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Number of Poor Pennsylvanians High, Income Growth Not Widely Shared

September 18, 2014 - 7:48pm

Poverty remained high in the commonwealth last year, highlighting that many residents have not yet recovered from the recession and underscoring the need for the state to do more to help struggling Pennsylvanians afford such basics as decent housing, nutritious food, and reliable child care and transportation.

Nearly one in seven Pennsylvanians lived in poverty in 2013, according to new Census Bureau data released on Sept. 18. For a family of four, that meant living on less than $24,000 last year. The median annual income in Pennsylvania, adjusted for inflation, did not rise between 2012 and 2013, and remained far below pre-recession levels.

The change in poverty varied across Pennsylvania, with 20 of 39 counties measured showing a difference from 2007 to 2012.

The child poverty rate in Pennsylvania increased from 15.9% in 2007 to 19% in 2013, making it the 28th highest in the nation.

Despite these increases, Pennsylvania’s overall and child poverty levels were below the national average.

Median household income in Pennsylvania was $52,007 in 2013, $243 below the national average and 23rd highest among the 50 states and Washington, DC.

Pennsylvania’s median income remained statistically unchanged from 2012. In inflation-adjusted terms, Pennsylvania’s median household income was $2,547 lower than it was prior to the recession.

Nationally, median household income showed a modest ($133) increase from 2012 to 2013. Pennsylvania needs to act to prevent the commonwealth from falling further behind as other states' household incomes grow.

This data on the stagnation of working families and the poor dovetails with the results of a Keystone Research Center report, released two days before these Census numbers, that showed that the top 1% of earners enjoy a larger share of income, while the middle class has shrunk, in every Pennsylvania county since the late 1970s.

Click on the highlighted words for tables detailing poverty and median income data by county and metro area and for a graph comparing Pennsylvania and U.S. poverty rates from 2007 to 2013.

Shortsighted Policies Led to Pa.'s Money Woes

September 16, 2014 - 4:48pm


Pennsylvania is already short of money and borrowing to pay bills less than three months into a new budget year. And that's after transferring $225 million from other state funds in July.

State officials can't blame a natural disaster, unfortunate accident or month of unexpectedly low tax collections. Instead, the culprit is a built-in imbalance between revenues and expenditures triggered, in large part, by policymaker choices.

Today’s action marks the first time in recent memory when the commonwealth has had to borrow operating cash so early in the budget year, particularly when the economy is expanding. The actions today should serve as yet another warning to both lawmakers and citizens of the growing price of failing to fix the state’s ongoing fiscal challenges.

This is not the first sounding of the alarm on this issue. In 2013, the Independent Fiscal Office warned of the state’s ongoing deficit. In July, Moody’s Investor Service cited the commonwealth’s “large and growing structural imbalance that reflects underperforming revenues, the continued use of one-time measures in the budget, and the ongoing deferral of restoring reserves,” when it downgraded Pennsylvania’s credit rating.

As the rating agency made clear, the state budget is fiscally unsound, and relying on optimistic revenue projections and one-time transfers that do little to correct a structural imbalance. The Rainy Day Fund hasn't been replenished since it was cleaned out in 2010 at the height of the recession.

The Corbett administration isn't exclusively to blame. Lawmakers made matters worse by adding new tax cuts the commonwealth clearly cannot afford. Examples include the House’s recent refusal to close a loophole in the bank tax that has further destabilized the state budget by limiting revenue growth as the economy expands.

A path to a more sustainable budget exists, but we need to stop digging the hole deeper. Lawmakers need to examine the tax cuts that have been whittling away at the state revenue base and adopt commonsense, recurring revenues such as a severance tax on natural gas.

We know the price of inaction: Pennsylvania’s budget situation will only grow more precarious, with more cuts to classrooms and critical services; more reliance on one-time revenues and other gimmicks to bring in quick cash; and more pressure on local property taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Property Tax Elimination Bill Advances in Senate

September 16, 2014 - 3:48pm

It was a good day for corporations that own land in Pennsylvania; not so much for individual Pennsylvanians who eat food and earn money.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 6-5 on Sept. 16 to advance SB 76 to the Appropriations Committee, often a bill's last stop before the full Senate takes up consideration of it.

Voting to advance the property tax elimination bill were: Republican Senators Mike Brubaker of Lancaster County, Pat Browne of Lehigh County, John Eichelberger of Blair County and Senate Pro Tem Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County; and Democratic Senators John Blake of Lackawanna County, and John Wozniak of Cambria County.

Voting against SB 76 were Republican Senators Pat Vance of Cumberland County, Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County, and Scott Hutchinson of Venango County; and Democratic Senators Rob Teplitz of Dauphin County, and Matt Smith of Allegheny County.

The bill's supporters will tell you that SB 76 would eliminate property taxes. What they are less vocal about is how it would make up that lost revenue.

SB 76 would raise the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent and expand the tax to cover such currently non-taxable items and services as food, non-presciption medications, garbage collection, funeral expenses, child care and non-housing charges at many nursing facilities, among other things. Many business-to-business services would be exempt from the sales tax.

The bill also would increase the personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.34%.

So SB 76 would be a true tax cut only for corporations and large businesses that would no longer have to pay local property taxes. For the rest of us, it would merely be a tax shift, and to some pretty essential items and services at that.

But worst of all, SB 76 would hurt Pennsylvania's public schools. It would make permanent recent state cuts to education. It would drain billions of dollars from schools in future years by artificially capping state education funding at levels unrelated to actual costs. And it would undermine local control of schools and hand over funding decisions to Harrisburg.

It's not too late to stop SB76. Watch this blog for further updates on the bill's status.

