POINT OF ORDER: Legislative Democrats list their policy priorities for 2014.
December 31, 2013
POINT OF ORDER: Legislative Democrats list their policy priorities for 2014.
By Chris Comisac
Deputy Bureau Chief
HARRISBURG (Dec. 31) – When you’re a state lawmaker, being pulled in several different directions at once is a daily occurrence and can lead to the most well-intentioned and best-laid plans not coming to fruition.
And two big outside forces will be working on lawmakers in 2014: it’s an election year for many of the legislators and it’s also the second year in the current two-year legislative session.
And for the General Assembly’s Democratic members, there’s also the fact that they remain in the minority – although Senate Democrats are less so than the House Democrats – and it’s a bit more daunting to achieve your priorities when you’re short on votes.
But those issues aren’t huge concerns, according to the spokesman for the House Democrats.
Said caucus spokesman Bill Patton: “Much is made of the conventional wisdom that few big things get done in an election year. House Democrats do not share that view … Pennsylvanians should not have to wait until 2015 for state leaders to choose better priorities and be more productive than they were in the last three years House Democrats will continue working for legislative progress in a number of areas during 2014.”
Patton noted that during the last election year for the General Assembly, 2012, both the natural gas impact fee (Act 13) and the voter ID law were enacted – both difficult and controversial laws (each which are still working their way through the court system, with the state Supreme Court recently ruling against certain key provisions of Act 13).
Known for his ability to facilitate his caucus accomplishing many of their goals, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, expressed a similar sentiment.
“We can get a lot of things done,” said Costa. “When we work together – the four caucuses and the administration working together – we can get things done.
“It’s whenever the administration tries to push through a budget or policy issues and only utilizes one chamber or one party, that’s when you’ve got roadblocks.
“So all these that could be policy issues during the course of the next six months, whether it be pensions, whether it be wine and spirits, whether it be lottery privatization or lottery management issues, all those things can be part of the conversation if it’s done in the appropriate way.”
But as far as priorities are concerned, the Democrats’ are mostly different from those listed by legislative Republicans.
And like the Republican caucuses for the House and Senate, the General Assembly’s Democrats appear to be working out of comparable playbooks for 2014, with education funding, healthcare, business tax reform, and hiking the minimum wage and possibly addressing the Act 13 situation at the top of both caucuses’ lists.
And just like the Republicans, the Democrats see the budget as taking up much of the Legislature’s time during the next six months, with many issues getting rolled into budgetary negotiations.
“Increased school funding, closing business tax loopholes and the severance tax all will be significant parts of this year’s budget conversation,” said Patton. “Any federal response to Gov. Corbett’s multifaceted Medicaid plan also will help to inform the subsequent budget discussions.
“House and Senate Democrats regularly talk with each other and are in broad agreement on what ought to be done.”
In addition to the budget savings and revenue plan they announced earlier this month, Senate Democrats, said Costa, would offer more details about their policy priorities in mid-to-late January, but “they’re going to continue to be things like working to make significant investments in education and addressing the issue of proper school funding, we think minimum wage should be a conversation over the course of the next six months, and we also have a veterans package we put together, which we think are both policy- and budget-related that we want to speak about as we go forward.
“Those are three areas that we plan on focusing on.”
With regard to education funding, the Democrats want to reverse what they call Corbett’s “billion-dollar reduction” in education funding. Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on that issue, with the GOP explaining that a large portion of the “reduction” was the result of temporary federal stimulus funds ending and Corbett redirecting state education dollars to fund required teacher pension payments.
But for House Democrats, the state dollars the Corbett administration and legislative Republicans say are being spent at record levels aren’t going directly for classroom instruction, and Patton said that means pushing for a gradual increase in funding for the next three years.
The plan “is to add about $330 million annually for three years,” said Patton, who added they also “want to see the return of a balanced statewide school funding formula.”
Costa said that’s something his caucus was pushing for last year – although the additional education spending in the current budget didn’t rise to that amount – and for which they will continue to advocate in the coming budget.
“We’re trying to get back to where we were before this current administration came into office – that’s clearly one of our priorities,” said Costa.
