbling facilities, or provide critical educational programming. This problem will not be fixed until additional money is added to the education budget."

A recent survey of school districts conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Superintendents and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials demonstrates that the harm caused to students by inadequate state funding extends far beyond the school districts that are part of the school funding lawsuit. This survey found that in the next school year:

  • 77 percent of school districts are planning to increase property taxes
  • 39 percent plan to increase class sizes
  • 47 percent do not intend to fill vacant positions as a result of retirements or resignations.
  • 24 percent plan to reduce or eliminate elective classes and 12 percent plan to reduce or eliminate summer school.

Every child deserves to go to a quality school need to pay attention to who supports Pennsylvania’s public schoolchildren and who doesn’t. As the lawsuit progresses, we need to continue holding individuals in positions of power accountable for fixing Pennsylvania’s broken system by providing funding and enacting policies that are sensible and fair to all.

The General Assembly Budget Mirrors Many of the Governor’s Priorities But Does Not Go Far Enough

June 22, 2018 - 11:25pm

The House and Senate have now passed a $32.7-billion state budget — $281 million less than the governor’s proposed budget, which is expected to be passed on to the Senate next week. The General Assembly budget passed easily and proposed no new tax increases or fees.

Like Governor Wolf’s proposal, the budget passed by the General Assembly has many of the right priorities but does not go far enough in funding them. The budget leaves Pennsylvania with a public investment deficit that is getting larger each year.

Closing the public investment deficit is impossible without new revenues. Again, the General Assembly failed to consider the governor’s common-sense proposals to raise recurring revenue such as a shale tax on natural gas (which would bring in between $200 and $400 million a year over the next five years), corporate tax reform like combined reporting, and a fee for local governments that relies on the State Police instead of local police forces.

A failure to raise new revenues not only makes it impossible to invest in more critical public needs, it leaves us with a budget that again relies on one-time revenues and others that will not be available next year. (See below.)

The General Assembly also refused to consider Governor Wolf’s proposal for an increase in the minimum wage, a raise that would not only improve the lives of low-income Pennsylvanians but would have a positive financial impact on the state. A $12 minimum wage would reduce spending by the Department of Human Services by $100 million a year due to decreased reliance on public assistance.

Despite these disappointing decisions not to raise new, recurring revenue this year or the minimum wage, there are some bright spots in the budget, in part due to a positive financial outlook for the state, leading to higher revenue projections. Since the budget is balanced, it is subject to the requirement of a 25% transfer of surpluses to the Rainy-Day Fund estimated to be $25 million. The General Assembly budget will also meet the actuarially required contribution for the third year in a row to PSERS, which is the public employee retirement system, and the state employee retirement system (or SERS) after not doing so for 15 and 16 years respectively. This contribution puts the state in the process of paying down the unfunded liability for pensions.

Below, we review some of the main priorities of the governor and how the General Assembly budget stacks up to his proposal.

PreK-12 Education: One of those priorities is education. The General Assembly budget would increase funding for education to $12.7 billion, an increase of $458 million from last year. This is not as strong as the governor’s proposal of $12.8 billion, but it’s close. This budget increases the funding that goes to classrooms across the state, in a larger amount than the governor proposed. The General Assembly proposal provides $6.1 billion for Basic Education (same as the governor’s proposal) but increases spending on Ready to Learn Block Grants by $18 million — a 7.2% increase from last year.

Early education will see additional investments from last year, but not as much as the governor proposed. The program Pre-K Counts will get an increase from last year of $20 million for total spending for 2018/19 at $192 million — the governor had proposed an increase of $30 million. Head Start Supplemental Assistance would receive a $5 million increase from 2017/18, only half of what was proposed by Governor Wolf.

We see the same trends with special education. The General Assembly passed an increase, but it doesn’t go as far as the governor’s proposal. The General Assembly budget includes an increase of $15 million for special education to $1.14 billion, $5 million less than the governor had proposed.

Early Intervention for 3 to 5-year-olds (in the Department of Education budget) saw even more of an increase than the governor had proposed: $10 million more for a total of $285.5 million, an 8.2% increase from last year.

New in the General Assembly budget is a $60 million initiative for school and community safety, a result of ongoing and pressing concerns for the safety of students across the Commonwealth. The details of such funding is yet unclear, but school districts will likely be able to use the funds in a variety of ways based on their needs. While promoting school safety is a priority we support, we worry that doing so without passing commonsense gun control measures will be an effort in vain.

Higher Education: Governor Wolf’s only proposed increased funding for higher education was for the State System — an increase of 3.3% — which the General Assembly approved. The General Assembly, however, also increased funding for community colleges by 3%, or $7 million, for a total of $239 million. The General Assembly increased funding for the state-related universities (University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln) by 3%, for a total increase of $17 million for all four universities combined.

Human Services: The General Assembly budget on human services is similar to Governor Wolf’s proposal with some programs making out better than others. The General Assembly proposed $12.14 billion for human services but did not accept the governor’s proposal to combine the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services to save on administrative costs.

The General Assembly plan mirrors Governor Wolf’s in areas of intellectual disabilities/state centers, which is a decrease of $11 million from last year due to the closing of the Hamburg Center and savings from the GO-Time Initiative. But the Intellectual Disabilities-Community Waiver Program will see an increase of $61 million which will allow 100 people with intellectual disabilities to come off the waiting list and allow 25 people to move from state centers to a community setting. With the General Assembly plan, Autism Intervention and Services will see a 13.3% increase in funding from last year, $2.7 million more than the governor had proposed.

Mental and behavioral health will not change much from last year. Behavioral Health Services is flat funded as the governor proposed, and Mental Health Services will see a small increase of $15 million, or a 2% increase, from last year.

The General Assembly budget also increased funding for child care, which will reduce the waiting list for families waiting for subsidized care. It will also provide a much-needed rate increase for providers. Child care services will see an increase of 4.4% from last year’s budget — $6.8 million — but not as much as the governor had hoped for.

Early Intervention for youth, birth to 3 years old, will actually see a funding decrease as the General Assembly accepts the governor’s proposal to fund the program at $143 million, $1.3 million less than last year. Early Intervention Services for this age group for children who have Down Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy or other diagnoses is especially important for learning and development, setting the stage for lifelong success. This program has not seen a rate increase in the past 8-10 years.

Opioid Epidemic: The General Assembly budget also provides important funds to help fight the opioid epidemic and treat those with substance abuse disorder. The General Assembly included even more money in the budget (an increase of 13% to $13.6 million) for Community-Based Family Centers than the governor proposed. This funding will go towards home-based visiting models to serve an additional 800 families impacted by substance abuse disorder and a rate increase for services provided by these centers.

