POINT OF ORDER: Legislative GOP’s New Year’s policy resolutions.
December 31, 2013
POINT OF ORDER: Legislative GOP’s New Year’s policy resolutions.
By Chris Comisac
Deputy Bureau Chief
HARRISBURG (Dec. 31) – It’s New Year’s Eve, and plenty of people will be making resolutions they hope to hold to through 2014, and maybe beyond … but it’s not all that easy to keep one’s resolutions.
Going into 2014, state lawmakers – in addition to it being the last year of the 2013-14 two-year legislative session and also an election years for many – have plenty of important matters to which to attend, but which ones are on their “to-do” list? Which ones are they resolved to address in the new year, and hope will come to fruition?
The General Assembly’s Democratic caucuses have shown an ability to shape, at least in part, the legislative agenda. To read what they’d like see done during the next 10 or so months, CLICK HERE.
But the House Republicans and Senate Republicans control their respective chambers, and nothing will get done without their say-so, so let’s first take a look at their 2014 policy priorities.
The item is likely to be the biggest issue any lawmaker addresses in the next six (maybe six-plus) months, and will consume, incorporate – and possibly preclude – some of the other policy items on the four legislative caucuses’ lists.
The commonwealth is projected to come in $1.4 billion short of where it needs to be to have a balanced budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, and there are no easy ways to close that gap, according to state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby – and this guy has been through some pretty difficult budgets already during Gov. Tom Corbett’s time in office.
“Governor Corbett will present his budget address the first week of February, and the state budget will be the overarching issue for the first half of 2014,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. “As a result of the mid-year budget briefing, we already know that a shortfall of more than $1 billion will need to be addressed.”
And according to Arneson, the Pennsylvania Lottery and keno gambling could be entwined in those budget discussions. Those two items were revived by lawmakers just before the holidays – although put on hold until the Legislature’s return in January – with Pileggi earlier this month indicating there is “broad support” in the Republican caucus for expanding lottery games and allowing the governor to contract with private companies for marketing and management to the Lottery system, not full privatization.
And while he didn’t mention the state budget as a separate item, House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin did touch on a few items that could have an impact on the state budget and be key components of any budget deal: public pensions, liquor sales and charter school reform.
One item sure to come up during the next six months – since the governor and the House and Senate Republicans are all interested in doing something – is public pensions.
“Related to the budget is the as-yet-unresolved pension crisis,” said Arneson. “As time passes, the size of the pension problem continues to expand dramatically.”
Zogby explained during his mid-year budget briefing that of the cost drivers for the upcoming 2014-15 state budget, $610 million – the largest single cost-driver – is associated with additional public pension costs; those are costs above what we’re paying in the current fiscal year.
And like Zogby indicated during his briefing, the taste for switching all new employees to a 401(k)-style plan hasn’t diminished in certain corners of state government, despite the beating it took in June from those opposed to any changes being made to the existing public pension system, which they say has had enough “reform” already, courtesy of Act 120 of 2010.
“Moving all new employees into a 401(k)-style plan will establish the boundaries of the long-term liability and allow the General Assembly and Governor to address the short-term issue of skyrocketing contribution costs,” said Arneson, pointing to the Senate Finance Committee-approved Senate Bill 922 as an option the Senate could consider.
Of course, the short-term savings from pension reform identified by the Corbett administration and others are less due to the 401(k) switch and more due to the state temporarily cutting back on the employer contributions (made by the state and school districts) to the pension systems. Other proposed reforms seek to more than pay for the additional pension unfunded liability that reducing contributions will create, but those are savings – if they are realized – that would occur over the long term.
The House has seen the introduction of several different pension proposals in recent months, including a “shared sacrifice” approach by Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, and a 401(k)-type proposal by Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Chester.
It should come as no surprise that making changes to how Pennsylvania sells alcohol is on this list. Republican lawmakers – particularly those in the House – got very close to heading down the road to privatization of liquor sales in June, but because an agreement couldn’t be reached on transportation funding, a liquor sales plan that got 27 votes in the Senate during the last days of June ultimately withered on the vine in the state Senate.
But Arneson said the issue isn’t dead.
“There are ongoing discussions with the House and the Governor’s office about making significant improvements to how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania, building on the good work done by Senator McIlhinney this fall,” said Arneson. “We hope to reach agreement on these issues so that a bill can be sent to the Governor’s desk early in 2014.”
That would be sweet music to the ears of one of Miskin’s bosses, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who along with Corbett, has been pressing for liquor sales privatization since 2011. And, according to Miskin, the desire of the House GOP to privatize wine and liquor sales in Pennsylvania continues, and it will be one of their priorities in 2014.
Another elusive policy item for lawmakers has been charter school reform.
Several attempts at reform during Corbett’s time in office have gotten close to completion, but, in each instance, fallen apart at the 11th hour.
Another effort at reform is underway, with the House having already approved its version of reform, and the Senate on the verge of approving its own version. But there are differences between the bills, and that will require compromise, which has been so elusive in the past regarding charter school reform.
“Charter schools are firmly established as an important part of public education in Pennsylvania, and it’s time to strengthen accountability measures,” said Arneson.
And both Miskin and Arneson said reaching an agreement and getting a bill to the governor’s desk is a top priority in 2014. It could also be a help to state coffers: The Senate’s bill – Senate Bill 1085 – as currently written, could save the state approximately $44 million in Fiscal Year 2014-15. Senate Democrats, pushing for tougher provisions within the bill, say as much as $85.5 million could be saved by the commonwealth under their plan.
Another area of agreement between the House and Senate GOP – at least in a broad context – is the importance of promoting job creation.
“Getting Pennsylvanians back to work with jobs and better career opportunities through an improved business climate” will be a top focus for the House GOP, said Miskin.
And you can expect that effort to be part of getting a new budget passed, said Arneson: “As part of the state budget process, we’ll focus specifically on programs which have a direct impact on the jobs climate for Pennsylvania, especially programs which have the potential to spur job creation and economic activity, such as uncapping the Film Tax Credit.”
And while Miskin’s list stopped after pensions, liquor privatization, charter school reform and jobs, Arneson offered a few more items that could get some play in the state Senate: special education funding reform, property tax reform, an update to the state’s Open Records Law, continued effort to improve the efficiency and transparency of state government – including an online voter registration system, electronic filing of campaign finance reports, more prompt updating of the lobbying disclosure website and electronic filing by legislators of their Statements of Financial Interest – as well addressing the healthcare situation once federal officials review and react to Corbett’s Medicaid waiver proposal.
Oh, actually, Miskin’s list did include one more item, which he meant in jest, but will assuredly happen just the same: lots of fireworks.