In the meantime, here's PBPC's statement on the Senate Finance Committee's action.

Giving Away the Golden Egg: Shale Tax Revenue Could Top $1 Billion by 2015-16

August 28, 2014 - 10:04am

Here’s one estimate that Pennsylvania exceeded in 2014—gas production in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region came in ahead of projections for the first half of the year. Had Pennsylvania adopted a severance tax - a prospect still on the table as late as June - the Commonwealth would have $1 billion in revenue by 2015-16, and $780 million in new funds. That’s enough to make a serious dent in two key areas: restoring cuts to public schools and closing an expected $1.7 billion budget gap in 2015-16.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Pennsylvania produced 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the first half of 2014, a 14% increase from the prior six-month period. Because of rising natural gas prices, the value of gas produced grew from $6.4 billion to $9.6 billion in the same period.

The Trib reports that the number of new producing wells fell in Pennsylvania, but production grew, particularly in the northeastern part of the state: Susquehanna, Bradford, and Lycoming counties topped the list, with Washington and Greene in the southwestern corner rounding out the top five.

Dave Spigelmyer, Director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, predicts that Marcellus wells will produce 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2014. That would mean production will grow by 29% over 2013’s output. While production is growing, the number of new wells fell from an average of 675 over the previous reporting periods to less than 500 in the first six months of 2014.

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune – Review Analysis of DEP Data

Pennsylvania remains the only significant gas-producing state that does not have a severance tax. With the new production numbers we estimate that a 5% severance tax could raise over $1 billion by 2015-16 and almost $1.5 billion by 2018-19. Assuming all current impact fee uses (local governments, housing, environmental programs) are fully funded, the additional revenue would grow from $780 million in 2015-16 to $1.2 billion in 2018-19. 

Pennsylvania’s impact fee falls short in several critical ways:

  • The impact fee is based on the number of new producing wells, not production. As the Trib article points out, drillers are improving technology, increasing per well production and reducing the need for new wells. As a result, Pennsylvania will receive less impact fee revenue than was expected. How smart is that?
  • Pennsylvania is losing out as natural gas prices rise. Over the winter natural gas prices increased from $3.50 to $6 a thousand cubic feet – so gas producers enjoyed a windfall. The impact fee doesn’t adequately capture the growth in gas prices, so Pennsylvania doesn’t benefit when gas prices spike.
  • As the price increases, fee revenue declines as a share of the economic value of the gas. The impact fee –by design— is barely affected by production or price. As a result, production doubled between 2011 and 2012 while impact fee revenue declined from $204 million to $202 million. This means that the gap between what the impact fee and a severance tax generates will grow even greater than was previously estimated.

Pennsylvania is letting the goose escape with the golden egg, leaving us with an empty nest to clean up. No other state would accept such a deal. North Dakota, in the middle of a shale oil boom, collected $2.5 billion in severance tax revenue in 2013 while Pennsylvania is getting less than a tenth of that from its impact fee.

Enacting a severance tax, despite the obvious advantages, will be tough. Ask our friends in Alaska  – Sarah Palin came to the governor’s office, believe it or not, as a reformer who fought the big oil companies to secure more revenue for state services and increased payments to residents. Her replacement, an oil company lobbyist, undid the reforms. Alaskans went to the polls on August 19 to vote on a ballot initiative to end the sweetheart tax breaks. The proponents of the change were outspent 10-1, and it looks as though the reform measure has gone down to defeat



Local Taxpayers Pick Up Slack in State's Basic Ed Subsidy

August 25, 2014 - 4:42pm

The second meeting of the Basic Education Funding Commission, on August 20 in Harrisburg, got off to a rocky start. Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) read a statement on behalf of the House Republican caucus indicating a lack of interest in addressing the adequacy of education funding and great interest in protecting the hold harmless funding system (which ensures minimum funding increases for districts with declining enrollments).

Events soon turned more cordial as commission members expressed a willingness to gather as much information as possible, from all perspectives, and even to consider previously verboten topics, such as the 2006 Costing Out Study - the basis for the 2008 adequacy funding formula.

Deputy Secretary Nicole Duffy gave an overview of the multiple changes in Pennsylvania’s school funding formula that have effectively left the commonwealth without anything resembling a rational funding formula. Of note is the fact that the first formula, enacted in 1983, took into consideration student poverty, and subsequent formulas included additional funding based on district size, enrollment and tax effort, many of the same factors used in the 2008 formula.

The department’s presentation also noted that total basic education funding declined from $5.8 billion in 2010-11 to $5.4 billion in 2011-13.

Buried in the presentation was a key fact. The basic education subsidy, which is more than 50% of the Pre-k to 12 education budget and the largest state source of funding for districts, has grown more slowly than overall district revenue. Local property taxpayers and, to a lesser extent, federal funds have had to pick up the slack.

Jim Buckheit, of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, and Jay Himes, of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, provided a detailed and informative primer on the overall public education system in Pennsylvania. I’ll share the highlights in my next blogpost.

The next commission meeting is on September 9 in the Lehigh Valley. You can follow the goings-on and download the presentations from the commission’s website.

Cutting Your Way to a More Sluggish Recovery

August 19, 2014 - 6:46am

New data on consumption spending from the Bureau of Economic Analysis further illustrates that Pennsylvania has cut its way not to prosperity, but to a more sluggish recovery.

As illustrated in Figure 1 below, the growth of consumer spending (per capita personal consumption expenditures) was greater than the national average in Pennsylvania from 2009 to 2011.

This early strength consumer spending was, in part, due to a relatively less severe recession in Pennsylvania and an unemployment insurance (UI) system that covered more workers and replaced more lost income than was typical in other states. These advantages helped fuel consumer spending in Pennsylvania that was above the national average during those years.