Workforce Development: The General Assembly also supported one of Governor Wolf’s priorities, to increase funding for Career and Technical Education (CTE) and workforce development more generally. CTE, part of the Department of Education, has not seen a funding increase in the last ten years. The General Assembly budget will increase funding by $30 million to a total of $92 million. This falls short of the governor’s proposal of a $50 million increase, but it is still significant.

The General Assembly plan also increases funding for industry partnership and apprenticeship. Industry partnerships would see an increase of $3 million, which is a 166% increase from last year. This is the first year that apprenticeship will be funded at $7 million. This funding will go towards growing the Pennsylvania Office of Apprenticeship, set up in 2016, in order to expand apprenticeship into new industries across the state.

Environmental Protection: The General Assembly plan provides an additional $6.8 million to $153 million, an increase of 4.7%. This is not as much as the governor’s proposed increase of 5.5%, mainly due to the General Assembly's rejection of the governor’s proposal to increase funding for the Ohio River Valley Watershed Sanitation Commission, the Delaware River Basin Commission, and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River, which will remain flat funded from last year. The additional investment in the Department of Environmental Protection will allow, as the governor had hoped, the hiring of 35 new DEP staff to help monitor air quality in natural gas drilling areas, review sewage expansion requests, and oversee high-hazard dams.

One-Time Revenues and Other Budget Concerns: As we mentioned above, the 2018-2019 budget, like most budgets in the last decades, relies far too much on one-time or other revenues that will not be available next year. Spending of $130 million for PlanCon will be covered by debt rather than a general fund appropriate. Child care spending will be covered by $66 million in federal funds that may not be available next year. The budget relies on funds from the settlement the Attorney General has reached in regard to back tobacco settlement funds. It is not clear whether, and for how long, these funds will be available in the future. The budget again assumes that a transfer of $200 million from the JUA medical malpractice fund will take place, although the courts have ruled against it so far. The budget relies on a change in the timing of monthly payments to Medicaid managed care organizations that saves $120 million for one year and $351.7 million from the gross receipts tax on Medicaid managed care organizations, a tax that, in accordance with federal rules, will be ended. In addition, 2019-2020 debt service payments on the securitization of tobacco settlement funds will begin, reducing the amount available for the General Fund by $115 million. We also have some concerns about whether actual caseloads for Medical Assistance will be higher than projected in the budget.


The Trump Administration’s Newest About-Face: Seeking to Dismantle Protections for Those with Pre-Existing Conditions

June 20, 2018 - 11:54am

In a move in line with Trump’s typical bait-and-switch — purporting to be a defender of the American working class but then doing everything he can to shift power and wealth upwards — he and his Justice Department have decided not to defend the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) protection for those with pre-existing conditions. The pre-existing conditions provision is arguably the most popular piece of the ACA which ensures that insurance companies cannot deny, limit or overcharge anyone who has a pre-existing condition.

A new legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Texas et al. v. United States et al., argues that the ACA’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions is unconstitutional because the original legislation was supposed to work in tandem with the individual mandate. Since the individual mandate has been repealed, the pre-existing condition clause should also be invalid (so the argument goes).

In an unusual move, the U.S. Justice Department will not defend the existing law and President Trump recently signaled his support for the plaintiffs — the 20 conservative states who filed the lawsuit. Pennsylvania was not one of the plaintiffs, nor was it one of 17 states who filed a motion opposing the case. A career DOJ attorney has recently resigned over this move.

Experts have warned that repealing the pre-existing conditions clause would not only impact those who get coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but could also impact employer coverage as well, specifically when individuals are changing jobs or when they work for smaller employers.

The Center for American Progress did an analysis of how many individuals in each state and congressional district could be affected by such a policy. In Pennsylvania, there are more than 5.3 million people (non-elderly) who have a pre-existing condition. That is 52% of all non-elderly Pennsylvanians. This includes over 1 million young people (642,700 ages 0-17 and 446,200 ages 18-24). Below, we show the data by Congressional district.

It looks like this legal challenge is unlikely to be successful, as the Supreme Court has already rejected two other challenges to the law. Many legal scholars have said the plaintiffs’ argument is without merit and that if Congress wanted to do away with the pre-existing condition provision they would have done so when repealing the individual mandate.

Even so, it is unprecedented that the Justice Department would refuse to defend existing laws, even if the current president doesn’t support said law. The Washington Post documented the numerous times that while campaigning and as president, Trump said he supported and would defend the ACA’s pre-existing condition clause. Now, and with no warning, he’s not only changed his position, but is refusing to enforce existing law, which is one of his duties as president. While this about-face is certainly not surprising, it is disturbing nonetheless.


Republican Judicial Districting — An Existential Threat to Pennsylvania Democracy

June 18, 2018 - 4:04pm

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht

As a resident of Communist East Germany, Bertolt Brecht understood better than most writers in the 20th century how fragile representative democracy can be and what a serious threat to our form of government looks like. And as his poem above points out, the key requirement of representative democracy is that the government be responsible to the people. For that to happen, elections have to be regular and they have to be fair. There can’t be any barriers to participation in elections and those elections need to be conducted under rules that give everyone an equal voice. There also has to be a way to enforce those rules which, in America, has always meant a strong and independent judiciary.

By passing SB22 this week, the Republican members of the Pennsylvania Senate, with the connivance of two Democrats, created a two-part existential threat to representative democracy in Pennsylvania.

The first part is a misguided redistricting “reform” plan created by Republican Senator Folmer and supported by activists who had not thought through the consequences of that plan. 

That part of SB22 was bad enough. But then, at practically the last minute, the Republicans added a second part — a plan to create judicial districts for the Supreme Court and the two second-level courts, the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court. This plan would enable the majority party in the General Assembly to exert undue pressure on the members and decisions of these courts by creating gerrymandered districts and through other means.

Right now, the members of all these courts are elected in statewide elections. The Republicans propose that we elect them in regional districts instead. If carried out, there would be seven Supreme Court Districts, one for each member of the Court and so on for Commonwealth Court, which now has nine members, and Superior Court, which has fourteen.

The Republicans gave a number of reasons for creating judicial districts. I’m not going to address those reasons here and will return to them in another blog post for the simple reasons that (1) these reasons are utterly specious, and (2) they have nothing to do with the reason the Republicans seek to create judicial districts.

The real goal for creating judicial districts is to gerrymander the district lines so that more Republicans can be elected to the Court. Republicans have a serious problem in statewide judicial elections — Democrats far outnumber them. That doesn’t mean Republicans can’t get elected to one of the statewide courts. When they put up strong candidates who run good campaigns, they often win. And they often win elections to the courts people don’t know as much about. They hold seven of nine seats on the Superior Court and eight out of fourteen on the Commonwealth Court. But  in the elections to the Supreme Court, Democrats have had an advantage. Democrats now hold five out of seven seats on the Supreme Court.

