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Enough is Enough. The Courts Must Intervene.

March 4, 2016 - 1:17pm

The following is a guest post from Susan Spicka, Director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania. It was originally posted at their blog here.

What is happening with the school funding lawsuit?

On November 10, 2014, six school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP – PA State Conference, and families whose children attend under-funded and under-resourced schools filed a case in the Commonwealth Court asking the court to:

  • Declare that the current system of funding our schools does not comply with the state constitution;
  • Order the defendants to cease using a funding system that does not provide adequate funding where students can meet state standards and which discriminates against low wealth districts; and
  • Order the defendants to create and maintain a constitutional school funding system that will enable all students to meet state academic standards and does not discriminate against low-wealth school district.

In April 2015, the Commonwealth Court decided to dismiss the case on the grounds that it presents a political question that cannot be addressed through the court system. In September 2015, the petitioners filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to send the case to a full trial. They contend that the Commonwealth Court erred in dismissing the lawsuit against legislative leaders and state education officials.  The appeal is now fully briefed by all parties, and the high court is expected to hear argument in the case in 2016.

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument from both sides sometime later this year. After hearing the argument, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to allow the school funding lawsuit to proceed to a full trial.

We most strongly believe that parents and students should have their day in court.   

  • Only if the case goes to a full trial will the plaintiffs have the opportunity to share with the court how state’s current irrational and inadequate funding system is hurting children throughout the state.
  • Only if the case goes to a full trial will the court be able to enforce the constitution instead of leaving this most important duty up to the General Assembly, which has categorically failed to do its job.

For more details about the school funding lawsuit, please refer to the Updated Lawsuit FAQs.

Why is public support for the school funding lawsuit important?

Lawmakers must understand that that we are watching them and that we know they are neglecting their constitutional duty. The state has consistently failed to meet its basic responsibility to put in place a school funding system that delivers the essential resources all students need to be successful and it is Pennsylvania’s children who are paying the steep price for this failure.  

The current budget impasse dramatically illustrates both the need for court intervention and the reason why we must create a climate where lawmakers feel they must support long-term, adequate funding for schools.

How can I support and help raise awareness of the school funding lawsuit?

Write a letter to the editor in support of the school funding lawsuit so people in your community and your area lawmakers will read about this in their local paper.

  • Visit our Updated Write a Letter to the Editor to Support the Lawsuit for talking points and a link that will make it easy for you to email your letter to your local newspapers.
  • Make sure to include some information about the local impact that the broken school funding system has had on children your community.

Encourage your local community group or school board to pass a resolution in support of the school funding lawsuit and send the resolution to your area newspapers, your lawmakers, and the governor.

  • Any organization can propose and pass a resolution in support of the education funding lawsuit – a community group, a PTO, a PTA, a home school association, a school board, a municipal organization such as a borough council, etc.
  • Even proposing the resolution at a public meeting will get people talking about the lawsuit and the issue of inequitable school funding in Pennsylvania.
  • Download our Sample Resolution in Support of PA School Funding Lawsuit. This resolution is long and designed to educate people about the lawsuit as they read it from beginning to end. Your organization is welcome to change the resolution to suit your needs.
  • If you pass a resolution, please email it to Susan Spicka at sspicka@educationvoterspa.org.  We are compiling a list of organizations that have done this.
  • For more information, read our Frequently Asked Questions about Passing a Resolution in Support of the School Funding Lawsuit

Plan to attend the oral argument before the Supreme Court. When the court schedules a date, we will let you know so that you can put it on your schedule and show up to demonstrate strong public support.

The courts must act and rule in favor of the plaintiffs. They must declare what is happening is legally wrong and join the demand for a just remedy so every child in PA has an opportunity to learn. But the courts alone will not solve this problem.  It will require all of us.

Immigration Fact Check: Undocumented Immigrants Already Paying Billions in State/Local Taxes

February 26, 2016 - 11:39am

Immigration has been a hot-button topic on the campaign trail this year, and it will continue to be as the Supreme Court hears arguments in the coming months regarding President Obama’s recent immigration executive action.

Just this week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released a comprehensive report on the state and local tax contributions of undocumented immigrants. In the public debate about immigration policy, there are often gross inaccuracies about undocumented immigrants that are presented as facts. This important report provides state-by-state and national estimates on undocumented immigrants’ current state and local tax contributions, including a breakdown of sales and excise, personal income, and property taxes. 