The 2011-12 state budget made deep cuts in education spending that ultimately resulted in the loss of 20,000 jobs in the education sector, which is roughly the equivalent of closing 40 factories.  Such high job losses played a critical role in depressing consumer spending and that, in turn, substantially slowed further job growth in the Commonwealth.

It’s also important to note that substantial cuts in corporate taxes also were enacted over these years, and the data suggest that those cuts did not boost job growth or consumer spending. Also, the share of lost income replaced by the Pennsylvania UI system was redeuced starting in 2013 by Act 60, which cut unemployment benefits and eligibility to the tune of $300 million a year. So we're less well positioned to come out of the next recession strongly.

Pennsylvania's Revenue-Estimating Process Doesn't Add Up

August 12, 2014 - 12:47pm

The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center’s analysis last month of the state’s 2014-15 budget cites a “myriad of dubious revenue sources, including an increase in collections well above what the Independent Fiscal Office projected.”

Now comes a timely, new report from the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., grading the process by which Pennsylvania (and other states) generate revenue estimates for annual budgets.

The Center evaluated states on a scale of one to five, based on the number of best practices they used to arrive at revenue estimates. The more best practices employed, the more reliable the estimate and the higher the state’s score.

Pennsylvania and five other states scored a two. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia scored higher; five states scored lower.

While that’s hardly a ranking to celebrate, Pennsylvania budget-builders do follow two of the report’s recommended best practices – publishing and making available online revenue forecasts and the assumptions underlying them, and revisiting the forecasts for the upcoming year during the budget session.

That leaves three of the report’s recommended best practices yet to be adopted by Pennsylvania: using consensus forecasting, including non-government experts in the forecasting body and developing the forecast in open meetings.

The PBPC believes Pennsylvania should pursue the following reforms to its revenue-estimating process:

· The governor and legislature should jointly produce the revenue estimate. For example, the Department of Revenue, the Budget Office and the Independent Fiscal Office could develop the estimate. Such a consensus process would increase trust in the numbers.

· The consensus estimate should guide development of the initial and final spending plans.

· Meetings of the joint revenue forecasting body should be open to the public.

In an Aug. 11 Capitolwire story on the report, Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said his intent in drafting the legislation that created the IFO four years ago was to reduce the friction and delays in the budget process caused by competing revenue estimates from the governor's office and the legislature. Arriving at a revenue estimate should be an objective process rather than the result of negotiation, he said.

But lawmakers didn't want to cede ultimate authority in revenue forecasting to an unelected body, so they didn't mandate that the IFO's revenue estimate be the starting point of the budget process, Browne told Capitolwire.

To read the Capitolwire story click here.

As PBPC Director Sharon Ward observed, “Pennsylvania took one step forward by creating the Independent Fiscal Office in 2010. We need to complete the reform by instituting a transparent consensus process where the governor and legislature agree on a revenue number that is publicly vetted at the beginning and at the end of the budget process.”

The Real-Life Impact of Undermining Public Schools: A Philadelphia Inquirer Profile

July 15, 2014 - 11:37am

A profile of a teacher in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer brings to life the real-life consequences, for teachers and for children, of the deep funding cuts in the School District of Philadelphia in the past several years. Multiple obstacles to effective teaching -- including large classes and an assignment to teach special education without having trained for it and without mentoring or other support -- finally led a committed young professional to change careers. Still determined to serve others, she will train to become a nurse.

The scale of education funding cuts, which disproportionally hit Philadelphia, was documented in a recent PBPC report on school funding. These cuts -- and the draining of funds from public schools by charter schools, many of them underperforming -- led to the crisis summarized in the Inquirer profile.

The story paints a picture of a system that is taking its best teachers down with it. The teacher profiled fears that, deliberately or not, we are switching to a "high turnover" employment model, with teachers routinely leaving just about the time that they have the experience they need to be their most effective in the classroom.

The Corbett-Tobash pension plan – which the Governor is now selling on a statewide tour – would further destabilize teaching careers (as explained on page 14 of our pension primer analyzing the Corbett-Tobash plan). Under this plan, according to pension consultants to the Governor and the PSERS retirement system, benefits would be cut 40% or more for many career teachers. Given teacher salaries already 25% or more below comparably educated private sector employees on average -- further below in financially stressed urban districts (in which public salaries are lower than affluent suburbs by private sector salaries are higher) -- why remain a public school teacher?

The best teachers provide the best education, and the best teachers improve with experience. Our public schools, including in Philadelphia, need the resources to attract and retain the best teachers with adequate funding and an competitive benefit package. Where's the state plan for that?

Internet access taxes – let state and local government decide

July 14, 2014 - 10:01am

Since 1998 when it passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), Congress has banned state and local governments from enacting new taxes on internet access or including internet access in existing sales taxes. Now Congress is considering making the ban permanent. The House Judiciary Committee recently approved a bill that would do just that.

Permanently taking away the option of taxing internet access from states and local governments takes away the ability to raise new revenue from a growing sector of our economy for important public services like education. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates Pennsylvania loses $270,169,360 a year by failing to tax internet access.

With revenues from other sources falling, especially from corporate taxes, Pennsylvania policy-makers need the ability to consider other options to fund crucial state government services and balance the budget. This year’s state budget will not fund state government for the full fiscal year, but that could have been eased with new revenue by simply extending the sales tax to internet access.

Permanently banning taxes on internet access is the exact wrong way to go. Congress should instead lift the ban and let state and local governments decide whether or not to tax internet access.