Republicans find the Democratic majority on the Supreme Court intolerable right now because it just acted to overturn the 2011 gerrymander of Congressional districts. Republicans don’t want a Democratic Supreme Court to make it more difficult for them to stack the deck in their favor. They don’t want any Supreme Court, whether Democratic or Republican, to get in their way. For they have been trying to carry out a slow-motion coup for over a decade, one that would allow them to control the political life of this state without the bother of having to win fair elections.

The recent Congressional redistricting decision wasn’t the first time the Supreme Court overturned the Republicans’ plans to twist the electoral process in their favor. For over two decades, Republicans have been seeking to gerrymander the state legislative and Congressional districts in their favor. Earlier in this decade, a Republican-majority Supreme Court overturned a state legislative districting plan that was gerrymandered in favor of the Republicans. (The current map, however, is not much better.) And the Court has also checked other rules put in place by Republicans in the General Assembly to stack the deck against Democrats. This includes the notorious plan to require government-issued photo IDs of voters, which would make it more difficult for many low-income, urban, and elderly citizens (who are more likely to support Democrats) to vote.

Republicans in the General Assembly, in other words, don’t want to be limited by the Supreme Court. So how will creating judicial districts give Republicans control over the Courts? In two ways.

The first is to gerrymander the judicial districts. What they will do with the Supreme Court, for example, is to draw lines that try to pack Democratic voters into three seats (most likely one centered on Pittsburgh and two centered on Philadelphia and its suburbs) and then to spread Republican voters among the other four districts with the hope of holding a 4-3 margin on the Supreme Court. The same kind of gerrymandering could take place for Superior and Commonwealth Courts.

The second, even more sinister way the Republicans will try to gain control over the Court is to use the transition process to judicial districts to benefit their own party and particular justices and judges rather than others.

Under the current constitutional rules, when the ten-year terms of the justices and judges of our appellate courts end they must run in a retention election in which voters decide whether to keep them on or not. They are almost always retained — only once in recent decades has a justice of the Supreme Court lost his effort to be retained.

Under the Aument amendment, when the terms of the current justices or judges who have been elected statewide come to an end, they do not run in a retention election but must run for reelection in one of the new districts. (Once the justices and judges are elected in a district election, however, they do run in a retention election at the end of their term.) Under the Aument amendment, the General Assembly can decide the order in which the new judicial districts are created.

(In what follows, I’m going to focus on the shenanigans made possible by the Aument amendment for Supreme Court elections, but much the same can happen for Commonwealth and Superior Court elections.)

Republican Chief Justice Saylor’s term ends in 2021 when he turns 75. At that point, if it is still dominated by Republicans, the General Assembly can decide where the first Supreme Court judicial district will be located and will no doubt make that a district that a Republican would be overwhelmingly likely to win.

And when Democratic Justice Baer’s term ends in December 2022 when he reaches 75, the Republicans can decide where to hold a second regional judicial election to elect a new justice. And they can again draw the lines anyway they want and presumably will create another judicial seat with lines that make it impossible for a Democrat to win.

And they can keep doing this, election after election, because there is no prohibition on a General Assembly majority changing the district lines for every judicial election. Every time a judicial term ends, the General Assembly can redraw the lines so that the open seat is one that only a member of the majority party can win.

When it comes to current justices who under the current rules would be up for a retention election, more shenanigans are possible. For example, Democratic Justice Kevin Dougherty, who is from Philadelphia, is up for retention in 2025. Under the Aument amendment, Justice Dougherty would have to run in a competitive election. And, if the General Assembly decided that the new judicial district created that year is, for example, centered in Erie, Justice Dougherty would simply be unable to run for reelection at all — unless he had moved to Erie. (And, even then, it is possible that the timing of residence rules and the drawing of election districts would make it impossible for him to do that.)

I could go much further in describing the possible ways a General Assembly could draw and redraw district lines to help one party and hurt another or to help one Justice win reelection or not during, and even after, the transition period to judicial districts. But let’s leave the head-spinning details behind and just say that by allowing the General Assembly to draw and redraw judicial district lines, the Aument amendment creates enormous potential for the General Assembly to decide who is on the Court. That also means that the Supreme Court justices, who would be aware of the potential for mischief, are likely to feel a great deal of pressure to not challenge the General Assembly.

That is how judicial independence that is so important to government in America would be compromised by the Aument amendment. And, as we have repeatedly seen in Pennsylvania, that judicial independence is critical to protecting us from other attempts by the majority of the General Assembly to twist the electoral process to benefit themselves.

Finally, let me address some possible checks on the power of the General Assembly to pressure the Supreme Court by monkeying with judicial districts.

Some commentary on the Aument amendment claims that the General Assembly won’t actually draw district lines but that this job will go to the so-called independent redistricting commission, assuming it is adopted by the electorate at the same time as the Aument amendment. That, however, is not how the amendment actually reads. (And I should add that the amendment is so badly written that it is not hard to understand why someone might read it that way.) The new Article V section 11 (C), read in connection with the existing sections of Article V, clearly says that the General Assembly will draw the lines. The new Article V section 11 (A) does say that district lines should meet the requirements for Congressional districts, which means that they must be compact and contiguous. However, when we are talking about seven districts for the entire state, those requirements can be met by an almost infinite number of district lines, giving the General Assembly wide latitude for shenanigans.

The same Article V section 11 (C) in the Aument amendment also says that the General Assembly should draw lines “by law” and “with the advice and consent of the Supreme Court.” The phrase “by law” probably means that the governor can veto the General Assembly’s actions, though I’ve consulted at least one lawyer who wasn’t sure about that. (Also, at some point we will have a governor of the same party as the majority of the General Assembly and then possibly lose that check on the General Assembly.)

The requirement that district lines have the “advice and consent of the Supreme Court” might enable the members of the court to defend themselves against some of the ways that the General Assembly can exert pressure on them. But, again, it is not clear how this advice and consent would work. When it comes to drawing lines for lower courts, the General Assembly has created a process under law, in Title 42, Section 901, in which the Supreme Court can approve or reject district lines. If the General Assembly does not create such a process, we can’t be sure how the Supreme Court would exercise its power over judicial district lines.

Whatever lines the General Assembly might create could be challenged in the courts, up to the Supreme Court itself. That would be one way for the Supreme Court members to defend themselves against encroachment by the General Assembly. The question, however, is this: when the playing field has been tilted so decisively to the General Assembly, can we count on the members of the Supreme Court to stand up for their own independence?

And most importantly, we shouldn’t have to worry about that question or about all the uncertainties created by the Aument amendment. Republicans here in Pennsylvania and around the country are changing or bending the rules to expand their power. And they aren’t just changing the way elections are run. They are trying to undermine labor unions — see the Janus case and others, nationally, and the continued efforts in Pennsylvania to undermine collective bargaining especially for public employees. And they are trying to stack the courts — recall what happened to President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland and look at the far-right members of the federal courts appointed by our current president.

