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Against HB 530 — Once More With Feeling

October 24, 2016 - 8:09am

HB 530, a revision of the laws that govern charter schools, has reared its ugly head again. We continue to oppose it.

School districts in Pennsylvania contain a mix of traditional public schools and charter schools. Some local school districts want to add charters schools. Many do not. All of them should be empowered to evaluate the best way to educate students in their respective districts. 

Unfortunately, provisions in HB530 will remove much of the supervisory and decision-making authority from local school districts in every corner of the state. Since charter schools receive funding from local school districts, the creation of new seats in charter schools without school board supervision and control diminishes the ability of school districts to establish and manage their budgets. That could result in the underfunding of traditional schools or significant local tax increases. That is why we oppose this legislation, which that permits charter schools to enroll new students, add grade levels, and recruit students from outside the school district without the approval of the local school board.

We also oppose the provision of the legislation that creates an evaluation system for charter schools that makes it more difficult to compare charter school performance with that of traditional schools and undermines the ability of local school boards to hold charter schools accountable for financial management and educational performance. 

And we oppose the creation of a charter school advisory commission that does not represent all the stakeholders in the education of our children.

Pennsylvania has what is widely regarded as one of the worst charter school laws in the country, precisely because it does not give school boards the tools to regulate and hold charter schools accountable for the education they provide (or do not provide) to their students. But rather than fix the lack of transparency or accountability for charter schools in current laws, or fix the funding provisions that drive local school districts with many charters schools into distress, or fix how we provide funding to charter schools for special education, HB 530 makes the law worse.

Rep. Brad Roae Compares School Board Members to Hitler

October 19, 2016 - 3:12pm

This week, in a Facebook discussion with a person who seems to be one of his constituents, Representative Brad Roae (R-Crawford/Erie) felt it was appropriate to compare school board members in Pennsylvania blaming charter schools for the financial difficulties of their districts to Adolf Hitler blaming Jews for “everything that was wrong with the world.”

I’m not sure whether I should be more offended as a Jew or as a policy analyst by Representative Roae’s remark.

It is, of course, morally offensive to anyone who grasps the evil of Hitler’s murder of 6 million Jews, to compare it to any other crime. A general rule of thumb about Hitler comparisons is to not make Hitler comparisons. But to compare it to a public policy choice like the opposition of school boards to charter schools would be doubly offensive if it were not so utterly ridiculous.

The proper place of charter schools in our education system and, to take another issue Roae raises, the best way to provide pensions to teachers, is a complicated issue that deserves careful and detailed analysis—the kind of analysis we try to produce at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. (And the kind, by the way, that has not in the past led us to oppose all charter schools or all changes in our pensions.)

Rhetorical bombshells like those produced by Roae, are the opposite of that kind of detailed and careful analysis. If Roae were interested in honest thought rather than propaganda he would recognize that school boards who oppose pension “reform” might actually have a good point—that hiring and retaining good teachers is impossible if we don’t pay them well (which is a lesson people, like Roae, who support the free market always seem to forget when it comes to public employees.) 

Roae’s rhetorical bombshell demeans not just the work of those of us who try to analyze and advocate honestly for good public policy, but also the work of the many legislators on both sides of the aisle who take their responsibility to help produce good public policy seriously. Roae owes all of us an apology.

Congratulations to Board Member Jordan Yeager on Act 13 Decision

October 18, 2016 - 11:43am

In a win for environmentalists and municipalities, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month struck down a number of provisions to the state’s oil and gas law, Act 13. Keystone Research Center board member Jordan Yeager was the attorney who argued for the towns and environmental groups involved in the challenging the law.

This case addressed several issues left unresolved in the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Robinson v. Commonwealth, the original challenge to far-reaching oil and gas law (Act 13) passed by the legislature in early 2012 that restricted municipalities’ ability to restrict unconventional gas drilling using local zoning regulations. In the December 2013 Robinson decision, the Supreme Court ruled portions of Act 13 unconstitutional, including the one that restricted local zoning rights. At the time the court sent some components of the challenge back to the lower courts, and those issues have been working their way back to the Supreme Court.

In an 88-page opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Todd and joined by Justices Donohue, Dougherty and Wecht, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled:

  • Unconstitutional a provision that required doctors who treat patients with ailments that might be associated with exposure to drilling pollution to sign non-disclosure agreements if they wanted information on chemicals drillers are using. The court found the provision unconstitutional because it applied only to the gas industry. The provision caused an uproar in the healthcare community and one doctor filed suit.
  • The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must notify private water well owners in the event of a nearby spill of gas drilling pollutants. Act 13 required the DEP to notify operators of public water supplies, but the law left out notification to private well owners—about 3 million mostly-rural residents rely on private wells for drinking water, many of them in shale drilling areas. The court ordered the legislature to fix this part of the law, and require notification to private well owners.
  • Unconstitutional the use of eminent domain by gas companies to take land for the use of underground natural gas storage facilities. The court said that while some portion of storage may benefit the public, it was primarily beneficial to business interests.
  • As originally ruled in the first challenge, the industry no longer has a fast track to commonwealth court when it comes to challenging local zoning ordinances that address gas drilling. And the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will no longer have any role in examining local zoning decisions.

Jordan said the decision is a big win:

“It’s great,” he said. “And it’s great for the residents of Pennsylvania to have the courts recognize that their rights matter more than the gas industry’s power in Harrisburg.”