You can help make sure Pennsylvania and your local government have the choice to raise new funds for important public services and education from an internet access tax by contacting your member of the U.S. House of Representatives and urge him or her to oppose IFTA.

Why Triad Strategies is Wrong on Ride Sharing

July 9, 2014 - 9:43pm

Our recent blog on 'the Non-Sharing Economy' prompted a response from Roy Wells at Triad Strategies. Triad is the Harrisburg lobbying and public relations firm secured by Lyft to make the case that its services should not be subject to the same rules that govern cabs. We appreciate Roy's weighing in and giving us the opportunity for a deeper back-and-forth.

The core issue, as Mark Price explained, is that Lyft and Uber compete head-to-head with cabs. If, however, they are subject to a different and less costly set of regulations that will put downward pressure on cab driver wages (which are already pretty low). Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) makes a similar argument in a blog published last month. Dean also suggested that it may be appropriate in some cities to modernize regulations governing both cabs and so-called ride-sharing services. Given unhappiness with Yellow Cab, Pittsburgh may be one of those cities.

Dean and KRC are not saying that we should stop Lyft or Uber from entering the market. We are saying that we need a level playing field. Or as Mark Price explained in his earlier blog: "There is no reason that Lyft, Uber and traditional taxi cabs can’t compete with one another to the benefit of riders. All we need is a common set of rules for traditional cabs and Lyft and Uber..."

Given the need for common rules, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is off base in its call for "different rules" for taxicabs and ride-share services. There's no ambiguity regarding whether taxicabs and ride-share services compete in different markets: the services pitch themselves as a cheaper, more customer friendly version of taxicabs.

The idea that reducing regulation within a transportation market can lead to a race to the bottom in wages and benefits isn't just theory. This is what happened in parts of the U.S. trucking industry after it was deregulated in the late 1970s. Shipments of a truck full of goods from point A to point B became a game of how little per mile drivers would accept. Many of the drivers ("owner-operators") participating in this downward spiral owned their own vehicles. Some effectively worked for close to the minimum wage once you take into account capital, maintenance, and operating costs for their vehicles -- and would then drive unsafe numbers of hours to try to maintain a decent income. See Mike Belzer's Oxford University Press book Sweatshops on Wheels for all the details. (A March NLRB settlement points to the possibility of owner-operators in trucking being able to unionize, potentially ending what a recent Huffington Post story calls "30 years of ruthless exploitation.")

Are we setting up a downward spiral in compensation (after costs) in the taxi-cab industry and within the new ride-share sector itself? (The price wars between Uber and Lyft make this more likely.)

Will "owner-operators" find themselves working for close to the minimum wage?

What mechanism is in place to prevent that?

Spend a few minutes reading employee ratings of Lyft on "glassdoor" (a website at which employees can rate their employer), and you will see that the danger of this downward spiral is already plain to some Lyft drivers. It is also clear that some employees think the company is great.

How about crafting regulations that would make positive views that many employees now have of their jobs the dominant one after these companies grow much bigger in Pitttsburgh or elsewhere? For example, we could set a driver minimum wage (like Australia's "safety wage" in trucking, set high enough the drivers don't have to work unsafe numbers of hours to earn a decent living); or how about a regional union that includes taxicab drivers and ride-share drivers and that negotiates wage rates and reimbursement for use of your own rate at the IRS rate (currently 50 cents a mile)? Maybe these regulatory approaches would allow the positive innovations of ride-share apps to flourish while creating more full-time middle-class jobs and flex jobs that still pay decent wages.

Not interested...? Because, as Dean Baker would say, that sounds "complicated"? Or because Lyft is interested in making money and favors PUC regulations and state legislation that open the door to that without addressing job quality issues, directly or indirectly...?

Thought so.

The broader challenge posed by the ride-share debate is to figure out how to embrace new technology and the efficiencies and new services it promises, but in a way that sustains the American Dream of opportunity. In the economy as a whole as in the local ride services industry we haven't figured that one out yet.

The Not Sharing Economy: Lyft and Uber take aim at Pennsylvania

July 8, 2014 - 10:18am

The companies Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. offer smart phone apps that allow you to find drivers available for hire. The companies have expanded rapidly in the last year and are just now hitting the City of Pittsburgh. 

Investigators from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission responsible for regulating taxi cabs caught the companies operating in Pittsburgh and two judges have issued orders for the companies to stop offering their services in the city.

As Josh Eidelson in Business Week notes, the conflict in Pittsburgh is not a new experience for the companies. They have also met with resistance in some other states and localities in which the firms began offering services without first obtaining regulatory approval.

Serious financial heavyweights back both companies, with Google among those investing in Uber and the hedge fund Third Point Capital among Lyft’s backers. Third Point Capital came to public attention recently, as Matt Taibbi explains, because it collected fees from public pension funds while its chief executive made philanthropic donations to organizations actively campaigning to eliminate public pensions.

Lyft has secured a Harrisburg lobbying and public relations firm to make the case that its services are different from those on offer by cabs and therefore not subject to the rules that govern cabs. That argument falls flat as it is clear these companies compete head-to-head with traditional taxi services. Taxi services are regulated to ensure clean and safe taxi services which also has the effect of elevating driver incomes. 

Today in Pennsylvania the typical cab driver makes about $22,000 a year which is just above what workers would make working full time at $10.10 an hour. While we actively campaign to raise the minimum wage to at least $10.10, the expansion of Lyft and Uber raises the risk that the incomes of drivers may stagnate or fall. That’s because if these companies get their way in Harrisburg and are allowed to enter the state without being required to follow a reasonable set of safety and insurance rules that govern existing taxi services that will allow lower fares and lower safety standards to displace traditional cabs.  That’s not competition that’s a race to the bottom that puts passengers at risk.