So, this is not the time to be debating the finer points of how far the majority in the General Assembly — which was in part created by gerrymandered state legislative districts — can or cannot go in expanding its influence over Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.

It’s time to recognize the plot the Republican majority is trying to carry out with the Aument amendment for what it is and say a firm "NO" to that plan, SB22. 

Protect Our Representative Democracy — Stop The GOP Attack on the PA Courts

June 14, 2018 - 11:51am

Representative democracy in Pennsylvania is under attack. This week, on a straight party-line vote, Republican senators passed a constitutional amendment that would give the majority party in the General Assembly a strikingly unprecedented degree of influence over who is elected to our courts, including the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In turn, that would undermine the checks and balances in our state government — including those that have blocked, and would block in the future, the Republicans from tilting the rules of our democracy in their favor.

This new action taken by our heavily gerrymandered state Senate is one more step in a slow-motion coup by which Republicans are seeking to change the political rules to give them control over our state government without having to be bothered to win more votes in fair elections. It follows the enactment of Voter ID laws that would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters — a policy that their own leader, Mike Turzai, admitted would help them win elections. It follows the creation of heavily gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts that have given Republicans an enormous advantage in elections to these offices. It follows efforts to undermine labor organizations, the political voice of working people in Pennsylvania. And it was added to a troubling proposal that pretends to create an independent redistricting commission but would, instead, give the majority party in the General Assembly the ability to continue to draw lines in its favor.

The Republican proposal would replace the statewide election of members of the Supreme, Commonwealth, and Superior Court with election by judicial districts. Those districts would be drawn by the General Assembly itself (not by the redistricting commission as some people have claimed). This would enable the Republicans to draw district lines in a way that almost guarantees them a majority on the Supreme Court and our other courts. To attain this goal — and to threaten sitting justices — the General Assembly could redraw these districts for every election. And in the transition from statewide to district elections, the General Assembly could, in effect, shorten the tenure of the current members of the Supreme and other courts while also blocking some of those members from being reelected and helping others to be reelected.

The Republicans have offered specious reasons for changing the rules for electing judges, reasons that confuse the role of a legislature, which is designed in part to represent local interests and a court, which is designed to apply the law fairly and equitably statewide. But everyone — including the smirking Republicans who presented this proposal — knows that it is an act of revenge against a Supreme Court that this year redrew congressional district lines that were widely recognized as the most unfair and politically partisan in the country.

The judicial gerrymandering proposal is one more step in the Republican plan to eviscerate our representative democracy and install themselves permanently in power. We have three weeks to block it in the Pennsylvania House. Contact your member of the Pennsylvania House today to tell him or her to say “NO” to the plan to undermine our constitutional democracy by gerrymandering Pennsylvania’s judicial elections.

Pennsylvania State Government’s To-Do List: June 2018

June 13, 2018 - 4:28pm

There seems to be an overall optimism among state legislators that the Pennsylvania budget will pass on time given the positive revenue numbers in the state, a straight-forward budget proposal by the governor, and no haunting budget deficit to overcome like in years past. That said, the details of what said budget will look like have not been shared.

To help legislators stay focused on what is most important to Pennsylvanians throughout the Commonwealth, we have put together a list of four to-dos:

- Increase state funding for education at all levels.

- Pass a severance tax.

- Increase the minimum wage.

- Stop harmful work requirements attached to SNAP and Medicaid.


1. Increase state funding for education at all levels

Pennsylvania’s poor investment in education at all levels has led to devastating impacts for students across the Commonwealth. Our state ranks 46th in the nation in terms of our state share of investment in K-12 education. We have the most unequally funded schools in the U.S. with the poorest school districts paying 33% less than the state’s most affluent. And Pennsylvania ranks 47th in terms of our per capita investment in higher education.

The legislature should accept Governor Wolf’s proposed increases in education funding for K-12, pre-K, higher education, and workforce development education programs.

Governor Wolf proposed a $100-million increase in K-12 classroom spending through the Basic Education subsidy. If passed, after eight long years this proposal would finally restore the drastic budget cuts Governor Corbett made in 2011-12 (that is, in nominal dollars — not adjusted for inflation). While this funding would not fully address the great inequities between the state’s poorest and richest school districts, this additional funding will go through the fair funding formula which distributes funds more equitably.

Governor Wolf also proposed an increase of 18% to early childhood education programs — $30 million for Pre-K Counts and $10 million for Head Start Supplemental Assistance. As abundant evidence has shown, early childhood education is critical to lifelong success for students. An investment in early childhood education is an investment in our youth and the future of our Commonwealth.

At a minimum this June, the state legislature should increase investment in higher education by providing the State System of Higher Education an additional $15 million and make a strong investment in workforce development programs. The Governor also proposed a $90-million increase for Career and Technical Education and other workforce development efforts to further link state agency efforts and connect such efforts to higher education. Additional money would go towards expanding apprenticeship in Pennsylvania to industries and occupations where this workforce model is scarce but much needed. Apprenticeship is a great education/workforce model where individuals earn while they learn, leading directly to good paying jobs.

2. Pass a severance tax

Our state faces a public investment deficit, as evidenced above by our poor rankings in education funding, quality, and equity. Part of this public investment deficit is due to decreasing state revenues. For example, in 1972 corporate taxes accounted for 30% of our General Fund revenue, whereas today it only accounts for 15%. Declining corporate revenue means there is less money in our state coffers to spend on quality education, much-needed human services, and infrastructure upgrades.

The Pennsylvania state legislature must pass a severance tax to bring additional revenue into the state. Pennsylvania remains the only natural gas-rich state allowing gas companies to drill without paying taxes on the value of gas extracted from within our borders. Governor Wolf’s proposal to impose a severance tax would bring in an additional $200 million this coming year and over $400 million by 2021-22 — this would be on top of the already established impact fee.

When considering the combination of the impact fee along with the proposed severance tax, the lifetime effective tax rate (ETR) in Pennsylvania would be about 4% — not as strong as West Virginia’s severance tax rate of 5% but much better than the impact fee ETR alone (1.6%).

3. Increase the minimum wage

The legislature needs to pass an increase in the minimum wage to $12 hour, indexed to inflation and with a path to a $15 minimum wage. An initial increase to $12/hour will lift the wages of 1.6 million workers in the state: stunningly, nearly one-third of the Pennsylvania workforce (28.9%). Such an increase would have widespread benefits, including increasing the purchasing power of workers across the Commonwealth which will fuel our economy and decrease reliance on public assistance. A new report from the Keystone Research Center also shows that an increase to $12/hour will decrease child poverty from 19% to 12%. Further increase in the minimum wage to $15/hour would further drop child poverty rates to 8%.

