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Catholic Mass, Andy Reid, School Choice And Dumb Security Measures

 A compilation of random observations

The best thing about being a columnist is that there’s never a shortage of material — especially the kind that leaves you shaking your head.  The bad part is that there isn’t enough time to cover all those topics thoroughly.

So the following is a brief perspective on various events, many of which the media has missed:

Pennsylvania School Choice Disaster:  For the last year, those fighting for educational reform (comprehensive choice in education) but against Senate Bill 1, the fatally-flawed bill in Harrisburg that would have neither educated nor reformed (and is now dead), were lectured on the merits of “incrementalism” by SB 1 proponents. “You have to get a little at a time,” they scolded.

Well, despite never actually trying to pass a broader bill that would include the middle class, which is why school choice failed, the SB 1 folks pushing the incremental approach were, admittedly, smashingly successful.  They set the entire Movement back incrementally.  Comprehensive school choice passed the senate in 1991, and garnered 89 votes in the House (of the needed 102). In 1995, an even broader bill had 101 votes — just one shy.  Yet in 2011, with a Governor who made vouchers a number one priority, major Republican majorities in both chambers, and literally millions at their lobbying disposal, the SB 1 forces couldn’t even get 90 votes, as evidenced by the vote this week.

So let’s see. In 20 years, we went from 89 to 101 to 90.   Not exactly progress, but definitely incrementalism. 

Political Motivation: The “politically motivated” charge is an overused — and   meaningless — line uttered by those who refuse to confront the truth.  Consider two recent examples, with the typical lack of follow-up by the media to call the complainers on the carpet:

Herman Cain is certainly an affable chap, but had no business running for President for two reasons.  First, he was simply clueless on the issues, as his entertaining responses illustrated.  Second, if you’re going to be under the most intense spotlight in the world, you need to be up front with your skeletons so that they are revealed on your terms. But Cain didn’t do that, and he got burned.

How could he possibly think that three sexual harassment suits wouldn’t come to light? In his announcement speech, he could have denied wrongdoing, blamed bloodthirsty trial lawyers and wimpy settle-happy insurance companies, and moved on.  Instead, he just kept blaming Rick Perry and later the Democrats for leaking it, self-righteously stating that the story was “politically motivated.”

Hey Herman, here’s a newsflash.  You were running for President of the United States! Of course it’s politically motivated!  So what? It’s not whether something is politically motivated but whether the allegations were true — which the national media never seemed to ask. Politicians leak things about their opponents all the time, motivated by their desire to win.   If he had just been honest from the beginning, he might well still be in the race.

And locally, we have all the Democratic leaders fuming about the new congressional districts, redrawn every ten years by the party in power in Harrisburg, which happens to be the GOP.  Therefore — you guessed it — we have the Dems leveling the charge that the gerrymandered districts were drawn that way for political purposes (or, as one classicly described the new 7th District, “Meehan-mandered”).

Well, let’s see.  They are congressional seats, filled by… politicians.  They are designed by… politicians.  They will remain unchanged for the next decade, so the drawing was done for … political purposes.  Where’s the surprise?  That’s the way it’s always worked.  Interestingly, the Dems’ statements could be swapped word for word with Republicans when they were out of power.

Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to hear a Democratic official just be honest and say, “Yes, the districts suck for us. Kudos to the GOP.  They got slaughtered in 2006 and 2008, but won when it counted (2010), and now we have to live with the results. It’s our Party’s fault, so we’ll be sure to gear up in 2020 to gerrymander them to our liking.”

But that type of honesty is just a pipe dream in politics.

Catholic Church changes: Church leaders decided that it would be a nice idea to substantially change the liturgy using new translations.  Brilliant move.  It took centuries for most Catholics to even begin mumbling the prayers at Sunday Mass (though singing is still nonexistent), and now they change the whole works?  You can hear the crickets…

Fair or not, it has also left many wondering why the Church spent so much time and energy on such an endeavor while still not cleaning up its own house regarding the (continuing) sex scandals. And not coincidentally, more Catholic school closings will be announced next month.  Sorry, that’s not because of the economy, demographics and population shifts, but lack of leadership, very little transparency and an image of arrogance that will be very hard to break. Amen.

Safe To Fly? Think Again: A hugely important story that got very little attention is the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules that don’t require children under 12 to take their shoes off for x-ray inspection. Additionally, children will receive significantly fewer pat-downs (which, despite the inevitable claims by one or two loud-mouthed whining parents who just want to get on TV, are not intrusive. And the parents are never separated from their children during pat-downs).

Well, at least it’s reassuring that terrorists don’t know about this new policy.  Oh wait…they do.

Not only do we implement such an insane, politically correct procedure, but gleefully announce it to the world.  And since there are numerous examples of terrorists strapping bombs to their children’s bodies in the name of God knows what, does anyone really think they won’t gleefully accept this gift, change their strategy, and place explosives in Junior’s shoe?

And when the next disaster occurs, we’ll all stand around wondering how on Earth this could have happened.  For that answer, just look to the TSA signs announcing the policy.

Of course, before that tragedy occurs, we could end the security theatre and start profiling, make everyone take off their shoes, and have no exceptions for pat-downs.  As always, those who don’t like it can take the bus to Europe.

And finally, for all the Eagles fans who have been praying for Andy Reid’s firing at the end of the season, keep dreaming. The Birds will play just well enough to keep the best three-quarter coach in football right where he is.  After all, this is Philadelphia, and we revel in the misery heaped upon us, year after year, by boneheaded decisions made by our teams.