Nationally, the numbers are pretty staggering:

  • Undocumented immigrants contribute significantly to state and local governments, collectively paying an estimated $11.6 billion in state and local taxes.
  • Undocumented immigrants’ nationwide average effective state and local tax rate (the share of income they pay in state and local taxes) is an estimated 8 percent. (The top 1 percent of taxpayers nationwide pay an average effective tax rate of just 5.4 percent.) 
  • Granting legal status to all 11 million undocumented immigrants as part of a comprehensive immigration reform and allowing them to work in the United States legally would increase their state and local tax contributions by an estimated $2.1 billion a year.  Their effective tax rate would increase from 8 to 8.6 percent.
  • The state and local tax contributions of the 5 million undocumented immigrants who could be directly impacted by President Obama’s 2012 and 2014 executive actions would increase by an estimated $805 million if the actions are upheld and fully implemented

For Pennsylvania, undocumented immigrants pay over $139 million in state and local taxes. That number would increase by more than $17 million if President Obama’s executive order is upheld, and it would increase by over $51 million if congress passed a full immigration reform bill.

Read the full report here, and take a look at the state-by-state impact map here.

 

In Memory of Ruth Mathews

February 24, 2016 - 7:41pm

Scrolling through my email yesterday morning I came across the sad news that Ruth Mathews (later McGrath) had passed away. Reading her obituary brought tears to my eyes -- good, rich tears.

Ruth had an extraordinarily accomplished life, including as an associate dean at the Manhattan campus of Empire State College in New York City. And then, at the age of 61, she came back to Reading and started United Community Services for Working Families. This community-based "labor liaison" non-profit agency performs critical services in Reading, including a YouthBuild program that is a lifeline for many youth without a high-school degree. Ruth started that program in her mid-70s. The programs she and her team ran in Reading for predominantly Hispanic high-school kids and older, at-risk youth -- helping them obtain a degree and enter college or careers in unionized construction -- have been models for similar efforts in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

Ruth was a life force who somehow combined enormous vitality, and a sharp mind and wit with a hint of sadness. It was as if she could never quite forget the struggles that our unequal society imposes on the least fortunate families and children. She carried with her a deep sense of responsibility for trying to improve their lives. That partly explains how she could find the energy in her 80s for giving at-risk youth in Reading the level of personal support that would exhaust a high-energy 25-year old.

For a progressive who spends a lot of his time in data and policy abstractions, Ruth was the kind of friend who keeps you honest simply by the power of her example. Without saying a word, she reminded you of your own responsibility for making an actual, concrete difference in people's lives.

I hope Ruth understood the respect and reverence that many people had for her. She will be missed. But her example will live on. In five years, for example, maybe I will stop crunching numbers and waging policy wars and give my last quarter century (if I'm that lucky) to directly helping some folks. There are worse ways to go.

Senator Corman's Budget Fantasy

February 23, 2016 - 5:41pm

The Independent Fiscal Office’s projection that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces a $1.8 billion structural deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is now beyond dispute. And we at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) believe that there are only two ways forward. One path leads to a relatively small tax increase that closes the deficit and restore funding for education and human services. The other path leads to devastating cuts in education and human services. 

In response to that stark choice, Senator Corman has decided to change the subject by focusing on pension costs in his column in Pennlive

But Senator Corman must know this is a complete fantasy. PBPC has analyzed various pension “reform” proposals over the years and we’ve shown not only do they barely reduce expenditure in the short term, they also don’t save much money in the long term. We’ve also demonstrated that pension costs for state workers are not out of line with what other states and the private sector pay. 

But don’t take our word for it. The Republican leadership put forward a pension proposal last year. It failed in the House and a majority of Republicans votes against it. Why? Precisely because it didn’t save much money in the short or long term. As a few of the honest Republicans pointed out, the only provisions that actually did have an impact on the budget were unconstitutional because they violated the state’s contractual agreements. As Senator Corman knows full well,  after five years of obsessing about the issue, he and his caucus have no actual proposal to cut pension costs.

Corman is right only in this: Pension costs are taking more of the state budget. But the reason is that in the past governors and the General Assembly have consistently underfunded them one among many ways in which they “balanced” the budget with gimmicks and flimflam.

Governor Wolf rightly has said he won’t sign a budget that is “balanced” in name only. And if we avoid budgetary deception, we do face the difficult choice described above, to raise revenues or make drastic cuts in education and health care costs.

If you read Senator Corman’s column closely you will see he almost recognizes this. He says “…it is important to realize this is not the first time that lawmakers have faced a shortfall in state revenues. Five years ago, the deficit had reached $4 billion.” 

The Senator doesn’t really need to remind us of that; Pennsylvanians remember it well. Five years ago we faced the same choice then that we do now: raise taxes or deeply reduce the budget. Five years ago, over the protests of the majority of Pennsylvanians, we saw Governor Corbett and the General Assembly make the wrong choice. The results in our schools and communities were so horrible that Pennsylvanians, for the first time in our history, denied an incumbent Governor reelection. 