4. Stop harmful work requirements attached to SNAP and Medicaid

Lastly, the Pennsylvania legislature needs to stop all efforts aimed at attaching work requirements to SNAP and Medicaid. HB1659 would impose work requirements on those who rely on SNAP, or food stamps, to stave off hunger and HB2138 would do so for those who rely on Medicaid for their health insurance. These measures just got through the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and will go up for a vote very soon in the full Senate. While touted as getting people to work, the real consequences of these measures will be an increase in hunger and the uninsured throughout the state. These measures must be defeated.

Let’s make sure our legislators stay focused on what Pennsylvanians care about most and ask them to check these critical tasks off of June’s to-do list. Contact your legislator today!

Time to Stop SB 22

June 13, 2018 - 12:39am

Republicans today added a second constitutional amendment to, in effect, gerrymander the Supreme Court to a bill, SB22, that proposed a constitutional amendment to stop gerrymandering of the congressional and state legislative elections. The Supreme Court gerrymandering amendment passed on a party line vote. And it means that today all supporters of redistricting reform, including PBPC, withdrew support for SB22 and tomorrow all Democrats will likely vote against  it.

We do not yet know what the prospects for SB22 are in the House, but we will join other groups in working to defeat it.

There are some better signs today. PBPC and other groups have been pointing to flaws in the SB22 as amended by Senator Folmer. Those flaws are technical and difficult for many people to understand. But today Senator Vince Hughes put forward an amendment that fixed those flaws and it received unanimous vote the part of the Democratic Party. Senator Hughes’s amendment may need some further tweaks, but it clearly points the way to real redistricting reform that should eventually become law.

The other thing we learned today is why it is so critical that redistricting reform be done right—with sufficient protections against abuse by partisan politicians. Partisan division is so deep today that we must assume that political leaders will use every loophole to further their purposes. And while Democrats are not perfect, it is simply a matter of plain fact that Republicans have a far longer record of stretching, abusing, or changing the rules to serve their partisan purposes.

If you doubt that, look at who drew the terrible gerrymandered maps of 2011. Or who passed Voter ID laws. Or who refused to draw new district lines after the PA Supreme Court threw out the gerrymandered lines of 2011. Or who threatened to impeach the justices of the Supreme Court who did that.

Or just ask Mr. Justice Merrick Garland.

So, let's just be clear on one thing: The addition of judicial gerrymandering to SB22 wasn't a betrayal of the Folmer plan / SB22. It has the same end as the Folmer plan / SB22: to change the rules to give Republicans control over our state government without their having to be bothered to actually win more votes in fair elections. The supporters of this bill should have known that.

The key lesson here is that serious redistricting reform must guard against any possible way for the majority party to game the system. Because if they can do it to benefit themselves, they will.

If we learn that, we can devise plans to reform redistricting in the future. And we don’t have to wait until 2031 to do so. We can pass a constitutional amendment and draw new lines under the procedures it contains at any time.

Bipartisan Senate Farm Bill Aims to Strengthen SNAP, Not Undermine it Like the House’s Proposed Bill

June 11, 2018 - 3:39pm

Last Friday, June 8, the Senate Agricultural Committee came out with its plan for the Senate Farm Bill. Keeping with the Farm Bill’s long tradition of bipartisan support, this version was released by the Senate Agricultural chairman Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and the ranking member Debbie Stabenow who is a Democratic senator from Michigan. Unlike the House version of the bill which included harmful work requirements connected to SNAP, the Senate Farm bill would reauthorize SNAP and make steps toward improving it.

The Senate proposes modest improvements to SNAP oversight, operations and administration. This includes testing the cost-effectiveness of new tools to verify household income, enhancing the ability of states to prevent dual participation in other states, allowing states to ease paperwork and office visit requirements for seniors and people with disabilities, and improving the electronic benefits transfer system (EBT). The bill also would provide increased administrative funding for tribal organizations that operate the Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations.

The Senate bill would also expand the 2014 Farm Bill’s pilot program aimed at testing out new approaches to job training and other related activities. The bill would provide funding for additional states to form pilot training programs. These would include the creation of public-private partnerships, to add to a body of evidence that shows what programs are most effective at helping SNAP recipients secure jobs, leading to a reduction in the need for SNAP. This evidence-based approach is a smarter way to figure out what programs are most helpful in moving individuals towards job security rather than across-the-board work requirements proposed by the House.

There is an unfortunate provision of the Senate Farm Bill that would get rid of bonuses to states for improved program participation among eligible people and strong benefit payment accuracy. These bonuses have been a good incentive for states to further improve access and program operations.

The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, as it relates to SNAP, stands in sharp contrast to the House Farm Bill, which would have taken away food assistance from 2 million people and impose a costly work requirements scheme that was both unproven and destructive. With 1 in 8 Americans relying on SNAP to keep them from going hungry, the Senate’s proposed Farm Bill takes steps to improve the program, rather than undermining it as the House bill did. Members of the House should follow the Senate’s lead and pass a bipartisan Farm Bill that strengthens the SNAP program.

Tell your representative to support the Senate version of the Farm Bill as currently written. We need to make sure harmful floor amendments that weaken SNAP do not get added in the coming weeks.

The Folmer Redistricting Commission: Neither Independent Nor Nonpartisan

June 11, 2018 - 12:29pm

Update Monday June 11, 11:00 am

Some advocacy groups are supporting an omnibus amendment from Senator Folmer and others. It makes some small improvements to SB22 and deals with the finality issue I mention below. (point 4). But it does not deal with SB22's fundamental structural issues which will enable the majority party to continue to gerrymander congressional and state legislative districts. Thus, we continue to urge that SB22 be restored to its original form. And if not, it should be defeated. As we have pointed out elsewhere, defeating SB22 in its current form does not mean the end of redistricting reform. The House can pass HB2402, which is the same as the original version of SB22, and send it to the Senate. The best elements of SB22 can be enacted as legislation and applied to the current redistricting process. And we all can, and should, be working for a good constitutional amendment next year which can be used to redraw district lines as soon as the voters approve it. 

Click here to send your state senator a quick email asking them to oppose SB22 as currently constructed and to fight to return the bill to its original language.

Original piece

Both the political class in Harrisburg and the progressive community around the state are focused today on the redistricting issue. Last week the Senate State Government Committee passed a version of SB22 that was crafted by Senator Mike Folmer. Some of the advocacy groups that have been working in favor of a fair redistricting process have been cautiously, or in some cases not so cautiously, supportive of it. Some who have argued that the proposal itself is problematic have held that passing it in the Senate is a necessary step to reaching a better bill.