And you can take that $10,000 bet right to the bank.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com  His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

 

 

 

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December 16, 2011 at 2:43 pm Comments (0)

“Dean Wormer’s” Spirit and Freind: Corbett Has A 0.0 GPA

Who can forget the classic scene in Animal House when the boys from Delta fraternity were summoned by Dean Wormer?  As he looked over their grade point averages, he menacingly barked the hard truth:

Wormer (to a drunk Flounder): “0.2… Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

“Daniel Simpson Day… HAS no grade point average. All courses incomplete…”

And of course:

MR. BLUTARSKY… ZERO POINT ZERO.”

In the spirit of the legendary Dean, it’s now time to rate Governor Corbett and the Pennsylvania House and Senate.  Since all are Republican (with large GOP majorities in the legislature and the Governor a ten-point winner in November), it’s a no-brainer that Pennsylvania should be back on track, given the people’s mandate last year.

But as Blutarsky could tell you, being responsible and fulfilling your requirements feels so much like… work! And where’s the fun in that? 

While politics has always been more style over substance, this time it seemed different.  This time people had the legitimate sense that things would turn around, and life would get better in Pennsylvania….that they could actually trust their leaders to practice what they preached.

But opportunity after opportunity has been needlessly squandered, and those hopes are being dashed.  Not because fighting the good fight has left our politicians spent and exhausted, but because these “leaders” have run state government, as Dean Wormer so eloquently said, in a fat, drunk and stupid way.

                                                                              *****

As a state agency, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) is funded by taxpayer dollars. While programs for the arts are certainly important, they are normally first on the budgetary chopping block, and for good reason.  Political leaders realize that when dollars are scarce, the funding of other initiatives with greater overall value is a better investment.

Even former Governor Ed Rendell understood this, as the budget for the PCA decreased 45 percent over the last several years, with additional money being allocated for education and infrastructure.

So it was quite a shock to many Republicans in the House last week when the Chair of the PCA, siding with Senate Democrats, criticized the GOP for its proposed cuts to the agency. “The arts budget is so small in comparison with the rest of the budget… I was disappointed to see House Republicans slash it by 70 percent,” she publicly said.

But it’s not the criticism of the cuts that has many in the GOP fuming.  It’s the fact that Governor Corbett has passed the buck, making them do the heavy lifting that he consistently promised to do, but on which he has failed to deliver.

How so?  In Corbett’s budget proposal, the PCA’s budget remains virtually unchanged, yet he wants to slash higher-ed spending by 52 percent. How is that remotely close to “everybody feels the pain?”  It’s not, which is why it’s an impossible sell.

Here’s the killer.  Not only does the Governor lose credibility for himself and his Party by not following through on his shared sacrifice mantra, but, specifically, guess why the PCA’s budget didn’t get cut?

Could it be that its Chair is none other than Sue Corbett, First Lady of Pennsylvania?  

So let’s get this straight. The Governor chose not to cut the budget of the agency his wife chairs — forcing the House GOP to do it.  And now, because the First Lady doesn’t like that, she chastises the Republicans who are actually exercising the fiscal restraint championed by the Governor (but seemingly only during the campaign), making the House R’s out to be the bad guys.

Not exactly a smart way to endear yourself to the very people who have to pass your budget.

This momentum-killing message is echoing across Pennsylvania: the Governor only wants shared sacrifice so long as his family, friends and pet projects are exempt.

Maybe that’s why he has signed no significant legislation (unlike his counterparts in Indiana, Ohio and New Jersey) and remains rudderless, weighted down by a 30 percent approval rating and unable to extricate himself from a political quagmire of his own making.

Freindly Fire rarely makes political predictions three years out, given that in politics, three months can be a lifetime.  But Tom Corbett has thus far blazed a course for the history books, possibly destined to do what no Pennsylvania governor has ever done: lose after just one term.  And don’t think for a second that State Treasurer Rob McCord — the Dem’s best shot — isn’t reading the tea leaves.

Oh, we’ve heard all the rationales:

“He’s a prosecutor.” Hey, that’s great — if you’re Attorney General.  But you are Governor, and timelines are not dictated by depositions and court dates.  They are initiated by the immediate need to correct the massive problems facing your constituents — problems that, if not soon fixed, will send the state over the cliff.

 “He’s just trying to get the budget done, and after that’s done, things will roll.” Wrong.  One doesn’t just flip a switch and begin governing.  Ask any insider on either side of the aisle and he will tell you that the Administration is marked by two things: there are no adults running the show, and no one knows who’s in charge.

                                                                                      *****

Rating the House is easy, as it has done the job it promised to do.  It passed the home defense Castle Doctrine; the EITC educational tax credit (giving more parents school choice); restrictions on abortion clinics (in the wake of the horrendous Dr. Kermit Gosnell story); the Fair Share Act (limiting a defendant’s liability in a lawsuit to only his share of blame), welfare reform bills, and a gaming bill that would transform the Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement into its own police agency, free from the political influence by the Gaming Control Board.  And two bona fide school choice bills are being introduced by Rep. Curt Schroder. 

Not bad….even Dean Wormer would be impressed.  GRADE: B+

The Senate is just as easy to rate — with opposite results.  Their sole achievement has been sitting on House-passed legislation.  In fact, it has become known as the DOA chamber since its members have repeatedly stated that House bills are “dead on arrival.”  The EITC (sponsored by Rep. Tom Quigley), Fair Share Act (Rep. Schroder) and gaming bill (Rep. Mike Vereb) are just a few of the victims. Of the bills the House has passed, NOT ONE has seen the light of day in the Senate. 