There is no reason that Lyft, Uber and traditional taxi cabs can’t compete with one another to the benefit of riders. All we need is a common set of rules for traditional cabs and Lyft and Uber with the aim of guaranteeing passenger safety.

Lyft and Uber are following the same “business model” as oil and gas companies that came to Pennsylvania early in the shale boom and have been engaged in a full-court lobbying campaign (including full-page ad buys in The Patriot News) in recent weeks to head off a common sense severance that benefit everyone not just gas company stockholders. If the sharing economy is just an expansion of economic activity in which business lobbyists buy the policies they want that also translate into stagnant or falling incomes for most people there’s nothing very new about it. Perhaps we should call it the “not sharing” economy.

Facts on Marcellus Shale Jobs and Taxes

June 26, 2014 - 11:05am

Last night, the House of Representatives passed a budget plan for 2014-15.  However, how this plan is paid for is still a mystery. One commonsense idea that could still be included in the budget is the passage of severance tax on natural gas drillers. For 2014-15 a 5% tax could raise over $400 million in new funds above the current impact fee.  This could go a long way in restoring funding cut out of the House budget plan.  

If you've been in Harrisburg recently or picked up a copy of the Patriot-News, you would have likely seen an ad from deep pockets of one of the shale drilling interest organizations trying to fend off such a tax - warning of risk to jobs, investment, and perhaps even baldness if the tax is passed.  Don't buy these claims.  The shale interests look at this PR campaign as a cost effective way to avoid a tax that they pay in other major energy producing states.

 To help set the record straight, we've put together some of the major findings we've uncovered on shale jobs and taxes over the past few years and you can find it here.

While there has been job growth in the oil and gas industry in PA since the development of the Marcellus Shale began, it is still a very small part of the state's workforce. Budget cuts at the state level have wiped out about as many teaching and other public sector jobs as have been created in the oil and gas industry.

The tax payments made by drillers (the ones that would actually pay a severance tax) had a big spike in 2011. However, since then, corporate net income payments have fallen to pre-Marcellus levels.  Many drillers have organized as pass-through entities which can help them shield income from corporate income taxes by passing it directly to individual owners (who pay tax at PA's low 3,07% PIT rate, rather than the 9.99% CNIT rate). Despite the billions of dollars being generated in gas sales from the shale, state tax collections haven't seen the same boom.

 Finally, independent analysts have looked at what a severance tax would do to the bottom line of drillers and tried to assess if it would scare them to greener pastures. Both concluded that the wells would still be highly profitable with a severance tax and the development would continue. This echoes academic research done on the subject in the Western US and practical experience of what has happened in Texas and North Dakota with severance taxes and the shale boom.

As the debate continues, we will write more about the halmarks of a well structured severance tax, as well as try to keep you up to date with the budget developments.

Pension Update - Time to Go Back to the Drawing Board

June 26, 2014 - 9:00am

We're closing in on the end game of the Pennsylvania budget process and lawmakers are considering two different pension proposals -- both of which would be a step backward. Here's an update on these options, with links to where you can find more information.

Most discussion over the past several months has focused on the Corbett-Tobash "hybrid pension plan." This would replace existing pensions with a much smaller guaranteed pension and 401(k)-type savings accounts that cover any salary over $50,000 and service over 25 years. The governor favors combining this pension re-design with reductions in state and school district pension contributions over the next five years.

The bottom line on the Corbett-Tobash plan is that it doesn't solve PA's pension underfunding problem but it does cut pension benefits deeply for new employees. It achieves this unsavory combination because savings from benefit cuts are offset by four cost increases.

  • First is the long-term cost of the governor's proposal to cut pension contributions (to "lower the pension collars") in the next five years.
  • Second is the inefficiency of 401(k)-type accounts which have higher costs and lower returns that translate into a third to nearly a half less retirement benefits for the same contributions.
  • Third is a potential "transition cost" because the Corbett-Tobash pension plan drains contributions for new employees into the existing defined benefit plan; with the pension obligations of these plans shifting over time towards retirees and near-retirees, the PSERS actuary (Buck Consulting) suggests that the funds would invest in more conservative ways, lowering investment returns -- leading to a need for more taxpayer contributions.
  • Fourth is higher future wages will likely be necessary to retain employees given low public-sector salaries, a slashed pension, and a weak incentive to stay beyond 25 years.

For more information, you can find talking points on the Corbett-Tobash plan here. You can find our brief on Corbett-Tobash here. And an op-ed here.

Now to the second pension proposal reportedly being considered: with the Corbett-Tobash plan unable to command a winning majority so far, there are rumors that lawmakers might go back to the governor's proposal to switch new employees completely to 401(k)-type savings accounts. Don't go there girlfriend! Or lawmakers.

Here's why: with an immediate closing of the existing defined benefit pensions to new employees, actuaries estimated the transition cost from lower investment returns under the original Corbett 401(k)-type plan at about $40 billion (on a nominal dollar, cash flow basis -- it's lower, but still large, measured in dollars in hand today). Add to this the inefficiency of 401(k)-type savings plans, the deep cuts in benefits (even with the same contributions, remember, a third to a half less in benefits), and an erosion in educational and service quality (because of higher employee turnover) -- and you've got another clunker. You can access our talking points on the original Corbett 401(k)-type plan here.

As we said in the title of this blog. It's time to go back to the drawing board on pensions.

Our proposed framework for addressing Pennsylvania's pension debt is at the end of our brief critiquing the Tobash plan.