I’m reluctant to create divisions among people who are generally allies, but I want to make clear that I believe the Folmer redistricting proposal is not only deeply flawed but is in no way a step forward for those of us who want to see a fair, nonpartisan process of drawing congressional and state legislative district lines.

I’ve explained in great detail what is wrong with the Folmer plan in this memo and won’t repeat it all here. Basically, there are four problems with the proposal:

1. The commission created by the Folmer plan is not independent at all. It may look a little more independent than the current process, but it contains none of the barriers that limit political control over redistricting found, for example, in the California plan.

2. The Folmer proposal gives the General Assembly far too much control over the redistricting process, weakening the checks and balances on its power conferred under the current procedures for drawing congressional and state legislative district lines. At best, this is likely to lead to congressional and state legislative redistricting plans that go too far in protecting incumbents.

3. The Folmer plan might lead to an even worse result as it will often give the majority party in the General Assembly the ability to draw partisan district lines that benefit itself. Think through how the Folmer plan might work in practice and you discover at least two ways in which a General Assembly can put forward and enact a partisan gerrymander of both congressional and state legislative districts.

4. The Folmer proposal has no finality. It creates a process that might not lead to new districts at all.

And there are other problems as well, including no guarantees in the Constitutional amendment that the redistricting commission will be representative of Pennsylvania in terms of geography, race, and gender.

Some tentative supporters of the Folmer plan praise it for requiring transparency in the process of redistricting by insisting on open meetings and a prohibition against communication with members of the redistricting commission outside those meetings. But as we see time and again at every level of government, open meeting requirements are easy for political officials to evade.

Other tentative supporters of the Folmer plan are saying that it is at least a step forward in that, should the Senate pass it, it is possible that the House will enact a better bill, and that a conference committee will come up with a final product that is acceptable.

In response, let me first point out that even if the House were likely to come up with a better plan, there is no need to pass a terrible plan in the Senate to reach a better plan. The House could pass a better bill and the Senate could pass it or modify it before passing it. Senate passage of SB22 is neither necessary nor sufficient for the General Assembly to pass a good redistricting amendment.

Second, it is very hard to understand why anyone has any faith that the House, which has been far more extreme and partisan than the Senate in the last few years, is likely to give us a better redistricting plan. The House is more likely to make it worse. And what those of us who want fair districts should really fear is that the House will take the Senate’s terrible plan and pass it, putting us one step closer to a constitutional amendment that, once enacted, will be very hard to undo.

Finally, some tentative supporters of the Folmer plan are saying that, at the very least, moving it forward is a victory as it is better than the current system.

Unfortunately, that is not true. Giving the General Assembly more power over redistricting is a bad idea at any time. Doing so now, when the current members of the General Assembly are the product of districts that were drawn on a partisan basis, is unconscionable. We need a clear break from partisan redistricting, and that can only happen if we create a truly independent commission rather than one whose initial product will be controlled by a General Assembly elected under current district lines.

The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve a truly independent redistricting commission. The Folmer plan is a classic bait and switch, promising such a commission but not delivering on that promise.

It is critical that every citizen of Pennsylvania who wants fair districts speak up now and demand that the Senate reject the Folmer version of SB22 now and tell the committee to come back with a sound plan for an independent redistricting commission. And should the Folmer plan pass the Senate, we must insist that the House reject it.


A Step Towards Pay Equity in Pennsylvania

June 7, 2018 - 3:15pm

Governor Tom Wolf signed an executive order yesterday aimed at combating pay equity in Pennsylvania. The order, called “Equal Pay for Employees of the Commonwealth,” prohibits employers in state government from asking applicants for their salary history in an effort to steer employers away from reinforcing pay inequities between men and women.

This legislation would impact 15,000 jobs under the governor, 2,189 of which are unfilled at the moment. The order underscores the requirement of state agencies to set salaries based on the responsibilities required in the job, the pay range of the position and the skill set of the applicant, not salary history. Wolf said that when employers ask candidates for their salary history and take that information into account, it “traps women in a cycle of being underpaid.”

Pay inequities between men and women in Pennsylvania are worse than the national average. Women are paid just 79 cents for each dollar men are paid. And this wage gap is even worse for women of color — African Americans are paid 68 cents to each dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men in the state; Latinas 56 cents; and Asian women 81 cents. The median annual pay for women working full-time, full-year is $39,905 compared to the state’s men who are paid a median of $50,412. This is an annual wage gap of over $10,000 a year.

This wage gap exists regardless of industry or occupation — in retail trade, health care and social assistance, manufacturing and more. And it affects women of all educational levels. Women with master’s degrees earn just 72 cents for each dollar earned by men with master’s degrees. In fact, nationally, women with master’s degrees are paid less than men with bachelor’s degrees.

While Governor Wolf’s executive order is a step in the right direction, it will not resolve the widespread issue of pay inequity experienced by workers in the private sector and beyond. We must organize to end the gender and racial pay gap in Pennsylvania — this will involve pursuing a broad agenda aimed at improving wages, working conditions and more.

We The People is a nonpartisan campaign aimed at ensuring all Pennsylvania residents can truly thrive in their communities. This campaign has an agenda that will address this critical issue of pay inequity by, among other things, raising the minimum wage, eliminating the tipped minimum wage, creating fair scheduling laws, guaranteeing earned sick leave, vigorously enforcing wage theft and non-discrimination laws, raising the overtime threshold in Pennsylvania, creating a system of paid family and medical leave insurance and strengthening the right to form unions and organize as workers. Sign up to support this agenda and together we can work towards a Pennsylvania that values all workers and community members.


How to Fix Legislative Districting in Pennsylvania (Without Making Things Worse)

June 5, 2018 - 11:54pm

We at the PBPC have been very critical of the effort to pass SB22, a constitutional amendment to change the way legislative districts for both Congressional and state legislative races are drawn, as it was recently amended in the state government committee. But that’s not because we don’t favor an independent redistricting commission that would create fair, nonpartisan districts.

We are very much in favor of a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission. There are very good, strategic options for securing a constitutional amendment, or the best parts of the current SB22, through legislation this year or very soon without supporting SB22 as it stands now. But we object to a political strategy that runs the very real risk of giving us another decade or more of gerrymandered districts, especially one that allows the Republican majority to claim credit for creating a better redistricting process when they have, in fact, undermined it. 

What’s wrong with SB 22 as it currently stands

Make no mistake, that is exactly what the current SB22 / Folmer plan is. Proponents of passing SB22 in it is current form have not really disputed our analysis. They do not deny that the Folmer plan has major loopholes that would allow the majority party of the General Assembly to have a dominant role in choosing both the majority and minority members of the commission. They do not deny that the Republican members of the commission alone could block the commission from reaching an agreement, enabling the majority party in the General Assembly, with the connivance of some minority members, to engage in partisan redistricting. They do not deny that there is no process to ensure that new districts actually are drawn in time for an election.