One sad result? It was just announced that a Catholic school is closing in Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi’s Delaware County district. One has to wonder that if the Senate hadn’t played games with the EITC expansion bill — which passed the House 191-7, and would have enabled parents to receive privately-funded scholarships via participating businesses — maybe the school would still be open, and the taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for educating 100 more students in public schools.

And why was it held up?  So that Senate Bill 1, a low-income school choice bill with absolutely no chance of passing, could be kept alive in the Senate.  How Pileggi sells that to his constituents is anyone’s guess.

GRADE: F — kind of like Flounder’s 0.2 GPA.

                                                                            *****

But now we get to Tom Corbett — the Blutarsky of Pennsylvania.  Thus far, he receives a 0.0 GPA because it’s been one failure of leadership after another. 

Consider:

–          Like Rendell, he used The People’s Money to bail out the private Philadelphia Shipyard so that it could build ships — with no buyers!

–          Like Rendell, he decided to use $20 million of taxpayer money to renovate the Yankees’ minor league ballpark in Scranton — yes, the same Yanks organization that is the wealthiest franchise in America

–          Told the media, “I’ve been down in Philadelphia a lot – you just don’t know about it,” begging the question of whether he is, in fact, the nation’s first Spy-Governor

NOTE: the last time a governor held secret meetings regarding Philadelphia, it was Rendell’s effort to bail out the Inquirer and Daily News.  Coverts ops are better left to the CIA

–          Raised the salaries of his staff, who now average $13,000/year more than counterparts under Rendell

–          Wants to raise the Lt. Governor’s budget by nearly 50 percent

–          Put forth no solution on his mega-campaign promise to privatize the state liquor stores— providing huge momentum to the clerks’ union

–          Was perceived as untruthful concerning his state car. In responding to a media question, he  said he was still using Rendell’s former car, but failed to mention that he was taking delivery of four new SUV’s that same day— at a cost of $187,000

–          Took elimination of collective bargaining off the table — before negotiating with the state employee unions — without getting anything in return

–          Has not addressed the ballooning pension bomb threatening Pennsylvania’s solvency

–          Made no attempt to stop the 25 percent toll increase at the Delaware River Port Authority

–          Stacked the DRPA and PRPA with contributors, lawyers, lobbyists and political insiders

–          Was silent on the controversy involving his Secretary of Health— who didn’t like the eggs he was served at a longtime Harrisburg eatery — and never responded to the owner’s request for justice after the Secretary abused his power

–           Did not fill his cabinet for months, despite the 11 weeks of transition time after the election, putting a hard stop to policy initiatives

–          Did not hold a press conference for a similar amount of time, becoming known as “Governor MIA”

–          Killed Right to Work legislation when a top aide stated that it could never pass in Pennsylvania — infuriating GOP legislators who were circulating such legislation

–          Was absent on the school choice front, helping to throw that issue into complete disarray — to the delight of the teachers’ unions, who didn’t have to lift a finger in opposition

–          Made no attempt to bring business and labor together in calling for a reduction in the nation’s second-highest corporate income tax — a quantifiable job killer

–          Infuriated the press by locking them out of an event to which they were invited

–          Has made no attempt to increase demand for clean, low-cost natural gas to power state building and cars, instead establishing a “Blue Ribbon” commission to study the obvious.

In short, Tom Corbett has made former Governor Tom Ridge look like Chris Christie.  In refusing to use his office as a bully pulpit and barnstorm the state to sell his ideas, Corbett has allowed himself to be perceived as weak and disorganized.  And weakness invites aggression, nowhere more so than politics. So now he finds his agenda under attack not just by the Democrats, but his own Party.

As bleak as it is for the Governor, it’s not over yet. As Blutarsky said, “Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”

It’s not too late for Tom Corbett to right his ship, though it will take massive political will from him to do so. But with every day that goes by without that leadership, his journey becomes that much more difficult. 

The fall usually sees a relatively light legislative calendar, so the window to push his vision will be narrow.  And forget 2012, as legislators are loathe to take up any controversial issue in an election year — especially one that will see the Democrats, in all likelihood, take back five or more seats, even with the GOP’s redistricting advantages.  

A wise man once said: If you’re afraid of getting a rotten apple, don’t go to the barrel. Get it off the tree. The voters thought they did just that. 

The open question is what kind of apple they really picked.

 Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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June 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm Comments (0)

Damn Yankees! Corbett Spends $20 Million On Yanks’ AAA Stadium

There’s good news and bad news for the New York Yankees.

The bad news is that their payroll — always the biggest in baseball — hasn’t produced.  Hey, they haven’t won a World Series in over a year.  Remember, these are the Yankees — the most well-known, most loved (by some), most hated (by many), and wealthiest sports franchise in America. They are the only team on the planet whose season is a complete failure if they don’t win a world championship.

Maybe the recession is finally taking such a toll that even the Yanks are too cash-strapped to bring in new talent. But that’s where the good news comes in.  Turns out they will have extra money to spend after all, now that they won’t be shelling out big bucks to renovate the stadium of their AAA minor league team in Scranton/Wilkes Barre. 

It is not without irony, though, that the Bronx Bombers’ financial home run comes at the expense of Phillies fans.

Literally.

You see, the Yanks’ windfall is courtesy of Pennsylvania taxpayers, who are on the hook for $20 million to upgrade the stadium. And who authorized such an expenditure at a time when the state is facing a $4.2 billion deficit?

Republican Governor Tom Corbett.

The same person who, during his campaign last year. championed fiscal restraint and the need for government to return to its core functions.

