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July, 2015


Budget Standoff a Clash Between Conflicting Tax Philosophies

Some important points seem to be lost in the debate over Pennsylvaniaís budget standoff. The General Assembly approved, before the constitutional deadline, a state budget that would have been the largest in our history. It was not a surprise that Governor Wolf was dissatisfied with it, but there are ways to resolve such differences without plunging our state into a full-fledged budget crisis.

The decision to veto the entire state budget not only departed from the practice of Republican and Democrat governors over the past forty years, but it also closed the path to putting a partial budget in place that would alleviate concerns for many individuals who depend on state services and the organizations who help to provide them. To many, it looks as if leverage enhancement won out over disruption avoidance in the administrationís calculation.

In contrast to previous budget standoffs, this one is much more a clash between conflicting philosophies on taxes than it is a reflection of partisan politics. We are not mindlessly blocking the governorís agenda; we are purposefully opposing the big tax increases he wants to impose on families and employers. Taxpayers largely want to see the line held on taxes with an emphasis put on squeezing better performance out of current spending. On the other side, a formidable array of advocacy groups see the advent of an administration committed to expanding state government as the best chance to boost state spending and to recoup from four years of conservative budgetmaking.

Governor Wolf is insisting on substantial increases in state spending and state taxes. In fact, his recommended spending increase is nearly as large as the one contained in the economically devastating tax-and-spend package that settled the infamous 1991 budget crisis. It took many years to dig out from that disaster. And, at $4.5 billion, his tax increases are twice that of all other states combined.

Some have sympathy for his spending goals, but they oppose the taxes he wants in order to pay for that spending. And history has proven it doubtful that a sudden infusion of funding will be spent effectively and efficiently. It is easy to fault legislators during a budget crisis, and this administration is doing so even more aggressively than its predecessors. But they have failed to convince taxpayers that their plan is sustainable and necessary, a point underscored by the balanced budget we passed.

The fixation on a severance tax is misplaced and misleading, not unlike the promise that gambling would eliminate property taxes. The governorís proposal is structured in a way that will subtract from development and jobs, and it will only pay a portion of his spending plans. People who support a severance tax as a means of avoiding general tax increases will be disappointed by the income and sales tax jumps that will hit nearly everyone. The proposal also overlooks the substantial impact fee implemented to provide community and environmental protections.

On the flip side, taxpayers strongly support pension reform and liquor privatization. Yet, Governor Wolf vetoed reasonable plans to accomplish each. It is left to the commentators to analyze how much his supportersí strident opposition to these measures played into his decision.

As the discussions move forward, there is a structural deficit that needs to be addressed. But the solution cannot simply be higher taxes and more spending. Reform, of the pension problem first and foremost, is essential for the long-term fiscal and economic health of Pennsylvania.

There is a half-story circulating about legislative session. In actuality, the Senate is on 6-hour call. That means the moment an agreement is reached on the state budget or any of the key pieces attached to it, we promptly reconvene to vote on the bills. It can happen any week, and any day of the week, for that matter. Unfortunately, no one can say when the big gap between the views on spending and taxes will be successfully bridged, or when the governor will realize his spending and tax hopes are too much for taxpayers.

I-84 Exit to Honor Memory of Corporal Bryon K. Dickson II

Senator Lisa Baker floor remarks

Exit 30 off Interstate 84 in Pike County will soon be named in memory of Corporal Bryon K. Dickson, II, a member of the Pennsylvania State Police who was killed at the Blooming Grove barracks, approximately one mile away from that interchange along Route 402. The designation provides a permanent memorial to his exemplary life and service, and will serve as a constant reminder of the risks and sacrifices on the part of state troopers as they strive to protect us.

Tax Credit for Volunteer Fire and EMS Will Help Recruitment and Retention Efforts

Responding to a growing shortage of volunteers, Senator Sean Wiley and I have once again partnered to give municipalities collecting a local earned income tax the power to waive it for volunteer first responders.

Volunteer firefighters and technicians from nonprofit emergency medical service (EMS) agencies would be eligible to receive the tax credit under the provisions of Senate Bill 299. Municipalities would have the power to set the amount of the tax credit and the guidelines of the program, including specifying the number of calls to which a volunteer must answer and the level of training they must have.

Many Pennsylvanians do not realize that 96 percent of our firefighters are not paid for jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to fight a fire or run to the scene of an accident. Giving them a small break on their local taxes is a simple benefit that will compensate them for their life-saving work.

The bill is one of a series of incentive measures recommended by emergency responders and will be part of a comprehensive First Responder Relief package. While it is certainly not the final answer to the problems we face in recruiting and retaining volunteers, it is an additional useful tool.

Stolen Valor Bill Signed Into Law

Senator Lisa Baker
Captain William Dunn, Jr., Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the 28th infantry division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard joins Senator Baker at a special ceremony.

Individuals who falsely claim veteran status to take advantage of a popular state program could be criminally prosecuted under a new state law.

In 2012, we created a veterans designation on Pennsylvania driverís licenses and photo IDs, as a way to honor their sacrifice and make it easier to access the benefits they earned. Since then, PennDOT has issued more than 190,000 specialty cards.

Unfortunately, others have sought to exploit the program. An audit conducted by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs earlier this year revealed that more than 350 applicants were not qualified to receive the designation.

After hearing concerns from numerous veterans, I decided an additional deterrent was needed and introduced legislation to increase stolen valor penalties. Recently signed by the governor, the bill makes falsely claiming to be a veteran on a driverís license or photo ID a third degree misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and possible imprisonment of up to one year.

Out and About in the 20th District

Open House of The Stourbridge Project in Honesdale
 Wayne County officials and community leaders host an open house at the Stourbridge Project business incubator in Honesdale (click photo to enlarge).

A school that once imparted the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic to generations of students is being transformed into a place where the fundamentals of business development and job creation will be learned and practiced. The Stourbridge Project is open to the public and offers free space and specialized equipment to encourage entrepreneurship. This is productive reuse at its best, and our community is fortunate to have people who can conceive and carry out such an economically promising project.

To see more of the places I have been, and the people I have met, visit my photo gallery.



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