This is what the business lobby looks like on drugs

June 25, 2014 - 12:00am

I just read this Mother Jones story on a letter from the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) that focuses on whether or not auto insurance is affordable for low income consumers.  In making the case for the affordability of the auto insurance products of its members, NAMIC quoted statistics from the Consumer Expenditures Survey:

These data reveal that households in the two lowest quintiles spent nearly as much on alcohol and tobacco products combined as on automobile insurance, and that they spent more on audio and visual (A/V) equipment and services than on automobile insurance.

So if people got enough cash to buy booze then surely their car insurance is affordable?


Painfully, Mother Jones goes on to note that NAMIC got its numbers wrong; low income consumers actually spend more on car insurance than cigarettes and booze.  Of course that’s not the point, NAMIC is trying to change the conversation about car insurance affordability by implying that low-income consumers make bad spending choices. If they can’t afford car insurance, it’s their fault.

Which brings us back to Pennsylvania where our own Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association released a survey of manufacturing executives which claimed to find that 16% of Pennsylvania workers couldn’t pass a drug test. That’s more than 4 times the rate found by Quest Diagnostics which maintains a database of 125 million drug tests.

Drug addiction is a pressing problem in Pennsylvania but no reasonable person could conclude that our drug problem is more than 4 times greater than the national average [see update below].  The purpose of the Manufacturers Association survey is to provide some empirical support for the claim that high unemployment is the result of widespread drug use rather than the lingering effects of the worst recession since the great depression. If the unemployed can’t find jobs, it’s their fault.


This 2011 report from Quest summarizes the percentage of positive tests for the presence of drugs by sub state region. You will note all most all regions in Pennsylvania are blue, grey or white indicating a percentage of positive test results for the presence of drugs in less than 4.3 percent of tests (click this link to see a bigger version of the map).


Expanding Medicaid: Close the Budget Gap. Check. Insure Thousands of Pennsylvanians. Check.

June 24, 2014 - 1:22pm

As lawmakers continue debating how to close a $1.5 billion budget gap, there is a particularly valuable and compassionate policy option still on the table: Medicaid expansion. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the federal government will commit to paying 100% of coverage costs for new enrollees under Medicaid expansion, through 2016. This has the combined effect of easing the financial burden of the state, and giving hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians access to health care coverage.

In an editorial posted to the Patriot News last week, Jennifer Clarke and Laura Smith of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) urged legislators to adopt a bill expanding Medicaid and allowing the state to move past ‘Corbettcare’.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), has been approved by the House Human Services Committee and is pending a floor vote. A similar bill to allow the state to expand Medicaid passed the state Senate by a vote of 40-10 last year, only to die in the House in a dramatic floor vote in the waning days of session.

Expanding Medicaid will allow Pennsylvania to close its budget gap and strengthen its economy. The Independent Fiscal Office has reported that savings and new revenue from the federal government will add $620 million to the state’s 2014-15 budget. The RAND Corporation has also found that expansion can spur job creation. Plus a majority of Pennsylvanians support Medicaid expansion, 59% according to an April 2014 poll by Public Policy Polling.

Because of Governor Corbett's decision not to expand Medicaid, Pennsylvania is missing out on an estimated $5 to $10 million in federal funds with each passing day.[1]

The Corbett administration has complained about costs associated with implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but neglect to mention state savings from the ACA, which are in addition to savings from Medicaid expansion.

A new analysis from the House Democratic Appropriations committee has calculated those savings at $590 million in 2014-15:

  • $339 million from drug rebates in the managed care program
  • $75 million in enhanced federal match through the ACA balancing incentive program, which promotes greater use of home and community-based services
  • $60-$70 million in savings in the PACE senior prescription drug program
  • $116 million from 100% federal funding for individuals who are currently receiving health care in state funded programs.

The savings from Medicaid expansion will have an immediate benefit for Pennsylvania. “If we begin expansion immediately, we could still save more than $240 million in 2014/15 – which is $127 million more in savings than under Gov. Corbett’s Healthy PA plan.”[2]

Now is the time to expand Medicaid, close the budget gap, and offer health coverage to those most in need. Rep. DiGirolamo’s bill does just that.

[1] Jennifer Clarke and Laura Smith, “Forgett Corbettcare, DiGirolamo’s Medicaid bill is the way to go”, June 20, 2014

[2] Joseph Markosek, “Affordable Care Act Savings Exceed $590 Million in the 2014/15 Budget”, June 23, 2014

Robust Pennsylvania Job Growth in May But Long-Term Picture Little Changed

June 20, 2014 - 4:23pm

The Pennsylvania employment situation report, released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed that the number of “jobs” in Pennsylvania – nonfarm payroll employment as measured by a survey of employers – grew by a robust 24,700 in May, and the state unemployment rate fell by one-tenth of a percentage point to 5.6 percent. The job jump in May was enough to improve PA’s long-term job-growth ranking – but only by one place, to 48th out of the 50 states going back to January 2011.

Job growth of more than 24,000 in May, after a gain of 12,300 in April, is unusually strong for Pennsylvania. This raises the question of how much confidence we should put in it. Since it is only a month’s data, we can’t draw strong conclusions.

One particular puzzle about the May job growth data is that employment (technically, “resident employment”) measured by the household survey (rather than an employer survey) declined in May by 6,000 jobs.

While the employer and household surveys can be contradictory in any one month, they tend to move in the same direction over the long term – which doesn’t help us make sense of today’s numbers.

Turning to the details of job growth in May measured by the employer survey, job growth was broad-based across industries, with construction continuing its rebound, and manufacturing and the public sector adding jobs as well. Over a 12-month period, however, manufacturing is down 4,900 jobs, and the public sector down by 4,500 jobs.