And the same person, who, a day after announcing the deal, talked about why the state is in such a fiscal mess:

“(Ed Rendell) said yes, yes, yes,” Corbett said of his predecessor, “and that’s why we are where we are…. in the times we are in we have to be able to say no.”

Come again?

He just spent money on something taxpayers shouldn’t be funding in good times, let alone in a recession when the state’s finances are in really bad shape.

So Corbett’s curveball will keep his approval rating at 30 percent — a great percentage for a hitter but not so good for a politician — and a far cry from the 55 percent he received just six months ago.

Here’s a look at why the stadium giveaway is such bad policy — and bad politics:

1)      People are “stadium fatigued,” having put up money to construct arenas across the state, including facilities for the Eagles, Phillies, Steelers, Pirates and soccer franchise Philadelphia Union.  All told, $1 billion in taxpayer money was used to finance stadium construction since 1999.  And here’s the kicker: the real amount will be almost three times that, because the money usually comes from bonds, which, like mortgages, are paid back over time (20 or 30 years) with interest. Millionaire owners increasing their fortunes on the backs of taxpayers just isn’t right.

Corbett gets the worst of both worlds.  Not only is he viewed as hypocritical for spending money on a stadium, but he loses the game by doing it for the benefit of the richest of the rich, and the victor over the Phillies in the 2009 World Series (not to mention 1950). Don’t underestimate that sentiment come election time.

2)      Blaming Rendell for the state’s fiscal mess is certainly on target, as spending under his eight year watch skyrocketed.  But Corbett’s message increasingly rings hollow since his rhetoric doesn’t meet his actions.

Rendell attempted to bail out the Philadelphia Shipyard (a private entity) so that it could build ships with no buyers, but left office before completing the deal.  Corbett bailed it out anyway. So much for fiscal restraint and getting government out of the private sector.

And it was Rendell who initially wanted to fund the Yankees’ stadium, but again, it was Corbett who came in from the bullpen to get the taxpayer-funded “win.”

Corbett continues to pursue a policy perceived as “spending cuts for you, but not me.” He raised the salaries of his executive staff (who now average $13,000 per year more than their counterparts under Rendell), and increased the budget of the Lt. Governor’s office by 46 percent.

Cuts are inherently unpopular, but people will support a leader who leads by example and mandates that “everybody feels the pain — no exceptions.” That hasn’t happened in Pennsylvania.  Hence the basement-dwelling approval rating.

3)      The stadium funds, which local officials say could actually end up being $25 million, come from a bond used to fund building projects.  In a state as large as Pennsylvania, there are an infinite number of possibilities that would provide a better return to the state and its taxpayers.

Pre-eminent among them would be building natural gas fueling stations for the state fleet of vehicles that will — hopefully — soon be powered by that fuel. (The management of these stations could then be leased to private companies to maximize private-sector efficiencies). Additionally, state buildings should be converted to run on natural gas (with gas being mandated in all new construction), since Pennsylvania is sitting atop the Marcellus Shale — second-largest gas field in the world.  It is clean (virtually no emissions); extremely cost effective (currently one-seventh the cost of gasoline); limitless; creates jobs; and sets the national model for how to achieve energy independence (bolstering national security).

And here’s an added bonus: it can solve a looming problem no one wants to discuss: keeping the gas industry in Pennsylvania.  Despite all the advantages of natural gas, demand is so low that gas companies are finding it extremely difficult to be profitable.  It’s to the point that companies may start capping their wells and rolling out of state to pursue other interests (as it is a very mobile industry).  Such a situation would be catastrophic to all Pennsylvanians.

Bottom line: Tom Corbett is giving Democrats all the ammunition they need to wage effective campaigns against Republican legislators next year. The Governor’s increasing lack of credibility could potentially endanger the GOP majorities in both chambers, particularly in a presidential election year which always generates a significant Democratic turnout.

Core, common sense and consistency are the hallmarks of effective leadership, and all have been in short supply from the Governor’s office.

Just this week, the Governor underwent successful back surgery. We wish him well in that regard, but now it’s time to get his head in the game.

 

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

 Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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May 20, 2011 at 3:54 am Comments (0)

Joke Budget Deals Lead To S & P Credit Warning

It is a sad truth that America has been transformed from a tough-as-nails powerhouse into a nation that prefers to bury its head in the sand, pretending problems will go away if simply ignored.  Being the world’s only superpower, the United States has gotten away with that dangerous mentality for years.  But now it is finally time to pay the piper, yet Congress’ continued lack of action has pushed America to the brink of insolvency.

America’s debt (the total amount owed) stands at $14.3 trillion, and its deficit (the amount of red ink incurred just this year) is nearly $1.7 trillion. 

As a comparison, the 2011 deficit equals the ENTIRE budget in 1999.  In other words, we are borrowing more this year than all government expenditures for all of 1999.

The recent effort to “rein in spending” by cutting $100 billion from the current budget turned into a $38 billion compromise. But the independent Congressional Budget Office concluded that the actual savings were just one percent of that, a mere $352 million.

Since trillions and billions are meaningless, incomprehensible terms (a point not lost on those wishing to confuse the public), it makes sense to break down America’s dire fiscal situation in real world terms.

Let’s say the Debt and Deficit Restaurant (D & D) wants to dramatically expand, something it has done each year for decades. Despite the fact that D & D is already stretched thin because of its numerous loans for past expansions, and the fact that the debt-holders are starting to view its mounting debt warily, there is faith that it will pay its bills, and financing is once again approved.