Instead they keep saying that we need to have faith that the commissioners would act fairly. And that’s the same response Senator Folmer gave the other day to questions about his proposal: “But, if people don’t trust legislators to help in the process, it’s confusing as to why they want a totally independent commission to draw maps to elect people they don’t trust." 

When I hear people say we should trust legislators with the degree of influence on the redistricting commission that the Folmer plan gives them, or trust commissioners chosen by the General Assembly to resist political pressure, I wonder what country they’re living in.

The country I live in is one where the partisan divide is larger than at any time since before the Civil War. It is one in which a Republican Congress stole a Supreme Court seat from President Obama and is now using that seat to overturn decades of precedent in ways that will entrench them in power. It is one where President Trump appears willing to bend or break every rule, precedent or law to attain his ends.

In the country we live in today, we can’t simply trust that people will do the right thing. We have to assume that they will do what the rules allow — and if they can get away with it, what the rules do not allow — to attain their partisan and individual self-interest.

That isn’t an expression of cynicism. It’s an expression of realism, the same realism that motivated the Founders to create a system of government with checks and balances.

It is naïve and dangerous to simply trust legislators or their choice of redistricting commission members to do the right thing.

We shouldn’t trust Democrats any more than Republicans. But right now, Republicans control the General Assembly and are likely to do so for some time in the future. And that’s why we and many experienced and savvy advocacy groups aren’t willing to trust a redistricting process that will empower what is very likely to be a Republican-controlled General Assembly, elected under the current Republican gerrymandered districts, to take control over the redistricting process for another decade or more. And that is what the current version of SB22 is. 

How to move forward

What we are willing to do, however, is to use this moment when the Republicans have lost control over the redistricting process under the status quo and have an incentive to create a fair process to push them to do exactly that. 

Our first task is to either amend SB22 to restore the original version of the bill or to explain to the public that it is an unsatisfactory, partisan measure that deserves to be defeated. There is no strategic reason to compromise with Republicans determined to gut a very good redistricting bill. If the Senate Republicans will not return SB22 to its original form, we should oppose it. And once we defeat it, we should move on to one or more of the following three approaches: 

1. HB2402 is the new version of HB722, a bill that Representative Daryl Metcalfe gutted in committee. It is a good plan that we support. Advocacy groups working on this issue say that there is a good chance to push it, or Representative Reed’s new proposal, which we have not yet analyzed, through the House. We are willing to work to do that. And when we do, we can then generate pressure on the Senate to pass it as well. We don’t need SB22 in its current, mutilated form to pass the Senate to do that. 

If that doesn’t work, all is not lost. There are other ways to move forward.

2. There are some good features of the current version of SB 22. It sets new standards for the way redistricting is carried out by requiring both minimum splits in counties when drawing district lines and public meetings and a transparent process for deliberation on the part of the commission. 

We do not think these requirements are enough, for reasons we have discussed. But we agree that they should be part of the redistricting process in Pennsylvania. 

So, let’s put these rules into place for redistricting through legislation, not a constitutional amendment. The General Assembly could put all these rules into effect for the existing state legislative redistricting commission. And it could also establish a bipartisan committee of the General Assembly that would be required to follow this process to present a congressional district plan to the whole General Assembly and the governor. 

In other words, no constitutional amendment is necessary to institute the best parts of SB22 as it now stands. This legislative approach to fixing our districting process does not require a constitutional amendment like the Folmer plan that creates a sham independent commission and undermines the existing checks and balances on the redistricting process. 

3. We can pass a constitutional amendment in the next few years. While, as a matter of practice, redistricting is done every ten years, there is precedent for mid-decade redistricting. Texas drew new congressional district lines in 2005 after drawing lines in 2001 and after an election changed party control over its legislature. While controversial, that action was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. And, of course, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, acting under our state constitution, created new congressional district lines this year. 

We would be very concerned if a mid-decade redistricting were done in Pennsylvania simply because partisan control of the General Assembly changed. And we would recommend that any amendment to the PA Constitution ban mid-decade redistricting to prevent partisan shenanigans, except when provisions of the Constitution that regulate districting are violated. However, it is fair and reasonable to require that district lines be redrawn in the election subsequent to the adoption of a new, fair process of redistricting. Of course, this one-time, mid-decade redrawing of lines for congressional and state legislative districts would be carried out only if mandated by a constitutional amendment enacted in two different general assemblies and approved by the voters. But if that happens, it makes sense for the process to go into effect as soon as possible rather than at the turn of the next decade.

So, in its current form, if SB22 goes down to defeat in the Senate this week, all is not lost. There are at least three ways to move forward. And we at PBPC are certainly willing to work to do so. 

Why this is so important

PBPC has long supported redistricting reform. But we mainly work on budget and related policy issues. We fight for raising the minimum wage. We fight for fair and adequate funding for our schools at all levels pre-k, K-12, college, and for workforce training. We fight for expanding the social safety net. We fight for more protection for our environment. And we fight for fair taxation to accomplish these goals. 

Groups like Fair Districts PA, along with Common Cause and other organizations, have done a wonderful job mobilizing people to care about the redistricting issue. But when we saw them endorse a badly-conceived version of a constitutional amendment that threatens what we and so many others are working for in Harrisburg, we had to speak up. (And we are grateful that Common Cause now calls for SB22 as currently constituted to be defeated.)

Our state has suffered for two decades because of congressional and state legislative gerrymandering. We see that suffering every day in the kids who go to inadequate schools, in the highest student loan debt of any state in the country, in the air and water threatened by unregulated fracking, in the million plus Pennsylvania workers who are stuck working for an unconscionably low minimum wage. While we are happy to support a fair districting proposal that remakes the current system, we are not willing to support a constitutional amendment that risks empowering our General Assembly (which was elected under gerrymandered district lines) to draw unfair lines for another decade or more, again setting back progress on all the other issues we and so many others care about.

We all need to honestly face the political world we live in now and reject a naïve and potentially disastrous strategy — one that threatens the work that so many of us are doing to make Pennsylvanian a better place for us all.

Rep. Fitzpatrick Made the Right Choice On SNAP Cuts; Unfortunately Rep. Costello Did Not

May 22, 2018 - 1:13pm

Last week, the House of Representatives voted against the troubling Farm Bill that had recently passed through the Agricultural Committee. This version of the bill would have resulted in many Pennsylvanians losing access to SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps, which is often the last defense against hunger in our communities. The proposed House Farm Bill would cut SNAP benefits by nearly $19 million and take away food assistance from two million Americans who already struggle to make ends meet. It would particularly hurt families, children and the disabled by implementing strict and ineffective work programs, as well as unforgiving reporting rules, that would lead to people losing this critical benefit.