There was one education-related commonality between the priorities of the Senate Democrats and legislative Republicans: charter school reform.
However, a difference of opinion regarding one provision – a statewide authorizer for charter schools – could be major obstacle to something getting done regarding an issue Costa said “most folks agree we need to do something about.”
“The question is to what degree, how comprehensive is it [the reform] going to be, and will it disproportionately impact and harm public schools – that’s what we have to figure out,” said Costa.
A big component of the budgets for the two Democratic caucuses is the money they expect will come from the federal government if Pennsylvania expands its Medicaid program as envisioned by the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Senate Democrats have said they believe the state could enjoy an additional $400 million in the coming fiscal year if Pennsylvania would simply expand Medicaid to cover all individuals with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, and avoid the time-consuming Medicaid waiver process – one that isn’t guaranteed any success – Gov. Corbett initiated a few weeks ago.
Patton said the House Democrats agree with their Senate counterparts, and indicated his caucus would attempt to “make up for lost time” and stress an immediate expansion of Medicaid.
“House Democrats will continue to recommend the approach outlined by Rep. Dan Frankel and already taken in many other states – simple Medicaid expansion without further coverage delays caused by a confusing federal waiver process,” said Patton. “The benefits of a simple expansion that takes advantage of federal dollars – more access to patient care and disease prevention, financially stronger health care providers, and job generation – are high priorities for House Democrats.”
“Seizing the opportunity” presented by the recent state Supreme Court decision on Act 13, is another top goal for House Democrats.
Saying the caucus wants “to push for a better Marcellus Shale law that protects communities and includes a fair severance tax,” Patton indicated the tax rate they would continue to seek would not “place Pennsylvania at a competitive disadvantage to the other major gas-producing states.”
“But,” said Patton, “every one of those states already has a severance tax in place. Pennsylvania should have one too.”
Costa said it will be important to have a wide-ranging conversation about the drilling issue, including a tax on drilling, but it won’t likely happen until after Commonwealth Court deals with the issues remanded to it by the state Supreme Court.
“As much as we’d like to have that conversation, I don’t know that it will be ripe by June 30,” said Costa, but added that when that discussion is held, “There’s a place that we can be where we have the appropriate balance between the industry and the role that government should play in terms of regulation as well as taxation.”
Both Costa and Patton said additional revenues could be found for the Commonwealth’s coffers by creating a “fairer” business tax system in Pennsylvania.
“This administration over the last three years has provided in excess of $1 billion in tax cuts to the business and corporate community, it’s only fair that we look to them to help to be part of the solution” to the state’s budgetary concerns, Costa said.
“We haven’t attached a specific revenue figure to closing corporate tax loopholes but the potential is multiple hundreds of millions depending on the specific actions undertaken,” said Patton. “Capturing this lost revenue would enable the state to address unmet needs in education, veterans benefits, help for emergency responders, aid to distressed cities, and critical services for children, the elderly and people with disabilities.”
Costa said Senate Democrats would again suggest a freeze of the phase-out of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, and that it might be appropriate to make more changes to the so-called “Delaware loophole,” which the General Assembly addressed in legislation last year.
“First we need to see how the changes we made last year have played out, whether we generated the revenues” expected “and what changes we might need to make expand upon what we did already,” Costa said. “Clearly that needs to be part of the conversation.”
Hiking the minimum wage will be important issues for both caucuses in 2014 as well.
House Democrats will make “the case for a higher minimum wage and standing up for fair treatment of all working people,” and work with their Senate counterparts on the issue, said Patton.
“House and Senate Democrats always work closely on efforts to ensure fair living wages that will allow workers to support their families,” said Patton. “Bills in each chamber to raise the minimum wage are substantially similar.”
Both caucuses are pressing for bills that would raise the state’s current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to $9 per hour.
But in the end, after communicating with the two Democratic caucuses, it sounded to me like whatever happens, the caucuses – as they have indicated in past years while in the minority – just want to be included in the policy and budget discussions, even if they don’t get much of what’s on their policy priorities lists.
“There’s ample opportunity to get things done, if, in fact, there’s a will to work together to achieve it,” said Costa.