For its current operating year, D and D’s revenue is $21,000 (equivalent to the nation’s $2.1 trillion in tax receipts). Not enough to satisfy the owners (Congress), another $17,000 (our $1.7 trillion debt) is borrowed to buy everything else they want but can’t afford.  The restaurant already owes a staggering $143,000 to its creditors ($14.3 trillion debt), but the owners, rather laying off employees or downsizing, think the best action is to borrow more and expand anyway, ignoring the fact that skyrocketing interest payments now account for a huge percentage of revenue.

Some D and D patrons (the electorate who voted the GOP into power), foreseeing the negative impact of that strategy, have suggested that the owners cut back and make hard decisions that, while painful, are necessary if the five star restaurant is not to become a fast food joint, or worse, close its doors altogether.

Reluctantly, the owners agree.  At first, they commit to cutting about 6 percent of the $17,000 they borrowed this year, equating to $1000 (the original $100 billion figure), not enough to make a dent.  But upon reconsideration, they lack the courage to commit, and settle for a cut of $340 (the $38 billion compromise).

The owners are quite happy with their self-proclaimed business acumen, but an independent auditing firm (CBO) concluded that the cuts actually amount to less than one percent of the $340 compromised figure!

So D and D’s “solution” to its impending disaster is to cut three dollars out of the $17,000 owed this year, resulting in its total debt ballooning to $160,000 (the debt will rise to $16 trillion next year because the deficit was not reduced). 

It doesn’t take an economist to see that D & D will soon become insolvent. In real life, D & D would have failed long ago, but the U.S. government has been printing money to stay afloat.  But inflation is now rising, and interest payments on the debt will soon consume so much tax revenue that basic government functions will go unfunded.

Here’s what the political class is missing. It makes absolutely no difference whether it’s conservatives or liberals making excuses for lack of cuts and justifying budgets deals, and it doesn’t matter how much merit their programs have.

Two plus two always equals four, whether or not we believe it. For all practical purposes, the United States’ insolvency it is a mathematical certainty, short of monumental change.  Could the iceberg be averted? Sure, but the political will simply isn’t there from either Party to steer the ship to safety. From forsaking energy independence to raising debt ceilings to treating entitlements as sacred cows, the lack of inaction has led the Republic to the edge of the abyss.

And as Lou says to Charlie Sheen’s character in Wall Street: “Man looks in the abyss, and there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”

Standard & Poor’s downgrading of ourAmerica’s credit worthiness confirms that our nation is unquestionably looking into the abyss. The question is, do we possess the character to keep us out of it?

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countriesand all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in DickMorris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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April 19, 2011 at 10:38 pm Comments (0)

Why Is Corbett Punting On Privatizing Booze?

Last November, Pennsylvanians elected Tom Corbett to solve the state’s problems. But instead of leadership, they’ve received task forces and blue ribbon panels.  In just three months, commissions have been formed to deal with Marcellus Shale natural gas (with a whopping 31 members), explore the core functions of government, and figure out how to privatize liquor.

Sorry, but isn’t that why people elect politicians?  Isn’t it their job to solve these problems? 

Commissions and task forces are simply code-speak for passing the buck and kicking the can down the road.  We might as well just hang a sign that reads, “Welcome to Pennsylvania, Blue Ribbon State.”  And if GOP leaders don’t start following through on campaign promises, the only “Red” they’ll see is voter anger when the state turns Democratic Blue.

*****

Since privatizing liquor is one of the only issues which enjoys a large consensus, and would provide billions to balance the ballooning budget deficit, it’s baffling why Corbett would punt away such political capital when he needs it most. Delaying the privatization initiative by instituting yet another study commission was a move that left many observers scratching their heads — and state store union employees punch-drunk with elation.

Even more perplexing is that Corbett has a solid ally in House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who had been spearheading privatization legislation for years. Turzai had a right to expect that, with strong GOP majorities in both Houses, the Governor would come charging out of the gate on an issue that was a cornerstone of his campaign. Instead, Corbett felt compelled to reach into the “Business As Usual” drawer and pull out another meaningless commission, which looks increasingly like a bad political calculation.

*****

Sometimes you have to walk out your door to realize that the grass really is greener somewhere else. For Pennsylvanians, that “green” is all the money saved by consumers in other states because they aren’t gouged when purchasing alcohol. 

For the uninitiated, following is a primer for how the Pennsylvania alcohol monopoly works:

Pennsylvania is the largest purchaser of booze in the world.  The state government, through the Liquor Control Board (LCB), controls the purchase, distribution and sale of all wine and liquor.  You might think that with such immense purchasing clout, its citizens would have outstanding selection and competitive pricing.  But as any Pennsylvanian knows, that’s clearly not the case.

Interestingly, the LCB is charged with two distinct, and inherently contradictory, roles.  While it is responsible for raising revenue through the sale of wine and liquor, it is also charged with controlling the sale of booze throughout the state.  By definition, if the LCB is succeeding at one, it must be failing at the other.

Every bottle of liquor bought in the state comes with an added bonus: an 18% “temporary” tax, which is in addition to the 6% sales tax.  So a $10 bottle jumps to $11.80 before the sales tax is calculated, culminating in a whopping $12.50.  In all fairness, the 18% tax was well intentioned — it was passed by the legislature to rebuild Johnstown after a devastating flood that destroyed the town.

 In 1936.  So much for “temporary” taxes.  

Anyone who has traveled outside Pennsylvania knows how refreshing it is to enter a grocery store, and, remembering that you need a bottle of wine for dinner, walk two aisles over to the plethora of vino at your fingertips. Since others accomplish this with little difficulty, it’s incomprehensible that the nation’s sixth largest state can’t — or, more correctly, won’t — do the same.