Yeager said the court’s 88-page opinion repeatedly stressed the original law had serious flaws.

“It’s a great vindication for citizen’s constitutional rights,” he said. “The court said throughout the opinion, that Act 13 and these provisions were a special law that simply benefited the gas industry.”

Congratulations Jordan and Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court! It’s nice for the public interest to trump the gas industry’s interest for once. 

To encourage that simple idea to catch on in state legislatures, this past June KRC/PBPC and their partners in Ohio and West Virginia highlighted policies that would benefit the public interest in nine different Shale policy areas.  

The Revenue Shortfall and the Budget

October 7, 2016 - 10:33am

Almost as soon as the Pennsylvania budget was passed in July, rumors swirled about the legislature coming back—either in a lame duck session in December or next year—to fix it because it was not truly balanced. The Department of Revenue’s announcement yesterday that revenues for the year to date are running $218 million below estimates, makes revisting the budget even more likely.

In July, we at PBPC pointed out that estimates of some of the one-time revenues included in the budget—especially those from selling licenses for internet gaming, for a second Philadelphia casino, and for the expansion of alcohol sales—were possibly over-stated. We also said that we were not confident that enough money was appropriated to meet the likely caseload for medical assistance (The Commonwealth must appropriate its share of funding for these programs to continue to draw down the federal funding for them.) Those problems still remain.

But now we have a new, extremely serious issue. Tax revenues are falling 3.2% short of the year-to-date estimates. Tax revenues do vary a great deal from one time of the year to another. But if that trend were to continue, revenues for this year would be short $1 billion.

Given that the state is constitutionally prohibited from running a deficit, these problems must be addressed this year, either by a reduction in spending or through new revenues. As we will point out in subsequent blog posts on the current years’ budget, there is little room for reductions in spending. Most spending is mandated by contract or federal law. And in the areas where the state has some discretion—education, human services, and the environment—we spend far less than we should.

So the General Assembly is going to have to look again at revenues, and not just for the current year. Trouble looms ahead for the budget that will go into effect on July 1, 2017. The revenue shortfall for the current year means that revenue projections for next year are likely to be reduced. And since about half of the $1.3 billion in new revenues in the current year budget came from one-time sources, including the items mentioned above, the revenue situation for next year’s budget was already problematic. Even before we start looking at mandatory spending increases, we may be looking at a budget deficit for 2017-2018 of around $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

With a budget crisis looming, it would make sense for the General Assembly to look sooner rather than later at the sources of revenue that it would not consider raising in an election year: general taxes including the personal income tax, the sales tax and the corporate income tax. Given that incomes for all Pennsylvanians except those at the top of the income scale have been rising slowly, we we would urge the General Assembly to focus on taxes that do not fall on working people and the middle class. Instead, they should focus on three proposals we have put forward in the past:

  • An increase in the tax on income from wealth (dividends, capital gains, royalties, and estates.) An increase in the tax rate on these sources of income from 3.07% to 4% would raise close to $800, million and most of the revenue would come from families with the top 5% of incomes.
  • Closing the Delaware Loophole in the corporate income tax. We estimate that closing the loophole could raise roughly $200 million in revenue even while we reduce the tax rate. Small corporations that mainly operate in Pennsylvania will save money while large multi-national corporations will pay more.
  • A severance tax on natural gas drilling. Even at the currently low gas prices, a modest tax could raise $200-$300 million.

Elections sometimes bring out the best in our public officials. But sometimes they bring out the urge to avoid dealing with problems. Our General Assembly appears to have taken the later route this year. Perhaps they can redeem themselves sometime after November 8.

SNAP Works for Pennsylvania Children

October 3, 2016 - 9:12am

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps PA families put food on the table. But we know now that it accomplishes much more than that.

Research increasingly shows that SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, can ward against the long-term effects on children of experiencing poverty, abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, and exposure to violence—events that can take a toll on their well-being as adults.  As a new Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report finds, SNAP helps form a strong foundation of health and well-being for low-income children by lifting millions of families out of poverty, improving food security, and helping improve health and academic achievement with long-lasting consequences. 

It’s doing all that across Pennsylvania. SNAP is improving our children’s futures.

SNAP delivers more nutrition assistance to low-income children than any other program.  In 2016, SNAP will help about 20 million children each month—about one in four U.S. children—while providing about $30 billion in nutrition benefits for children over the course of the year. In PA, SNAP helps about 683,900 children each month, or about 1 in 4 of our state’s kids, as well.

SNAP’s benefits are modest, but they’re well-targeted to the families that need them the most. While participating families with children in PA receive an average of $379 each month, those with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line get $498. That’s one reason why SNAP helps lift more children out of deep poverty than any other government assistance program. 

In fact, much of SNAP’s success can be attributed to its design, including that consistent national structure that effectively targets food benefits to those with the greatest need; eligibility rules and a funding structure that make benefits available to children in almost all families with little income and few resources; a design that automatically responds to changes in the economy; and rigorous requirements to ensure a high degree of program integrity. 

SNAP is helping to give thousands of PA children the foundation they need to succeed. Efforts to reform or enhance it should build on its effectiveness in protecting the well-being of our children—and those nationwide—and preserve the essential program features that contribute to that success.

Read the full rerport here.