This time, we need to take the other path. Pennsylvanians are ready to pay a little more in taxes to avoid the devastation of one more Corbett-Corman budget. 

 

Pennsylvania at the Crossroads

February 9, 2016 - 4:18pm

Pennsylvania is at a crossroads. We face a stark and profound choice between two different paths. The first path would build on the broad consensus about public policy that animated our politics for generations. That consensus, forged by both Democrats and Republicans, recognizes that without good public education, our kids won’t succeed and our economy will stall.  It accepts responsibility for taking care of the disabled, ill and aged who, through no fault of their own, need our help. It seeks no more, but also no less, taxation and government necessary to attain these critical goods. And it places the tax burden on those who can afford it most, corporations and the wealthy.

The other path, which abandons common sense and is contrary to the experience of most Pennsylvanians, tell us that government never works. It falsely proclaims that our schools don’t educate our kids, and that the health care and human services we provide to the aged, the ill, and the disabled are not our common responsibility. Its aim is to protect corporations and the wealthy from paying their fair share of our public expenses.

Our state government tried the extreme path of radical budget cuts in 2011. And the voters of Pennsylvania rejected it. Last year an extreme ideology held by a few stymied good-faith efforts on both sides of the aisle to compromise and achieve consensus. The result is that Pennsylvania faces an extraordinary deficit of $300-500 million this fiscal year and $1.8 to 2 billion next year. Our credit rating has been downgraded time and again.

If the extreme view prevails, the state budget will be devastated. Because so much of the budget is mandated by federal requirements and contractual obligations, there are few areas where substantial spending reductions can take place. Closing a huge structural deficit is likely to lead to a billion dollars in new cuts to education, cuts that will lead to the loss of thousands of teachers, guidance counselors and school nurses; that will deny our children the opportunities they deserve; and that will undermine our economy by starving our businesses of educated and trained workers. Closing the structural deficit without a tax increase will also bring about around $600 million in cuts to health and human services, cuts that would eliminate prescription drug coverage for hundreds of thousands; that would slash support for the intellectually disabled and those suffering from mental illness; and that would drastically reduce funding for child care.

Governor Wolf has rightly chosen the first path. But his proposed investments in education and proposals for new revenues are too modest. He does not ask enough of the corporations and the wealthy. With more revenue, collected in a fairer way, Pennsylvania could more boldly take the first path that works for all of us.

The governor does, however, stay true to the core Pennsylvania value that the state has an obligation to provide educational opportunity for all and the recognition—articulated long ago by Republican Thaddeus Stevens—that this investment benefits everybody because it strengthens the economy. As we analyze his budget in detail, we will have disagreements about specific tax and spending proposals. But, at a crossroads for Pennsylvania that could shape the future of the state for decades, we believe that Governor Wolf has chosen the right path.

 

More on Counting Shale Jobs and Deciphering Who Cooks the Books

February 5, 2016 - 6:44pm

As the saying goes, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”

The last time I recall talking to Dennis Roddy was when he was still a member of the Corbett communications team and phoned the Keystone Research Center (KRC) office. At the time KRC was engaging on the opposite side of a debate over public sector pensions with the Corbett administration. Mr. Roddy let on that he knew our eight-person non-profit provides its employees with a 401(k)-style pension plan. When I stopped laughing, it occurred to me that this was an attempt to intimidate us.

Call me old-fashioned but I hang onto the idea that we’re better off when policy and political debates are based more on logic, evidence, and transparency, and less on playing fast and loose with the facts, attempts at intimidation, or personal attacks.

In Mr. Roddy’s latest column on shale jobs – which we recommend you read and then read again – he wants you to believe that the Wolf Administration has politicized the counting of shale jobs and that the Corbett Administration was as pure as the driven snow when it came to letting the numbers people in the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (PDL&I) just provide “the facts.” Even if you don't know what happened, Roddy’s story has the ring of fantasy about it.

But I do know what happened.

At the end of the Rendell Administration and into the Corbett Administration, there was a great hunger for information on the shale boom. In response to this customer demand, the entrepreneurial civil servants leading the data shop within PDL&I, the Center for Workforce Information and Analysis (CWIA), put together a new report called Marcellus Shale Fast Facts.

This booklet included numbers on employment in oil and gas extraction and pipeline construction, six detailed industries that CWIA labelled the “Marcellus Core.” Everyone – CWIA under Rendell, Corbett and Wolf, KRC, academic experts, even Dennis Roddy, accepts employment in these six “core” industries as a good estimate of direct jobs in shale extraction itself plus in pipeline construction.