It is infinitely more efficient when a private company, responsive to the needs of the free market (instead of bureaucrats), stocks its shelves with items that consumers want, at a fair market price.  It is the core principle on which America was founded.

But Pennsylvania remains stuck in the Dark Ages, and what makes the sin mortal is that it chooses to remain there. It hasn’t dawned on the politicos in Harrisburg that they are losing untold revenue because of their Draconian system, with millions of residents crossing state lines to fill their liquor cabinets.  (No offense to Governor Christie, but anytime New Jersey offers a better alternative, you know you have major problems). 

And despite the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, if you are caught bringing alcohol into Pennsylvania, it’s a criminal offense.  In fact, such “criminals” used to have their cars confiscated for doing so.

To be fair, today’s LCB has made substantial progress in its operations and “customer service.” Not too long ago, all of its locations were “counter” stores, meaning that customers had to know exactly what they wanted before placing their order, since browsing was not permitted.  The clerk would then disappear into the bowels of the store, only to return five or ten minutes later, more often than not stating that they were “out of stock” and asking for a second choice.  Now imagine this scene playing out at Christmas time, with twenty five people in line.

But that’s not all.

Nothing in the store was chilled. No ancillary items such as tonic water were sold. No employees were permitted to offer advice.  And no LCB stores accepted credit cards.  

And all this because former Governor Gifford Pinchot, who as a young man became violently sick while imbibing in Germany, became bound and determined to make alcohol as difficult as possible to obtain. 

But the LCB’s improvements amount to being valedictorian of summer school.  The whole system has to be scrapped.

The ultimate irony is that the Keystone State, birthplace of American democracy and cradle of liberty, continues down the path of state control and government regulation, to the detriment of its twelve million citizens. 

And what are liquor privatization’s chances?  Dead for the spring session, possible in the fall, and virtually nonexistent for 2012. With the make-up of the legislature sure to change next year, the time to take a “shot” is undoubtedly now.

The people have awakened from their stupor, demanding change.  Instead, all they get is a (Pabst) “Blue Ribbon” commission.

Time for another drink.

 

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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April 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm Comment (1)

Sestak “Switch” Ad Wins Pollie Award

The Sestak campaign’s devastating ad “The Switch” was one of the “Pollie” award winners recognized by the American Association of Political Consultants.

You all know the one…

March 13, 2011 at 10:23 am Comment (1)

LCB Chianti Question Misses The Point

Desperately attempting to justify continued state ownership of the liquor stores, the LCB Chairman reportedly quipped, “How many chiantis do you need? 8? 10?

The problem is that the question of selection at liquor stores is not an issue that can or should be decided by government bureaucrats.  Eight, ten, … twenty Chiantis… I have no idea.  No single individual knows the answer to that.  The question of selection at liquor stores is a question than can only be answered through a competitive marketplace.  And a competitive marketplace is exactly what we do not have in this state.

March 10, 2011 at 12:41 pm Comment (1)

The REAL Pennsylvania Budget: Can Corbett Sell It?

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s “day of reckoning” budget, containing substantial cuts and rolling back spending to 2008 levels, may well pass the GOP-dominated legislature without major changes. 

But just because the state constitution requires a balanced budget doesn’t mean it always happens that way.

Take the budgets of the last two years, which former Governor Ed Rendell championed, and were passed by a Democratic House and Republican Senate.

In 2009, $400 million in revenue was budgeted from the tolling of Interstate 80.  Except that the tolling never happened.  Put that in the debit column.

And last year, the budget was passed on federal Medicaid dollars that hadn’t yet been appropriated (and ended up being $255 million less than budgeted) and a Rendell-promised Marcellus Shale gas tax that would generate hundreds of millions — but which never materialized.

And the forecasted general tax revenue was over a billion dollars short. 

But that’s not all.  The legislature and Rendell raided MCARE in 2009 — the fund to offset Pennsylvania doctors’ skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates — to the tune of $800 million.  A Commonwealth Court ordered the money repaid, but the Rendell Administration appealed.  Odds are the state Supreme Court will uphold that decision.  The hole deepens.

So despite some cuts last fall, we’re still looking at a $3 billion revenue gap which, by the way, is not factored into the acknowledged $4 billion deficit.   The fact that no one wants to talk about this is not surprising, since it’s not in the interest of the politicians, and most of the media doesn’t do its homework.

Let’s put this type of maneuvering into perspective.  What would happen if a publicly-traded pharmaceutical company, in an attempt to placate Wall Street, added billions to its books to reflect a medicine it hadn’t yet produced? 

People would go to jail.

But in Harrisburg, it’s called Business As Usual. Instead of solving the real problem, the state’s leaders have resorted to what they do best: bury their heads in the sand.

Just because you pretend a problem doesn’t exist, though, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  The can is being kicked, yet again, down the road.  But the road is quickly coming to an end.

*****

Overall, the budget rates a B-, assuming that you believe the numbers — and that’s a big assumption.

There is nothing particularly special about this budget, since spending cuts were imminent after the federal stimulus money dried up.  It gets the job done at a basic level, and Pennsylvania will continue to limp along. 

While there were clearly some elements in the Governor’s address that could help Pennsylvania re-invent itself into an economic and industrial powerhouse, the speech lacked the break-out vision that is essential in selling those ideas to the public.  No one expects Corbett to have the jazz of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, but Pennsylvanians need to be inspired if their state is to forge ahead.

A prime example would have been explaining why the Marcellus Shale holds such so much promise for Pennsylvania’s future, from the thousands of sustainable jobs it creates (and the accompanying houses bought and income spent in-state), to untold millions in tax revenue, to the manufacturing boom it can foster by providing extremely cheap energy.  