The supposed purpose of the House Farm Bill is to get those receiving such support back to work, despite the fact that the vast majority of recipients who can work, already do. The House Farm Bill was concerning to begin with, but it became even worse weeks before the vote due to the amendment process. Changes to the bill would have made it harder for states to get waivers in areas of high unemployment and would make existing work requirements more stringent.

The proposed changes also come with requirements of state governments to provide training for those who need it, which comes with a hefty price tag. The Farm Bill amendment, rather than addressing this problem, would reduce employment and training funds by $350 million over ten years. The bill’s funding would only provide $30/month for individuals who need training — just a drop in the bucket.

Representative Fitzpatrick, a Republican who serves the 8th District in Pennsylvania, including Bucks and Montgomery counties, did the right thing by voting against the bill, which would have had a devastating impact on families, seniors and children in his district. Rep. Fitzpatrick succeeded in protecting his most vulnerable constituents through his bold leadership, which showed as he voted against party lines. His vote also makes smart financial sense for the state — why deny his constituents a federally funded benefit that would result in more red tape, increased state bureaucracy and unsustainable workforce training requirements due to lack of funding? And most importantly, adopting this version of the Farm Bill would have led to increased hunger and suffering among people in his district.

Unfortunately, Representative Costello, a Republican representing the 6th District, including part of Berks and Chester counties, didn’t have such good judgment. He voted for this problematic bill, which clarified for voters that fighting hunger for the most vulnerable in his district is not a priority. Luckily, he will have another opportunity to make the right choice.

NEW POLL: Pennsylvanians Want State Legislature to Make Additional K-12 Education Funding a Priority

May 18, 2018 - 10:54pm

As the PA General Assembly considers Governor Wolf’s request for new spending on K-12 education in the budget for 2018-2019, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center has released new polling that shows that Pennsylvanians strongly support more funding for K-12 education. In fact, education was second only to taxes as the issue that poll respondents view as most critical for the Legislature to address.

Specifically, 83% of the 1,150 people polled believe full funding of K-12 public schools in Pennsylvania should be a top or important priority, and 56% say the PA Legislature currently spends too little on education. Only 12% believe the state spends too much.

Among the self-identified conservative and moderate Republicans, liberal Democrats, and independents, 62% of conservatives ranked education as a high priority and 97% of liberal Democrats agreed.

Ben Lazarus, director of research and analytics at TargetSmart, says, "The numbers remain well above majority when we look at independents, moderate Republicans and even conservative Republicans, 57% of whom want the state Legislature to prioritize improving the public schools."

If enacted by the General Assembly, Governor Wolf’s proposal would finally restore the Corbett education cuts of 2011-2012. But the poll clearly shows Pennsylvanians would like state legislators to do even more and fully fund our schools over and above any restoration efforts.


Complicated work requirements will upend SNAP as a stabilizing force for those in crisis

May 14, 2018 - 9:55am

Over the last couple months, we at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center have been holding community conversations to hear from individuals across the state about the challenges they are facing and to understand what they would like to see done differently in Harrisburg. One young man we spoke to in recent weeks, Colten, told us his story. Colten has been homeless off and on over the last three years since his grandma committed suicide. He has been in and out of low wage retail jobs and struggles to secure affordable housing. Against all odds, Colten has been working hard to get his GED and proudly offers that he passed his social studies exam with honors.

Colten said that not having a place to lay your head at night takes an emotional toll, as one might imagine. It’s hard. Throughout his bout of homelessness, he said SNAP (“food stamps”) has remained a constant for him — it’s easy to get and gives him access to food despite living in a state of crisis.

Colten is a person who would face stringent work requirements connected to SNAP under the new version of the Farm Bill, which passed along party lines through the U.S. House Agricultural Committee on Wednesday, April 18. This new version of the Farm Bill, which is up for reauthorization every five years, would attach untenable and unproven work requirements to SNAP. Under the “one strike and you’re out” provision, if individuals don’t prove every month that they worked for at least 20 hours a week or that they qualified for an exemption, they would be cut off from food stamps for a year. Two strikes and they’d be cut off from food stamps for three years.

The House Agricultural Committee’s version of the Farm Bill would cut SNAP benefits by more than $17 billion and would result in many Americans like Colten, who are already struggling to pay for life’s necessities, to lose this critical benefit. It would impose strict work requirements that would be both a barrier to participation and expensive for states to implement. This bill would result in increasing food insecurity in the state of Pennsylvania and it would hurt local economies, retailers, and rural and urban communities alike.

Contrary to the image pro-work requirements Republicans want you to have of the average SNAP recipient, a recent study of SNAP recipients by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities showed that 74% of SNAP recipients, like Colten, work within a year of receiving benefits. Eighty-one percent of families that receive SNAP have at least one member who has worked in a year.

The other disturbing piece of SNAP work requirements is that its authors seem to know (or care) very little about the prevalence or characteristics of low-wage work. Many SNAP recipients work in service jobs as home health and personal care aides, child care workers and teacher assistants, cooks and waiters and waitresses, cashiers and retail salespeople, maids and housekeepers, janitors and building cleaners, etc. These jobs typically pay so low that the government has to subsidize the employers by providing food stamps or Medicaid to their workforce — something that would not be needed if employers would pay decent wages.

Having a stringent work requirement of at least 20 hours a week would penalize low-wage workers for something they often have no control over — their hours. One report on low wages and unpredictable schedules shows that 230,000 workers in Pennsylvania want full-time work but can only find part-time work. Forty-one percent of hourly workers receive their schedules less than one week in advance and 83% of hourly part-time workers had fluctuating hours in the prior month. Colten spoke of the challenges the homeless face in trying to keep a spot in the shelter system and maintaining a job. Because of high rents and growing homelessness, shelter spots in his community must be reserved by 7:30 a.m. and they generally fill up by 8 a.m. If you are able to get a spot but are not in the shelter by 7 p.m., they won’t let you in. This is untenable given the shifting schedules of many in low-wage jobs.

SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps, is our nation’s most effective anti-hunger program. In 2017, SNAP helped 42 million Americans pay for groceries. In Pennsylvania, 1.84 million people benefited from SNAP — that is, 14% of our state’s population or 1 in 8 Pennsylvanians. The rates of SNAP participation benefit residents in urban (15.0%) and rural (13.7%) communities in Pennsylvania.

Given the instability of the low-wage labor market and the struggles faced by individuals and families trying to navigate it, what kind of sense does it make to create more stringent work requirements for SNAP, which has been one consistent source of help and a stabilizing force for many like Colten? None that I can see. These work requirements will not help Colten find and maintain a good paying job. It will just make him hungry while doing so, which is likely to have the opposite effect.