To estimate Marcellus Core employment requires two steps. First, add up total jobs in the six industries; second, subtract jobs in those industries as of 2005 or 2006 before fracking began in earnest, since those jobs were in conventional gas extraction. (Since separate industry categories do not exist for conventional and unconventional gas extraction, everyone has to assume that all employment change in these six codes since about 2005 is due to fracking not conventional oil and gas extraction.)

As well as “Marcellus Core” employment, however, Marcellus Shale Fast Facts also included lots of other numbers – in fact, pretty much the kitchen sink of numbers related to shale. While heavy on numbers, the booklet was light on interpretation, leaving reporters, industry and others to try to make sense of the numbers largely on their own.

The first episode in misinterpreting Marcellus Shale Fast Facts numbers, ignoring the difference between “new hires” and “new jobs,” is what drew KRC into the shale jobs debate. We published this June 2011 brief correcting the error -- which earned us this personal attack from the Marcellus Shale Coalition and another one from the state Republican Party, both of which we responded to here. Who knew that correcting the factual record was a contact sport? (For more on this particular episode, read this op ed, which is a companion piece to this blog.)

The more significant misinterpretation of Marcellus Shale Fast Facts, which Roddy goes to tortured lengths to defend, is an estimate of employment in Marcellus shale “ancillary industries.” As defined by CWIA, the 29 Marcellus Shale ancillary industries are all industries in which shale extraction creates some supply chain jobs – industries such “engineering services,” “trucking,” and “highway, street and bridge construction.” While shale does create some jobs in these and other ancillary industries, most jobs in these industries have nothing to with shale – e.g., UPS drivers are part of trucking but not part of the shale jobs footprint.

Piling absurdity on top of absurdity, to get numbers over 200,000 you also have to count all jobs in these industries, not just the increase since fracking began around 2005. So apparently fracking created about 170,000 ancillary and core jobs even before unconventional drilling began.

Using this method to estimate shale’s jobs footprint isn’t an exaggeration it’s just making stuff up. Yet as recently as January 22, this employment number was used to support a Marcellus Shale Coalition claim that the shale industry supported 243,000 jobs in 2014.

In stopping the routine reporting of jobs in Marcellus Shale ancillary industries, the Wolf Administration has simply stopped publishing numbers that don’t mean anything and have proved susceptible to misinterpretation. This positive, common-sense step also means that CWIA will no longer unwittingly echo invented and exaggerated shale jobs claims.

Dennis “Through the Looking Glass” Roddy, sees the story differently.

First, he misrepresents Marcellus Shale Fast Facts as a “scientific” document produced by “statistical wizards." He then goes into a long “how I learned the secrets of the temple” explanation of the standard economists’ method of estimating total jobs impact.

While it may be mysterious to Dennis, it is well known among economists that the total jobs impact includes three components: direct jobs, supply chain or “indirect” jobs, and the “induced” jobs created in consumer industries when workers, owners, and royalty recipients in the shale industry and its suppliers spend their additional income. Roddy ends his discussion of this standard economic method with the sentence “that was the context of those numbers” and then quotes Patrick Henderson, Corbett’s energy executive at the time and now with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, "We have about 240,000 Pennsylvanians working in industries that are supported directly, or made more secure, by the growth of oil and gas activity in Pennsylvania." Roddy seems to be trying to suggest that the 240,000 figure comes out of using the economists’ standard methodology for measuring total jobs impact. But that is not true. 

In addition, Roddy doesn’t appear to realize – or at least acknowledge – that the Wolf Administration has actually just done what his opinion piece suggests should be done. The new Wolf methodology DOES explicitly estimate indirect and induced jobs and then add those to direct shale jobs to get the total jobs footprint. The current estimate for direct jobs is 22,058 jobs (down a bit from a year earlier), with an additional 15,706 jobs at suppliers and 19,912 “induced” or consumption-based jobs. That’s a total of 57,676 jobs. In sum, the Wolf Administration is not underestimating the total jobs impact of shale. It has just set aside a ridiculous approach that led to estimates more than four times a legitimate estimate.

Even if Dennis Roddy is living in his own fantasy world, other sources have recognized that the change in methods makes sense. For example, the Times-Tribune calls the new approach a “more honest reporting method.” Several economists have also noted that the new figures create a “much more accurate” employment picture of the shale industry.

At the end of the day, going “inside (the mind of) Dennis Roddy” doesn’t matter. What does matter is the combination of factual distortion and attempts at intimidation that are aimed at blocking lawmakers from enacting state natural gas policies that benefit Pennsylvanians rather than simply cater to the industry. We are still a good ways from achieving the right outcome on that front.