Corbett could have showcased manufacturing companies that drill wells on-site and, as a result, now realize incredible cost savings for what is always the largest line item: energy.  This directly translates into business expansion, more hiring, and a way to finally compete with China.

Or he could have decreed that from this moment, all future state vehicles will run on natural gas, currently about one-eighth the cost of gasoline, with zero emissions. This would be a win-win by increasing demand for natural gas — and if that doesn’t happen soon, the industry will start packing up by next year — and saving taxpayer money.  And what a boom to the entire economy if we had an alternative to $4/gallon gasoline.

But that didn’t happen.  So all the public knows is what they see in the headlines: “We’re Getting Drilled,” “How Corbett Fracked Pennsylvania’s Middle Class,” and “Big Budget Cuts?  We Smell Gas,” along with editorials about how much the industry contributed to the Governor’s campaign.

Reality is now setting in; what a Republican candidate said on the campaign trail in October 2010 — a landslide election year for the GOP— was easy.  Now the rubber meets road.

The question isn’t if Tom Corbett can get this budget passed, but whether can he sell it to the people, and at what cost to his agenda and Party, particularly since 2012 will prove a better year for the Democrats. His deliberate strategy to remain silent for four months has resulted in lost opportunities to earn much-needed political capital needed to sell his budget cuts to the public.

To reverse that, he must now barnstorm across the state, a la Christie, attending everything from natural gas forums, explaining why an extraction tax will hurt the state, to school board meetings, where he can push his idea of teacher salary concessions.  Time will tell whether he will effectively be that messenger.

There were a number of common sense proposals that, based on the legislature’s make-up, should come to fruition: the reduced spending and no new taxes; legal reform targeting frivolous lawsuits (the Fair Share Act); school choice in which competition and accountability would be injected into the educational system; the phase out of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, the elimination of pork-barrel walking around money (WAMs); and calls for pay freezes and give-backs by public workers.

Likewise, there are a number of problem areas:

-Eliminating 1,500 jobs is a good start, but since reports state that 1,000 of them aren’t filled, the real number is only 500 jobs, which isn’t a huge budgetary factor. So why the gimmick?

-The assumption that revenue will grow by 4.7 percent, while not impossible, is hugely optimistic.  Inflated revenue has been a hallmark of past budgets to make the numbers work on paper. In reality, they came up short, adding to rolling deficits.  Without substantial growth in Pennsylvania, that rosy figure will prove unattainable.

-Calling for cuts to higher education by 50 percent, while increasing welfare spending substantially, will also be an extremely hard sell, for two reasons. First, many will frame the issue simply as education versus welfare, and which provides the better return on investment. Second, state-related schools, such as Temple, Penn State, Pitt and Lincoln, have immensely powerful lobbying operations, including parents and students, who will deluge their elected officials in opposition.  Look for that figure to drop substantially, to be made up somewhere else.

-One item that is noticeably absent from the budget is the privatization of liquor stores, which is curious since it was the one issue on which the majority of Pennsylvanians agree.  Instead, a blue-ribbon commission was formed to study privatization.  Here’s a newsflash.  Voters elect politicians to solve the problems, not authorize more meaningless commissions.  A major chip in the fight has been shelved, shifting the momentum to the unions which support the status quo.

-Other areas left out but still mandatory for a healthy business climate were the reduction of the corporate net income tax (2nd highest in nation) and the looming pension issues, which may be addressed as public sector union contracts are negotiated this spring.  The Governor has taken the elimination of collective bargaining off the table though, a concession that simply didn’t have to be made this early. They received nothing in return from that move. Another head-scratcher.

-There are also several inconsistencies that the Governor must address.  While he advocated salary freezes and reductions, he raised the salaries of all his executive staff, and the budget of the Lieutenant Governor’s office increased 30 percent. And despite de-funding the adultBasic program, which provided healthcare to working poor on the premise that there was no more money, he found a way to bail out the Philadelphia Shipyard to build ships with no buyers. 

Saying all the right things about fiscal discipline, free enterprise and removing government from where it doesn’t belong rings a bit hollow in light of some recent Corbett Administration decisions.

*****

The Governor used the analogy of reviving an apple tree to explain why the cuts are necessary, stating that if the tree isn’t tended, it will grow into a tangle of limbs and bear no fruit. The pruning (hard cutting) was needed so the tree could once again bear fruit.

In keeping with the theme, here’s a piece of advice: if you’re afraid of getting a rotten apple, don’t go to the barrel. Get it off the tree.

The Governor is right: we need to revive the tree.  But as of now, too much of this budget is coming from the same old barrel.

 

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

 Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

 

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March 10, 2011 at 11:11 am Comments (0)

Tom Corbett’s DRPA: Same Old Story?

Corbett’s DRPA: Same Old Story?

A changing of the guard occurred this week at the scandal-plagued Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), as Governor Corbett appointed himself the new Chairman, and replaced five Board Commissioners.

The law-and-order Corbett has pledged to clean up the Authority through openness and transparency, vowing to oversee an entity free of the conflicts that plagued the prior Board.  But his appointments — all political insiders — have left many wondering if anything has really changed.

As Chairman, the Governor sets the DRPA agenda, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he will live up to his promises.  That said, a look at the new Commissioners reveals that none are known as reformers or good-government advocates, and, in fact, raises new questions, such as whether the companies of Board members will be eligible to receive DRPA contracts.