The fall in the unemployment rate in May results from a decline in the labor force, down 12,000 this month and 43,000 since May 2013. Over the last 12 months, the unemployment rate has fallen by 1.9 percentage points, due to a combination of job growth (a good thing) and labor force decline (not usually a good thing because it indicates more people have become discouraged about being able to find a job).

While the April and May job gains are encouraging, we need to see continued employment increases over several more years to get back to the strong job market in December 2007, prior to the Great Recession. In fact, even with May’s bump up, Pennsylvania still has 18,000 fewer jobs than in December 2007. In addition, the population has grown 3.7% since December 2007, so we need another 212,200 jobs to keep pace with population growth. This makes for a total jobs deficit of 230,200.

How is Pennsylvania’s job growth ranking over the long term? In a brief we released earlier this week, we reported Pennsylvania’s 49th place job-growth ranking since January 2011. The strong May numbers improves Pennsylvania’s ranking to 48th.  Over a shorter 12-month period, the new May numbers made a bigger difference, improving the state’s ranking from 42nd to 33rd.  

One more detail: the PA Department of Labor & Industry points out in its release that private jobs are now at an all-time high, above the level of December 2007 (and every other month). That is factually true, but it doesn’t mean much given the increase in population of 3.7% since December 2007. For private job growth to reach the level of December 2007 plus the increase needed to keep pace with population growth would require another 164,900 jobs.

New Jersey’s 76ers Deal a Slam Dunk? Maybe for the Sixers, Not so clear for New Jersey or Pennsylvania

June 17, 2014 - 2:42pm

The Philadelphia 76ers have been scouting locations for a new training facility, and New Jersey has lobbied considerably to have the team relocate across the river to the Garden State. To sweeten the deal, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) will cover the total cost of the new facility. The state will reimburse the team through an $8.2 million annual tax credit. The 76ers have accepted the state’s generous offer which works out to $328,000 in NJ state tax dollars per job, according to our friends at the New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP).[1] But with this deal, the devil is in the details.

Philadelphia has not sat on its hands as the Sixers shopped for the best subsidy deal. Mayor Nutter said the City made a number of offers to the 76ers, including a site at the city’s Navy Yard which would have been nearly tax-free due to the Keystone Opportunity Zone and other incentives. But he was quick to note New Jersey’s tactic of “literally throwing money at the 76ers.”[2] This form of economic “growth” fueled by cross border subsidies is not only bad Philadelphia which is losing an employer who it continues to subsidize with an arena funded in part by taxpayers, but also for New Jersey, who is now putting itself on the hook for a stream of tax-funded subsidies.

For what, practice?

While the Sixers will continue playing in Philadelphia, New Jersey’s aggressive approach in hosting their new training facility represents a flawed attempt at spurring economic growth. According to NJPP, the Garden State’s Economic Development Authority has awarded $4 billion in tax breaks to big companies, but the acclaimed benefits are not reaching the people of New Jersey, even as that state’s financial crisis worsens.[3]

New Jersey’s deal with the 76ers was made on an economic return expectation that may never come to fruition. The state is estimating $76.6 million in economic benefit over the course of the 35-year agreement. However, the team is only required to stay in Camden for 15 years. If the 76ers choose to relocate to a new facility at the 15-year mark, the state may suffer a $14.5 million loss on its investment.[4] (See Figure 1).


Source. New Jersey Policy Perspective

The approach taken by New Jersey is being widely criticized including an op-ed in today’s Inquirer,[5] and rightfully so. It does not represent real economic growth, but rather luring business across state lines – triggering a race to the bottom by state and local governments only benefiting the specific businesses with enough notoriety to set off the bidding war. The long-term economic benefits of such maneuvers are difficult to measure and uncertain. Rather than take approaches to economic growth that are thinly veiled economic poaching , such as the 76ers proposal, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states should seek real approaches to growing the economy that are grounded in real return prospects – like investing in early childhood programs, improving education, and strengthening infrastructure.

[1] Mike Soszynski, “$82 Million EDA Subsidy of 76ers Facility in Camden Spurs Debate on Tax Breaks”, New Jersey Policy Perspective, June 11, 2014,

[2] Kathy Matheson, “Report: 76ers to build N.J. facility”, ESPN, June 6, 2014,

[3] Mike Soszynski, “$82 Million EDA Subsidy of 76ers Facility in Camden Spurs Debate on Tax Breaks”, New Jersey Policy Perspective, June 11, 2014,

[4] John Whiten, “Graphic: What Happens if the 76ers Take New Jersey’s Money and Run?”, New Jersey Policy Perspective, June 13, 2014,

[5] Gordon MacInnes and David Sciarra, “Invest in Camden’s students, not the Sixers,”Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 2014,

Business Tax Breaks are Burning the PA Budget Pie

June 17, 2014 - 12:13pm

Deep cuts to critical human services, health care, and education loom in 2014-15 as lawmakers attempt to bridge a $1.5 billion and growing funding gap.

Despite an improving economy, tax collections have fallen far short of revenue targets in 2013-14. The Governor’s initial projections revenue growth have proven to be overly optimistic for this year and for 2014-15.

A key factor in the revenue gap is the impact of cuts to state business taxes. Over the past decade and a half, in good times and bad, business tax cuts continue to be enacted by the General Assembly. In order to make the budget balance and have additional needed resources, the growth rates of other taxes – in particular, sales tax and personal income taxes on wages, have been quite rosy. When they fail to meet these growth expectations, mid-year budget gaps appear.

General Fund collections are $250 million less in 2013-14 than the year before through May, fueled by a decrease in corporate taxes of more than $320 million. This is in sharp contrast the expected $560 million tax revenue was projected to grow in 2013-14. Because of this loss of revenue, increases in education, early childhood, and other critical investments in the 2014-15 budget are on the chopping block.

More automatic cuts are on the docket, triggered January 1, 2015, unless the General Assembly acts to stop them – further cuts to the capital stock and franchise tax rate and the expansion of net operating loss deductions.

These tax cuts have been a critical reason corporate taxes haven’t yet recovered from pre-Recession levels (see below). The most recent Independent Fiscal Office estimates peg 2014-15’s total corporate collections as being $711 million less than they were in 2006-07. Even more troublesome is that corporate tax collections are expected to fall over the next several years. As corporate taxes shrink, more of the responsibility for paying for the budget gets shifted to personal income and sales tax payers.

These tax cuts are costly and impact on our ability to fund critical services, and they haven’t produced the jobs that were promised. As it finalizes the budget, the General Assembly should take a balanced approach – including new and recurring revenue sources. They certainly should stop making matters worse and suspend currently scheduled business tax cuts.

Severance Tax is No Burden to Booming Industry

June 16, 2014 - 2:44pm

As Pennsylvania legislators scramble to identify ways to balance the budget (no small task with a $1.5 billion deficit) one substantial source of revenue is once again up for discussion – a severance tax on natural gas production. A new report released by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center found that natural gas company impact fee payments in Pennsylvania result in one of the lowest production tax rates in the country, just 1.9%. In 2013 they paid $223 million in impact fees while the market value of natural gas production topped $11.8 billion.

Despite booming production, corporate tax payments from these companies have dropped significantly, with total receipts dropping from a high of $443 million in 2011 to $265 million in 2013. Most natural gas drilling companies were able to minimize or avoid altogether paying Pennsylvania’s corporate net income tax (CNIT) by organizing themselves as pass-through entities. Gas drilling companies paid only 0.5% of the total CNIT collected, and the drilling companies paid only 9% of the total remitted by the oil and gas industry. The balance came from pipeline, distribution and other support companies that work with the gas drillers.

The gas drilling industry argues that, because of other taxes levied by Pennsylvania, they cannot afford the added burden of a severance tax. These companies enjoy numerous tax credits and incentives at both the state and federal level. Because of their low operating costs and prime location near premium markets, researchers from Carnegie Mellon noted, “The goose that lays the golden egg is going nowhere.” A business exodus spurred by the enactment of a severance tax is very unlikely.

The absence of a fair severance tax is a bad deal for Pennsylvanians. A 5% severance tax in addition to the impact fee on natural gas companies can raise an additional $400 million for Pennsylvania. A $1.5 billion budget deficit and weak revenue collections is forcing legislators to make difficult choices. Rather than make devastating cuts to education, healthcare, and key investments for future economic growth, our lawmakers should consider a balanced approach that includes raising new revenues. Adopting a modest severance tax is not punitive or unfair. It is sound policy in a time of tight budgets.

CEO Pay in America: Up Up And Away!

June 13, 2014 - 1:52pm

According to recently-released data, CEOs and executives in the United States have been recovering well since the end of the recession, while most workers are being left even further behind. The Economic Policy Institute released a study today documenting compensation in 2013 for CEOs at the top 350 firms in the United States. Their data is especially valuable because it provides a consistent historical series of CEO pay trends back to 1965.

In 2013, compensation for the average CEO (using a measure that includes the value of stock options that were realized during the year) was $15.2 million, an increase of 2.8 percent over the year and more than 20 percent since 2010[1].

Over the long term, pay for these top executives has soared and is now 937 percent higher than in 1978. This pay escalation was much faster than both the growth of the stock market and income of other high-wage earners, signaling that the extreme increases in CEO pay are not due to improving CEO productivity but because significant rents are embedded in executive compensation.

Meanwhile, the compensation of a typical worker has only grown by 10.2 percent since 1978. While CEO pay increased more than 20 percent since 2010, inflation-adjusted typical worker compensation has actually fallen slightly. To put this in perspective, we look to the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio, which measures the gap between CEO pay at the top 350 U.S. companies and the compensation of the workers in the industry of each respective CEO.

In 2013, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 295.9-to-1, meaning that top executives made nearly 300 times the amount their average workers earned. The 2013 ratio is far above the ratio in 1965 (20-to-1), 1995 (122.6-to-1), and last year (278.2-to-1).

While data availability and sample size issues do not allow us to compute this measure at the state level, local sources have started to look at CEO pay for some companies that are headquartered in Pennsylvania. For example, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has begun compiling the “Fortunate 50” – a list of compensation for highly-paid executives at firms headquartered in the Pittsburgh area.

While the Post-Gazette’s measure of compensation is computed using slightly different methodology than the EPI study (most notably, the value of stock options realized during the year is not included), compensation for area executives averaged $5.7 million, down about 15 percent over the year.

However, if the options-realized value was included, it is likely that these executives would have seen a jump in pay comparable to the national increase detailed in the EPI study. In fact, according to this table from the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh executives took advantage of the rebounding stock market and exercised millions of dollars in stock options in 2013, some cashing in more than $15 million.

Average worker pay[2] (not compensation) grew 2.4 percent over the year in the Pittsburgh metro area. Again, accounting for the stock options that executives in the area realized this year would likely show that executive pay growth in Pittsburgh, as in the nation, is far outpacing average worker wages. Skyrocketing CEO compensation is one of the largest contributors to runaway income inequality in both the state and the nation.

[1] Facebook was excluded from the sample for being a high outlier. Including the company would increase average CEO pay in 2013 to $24.8 million.

[2] Average weekly earnings from Current Employment Statistics data.