Cumulatively, the backgrounds of the six new Board Commissioners feature four lawyers (including one who works for the same firm as Montgomery County GOP Chairman Bob Kerns and State Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty), a real estate executive, a former union vice president, an official from the scandal-plagued Street Administration, large dollar campaign donors to Corbett, a prominent GOP fundraiser, and former officials of a number of Philadelphia’s not-so-respected entities: the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Seaport Museum (which played a major role in the corruption trial of convicted ex-senator Vince Fumo). 
  
The new appointees to the board:

-William Sasso, board chairman at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young law firm in Philadelphia. Sasso is a prominent Republican fund-raiser and was a co-chair of Corbett’s transition team. The Stradley firm contributed $173,000 to Corbett.  As an individual, Sasso donated $23,000 to Corbett’s attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns.

-Joanna Cruz, an attorney with Kerns, Pearlstine, Onorato & Hladik, the firm of Montgomery County GOP boss Bob Kerns and State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty. Kerns contributed $7,500 to Corbett.

-Joann Bell, an executive at Pugliese Associates, a lobbying and government relations firm. A former special-projects manager for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and former vice president of AFSCME District Council No. 47, she was also an economic-development coordinator in former Mayor John F. Street’s Administration. The Pugliese political action committee contributed $1,500 to Corbett.

-Walter D’Alessio, vice chairman of a real estate investment banking firm, and senior managing director of a real estate consulting group. A former chairman of the board of the Independence Seaport Museum, and former executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, he also served on Corbett’s transition team and donated $2,500 to the Governor.

-David Simon, senior vice president and general counsel for Jefferson Health System in Philadelphia. Former general counsel to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, he contributed $29,500 to Corbett’s campaigns and served on the Governor’s transition team.

On a similar note, Corbett appointed attorney Charles Kopp to serve as Chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.  Lawyers at Kopp’s firm, Cozen O’Connor, donated nearly $150,000 to the Governor’s campaigns.

Corbett’s consistency is being called into question.  Despite advocating fiscal discipline and adhering to the free market system, he supports the subsidized Philadelphia Shipyard bailout. Similarly, criticizing Rendell for his DRPA conflicts seems a bit hollow when the new Corbett Board has more than its share of cozy relationships with the political powerbrokers.

This is not to call into question the integrity of any new Board member, nor the Governor himself. All may turn out to be true reformers, smashing the DRPA’s Business As Usual reputation as a haven of political patronage and a piggy bank for the insiders.

But until bold action and aggressive leadership takes place, that’s an impossible sell to an extremely cynical public. Based on Corbett’s promises to right the ship, there was not just the hope but the expectation that he would appoint good-government reformers to the Port Authority. 

That didn’t happen. At all.

So what needs to be done to earn back the public’s trust? Here are four quick ways:

1)      Stop the 25 percent toll increase slated for July, and put commuters ahead of Wall Street bondholders and the DRPA itself. At Corbett’s first Board meeting this week, he said commuters should be able to use the bridges as “cheaply” as possible.  Well, stopping the back-breaking toll hike is the only way to accomplish that.  But if he waits any longer, that goal becomes almost unattainable, as there simply won’t be enough time to realize cost-savings which would offset the revenue generated by the toll increase. The clock is ticking.

2)      Fire CEO John Matheussen as well as most top executives. It’s bad enough Matheussen makes $50,000 more than either governor (and, up until investigative media reports aired, was enjoying a $17,000/year car allowance), but his reign has been one of catastrophic failure.  The DRPA debt substantially increased, economic development projects having nothing to do with the bridges continued unabated, conflicts ran rampant, and he kept the Board itself in the dark on numerous issues. He would have been fired years ago had he been in the private sector.

And while it’s technically true that he can’t be “fired” by either Corbett or Gov. Christie (a majority of Board members is necessary to do that, and the Jersey Boys have been reluctant to can their patronage king), there is no way on God’s green earth that Matheussen or the Jersey Board can withstand the pressure of two powerful governors, who each have an ace-in-the-hole.  It’s called the Bully Pulpit.  Time to use it.

3)      Slash costs across the board.  It is simply not necessary to have 900 employees with lavish salaries and benefits operating four bridges and a short rail line.

4)      Authorize a top to bottom forensic audit from a non-political firm. If no stone is left unturned, millions upon millions in savings will be realized.

Despite the Board meeting being a prime occasion to initiate such ideas, something else happened: absolutely nothing.

Corbett promised “a deep review before making any major changes” and stated his intention to get out of the economic development business. 

That’s not exactly going out on a limb, since economic development had already been stopped. And there’s no economic development money left anyway!

For Corbett to say it was too early to replace Matheussen or to make any other big changes because he needed more time to figure things out boggles the mind.  The Governor should have been up to speed already since he was Attorney General when criminal misconduct was being reported (which is why the New Jersey AG is conducting a criminal investigation).  As a gubernatorial candidate for over two years, he was well aware that the Pennsylvania governor picks the DRPA Chairman, and could not possibly have overlooked the comprehensive media coverage of the DRPA debacles.

Oh, wait.  The Governor doesn’t acknowledge the validity of those reports. “I don’t judge anything, no offense, by what you people put in newspapers and on TV,” he said after the meeting.

Does that mean Mike Joyce of the EZ Pass scandal was framed? Were all the investigative reports devoid of documented facts?  Did the DRPA agree to reforms for any other reason than the hard-hitting media coverage?

All of which gets back to the fact that the toll-paying public will have to wait at least another month to see action.  And their patience is growing thin.

A golden opportunity to win political capital is in danger of being lost by Corbett— mandatory if he is to successfully tackle the tough issues ahead (budget, pension reform, school choice, privatization of liquor).  The Governor doesn’t seem to understand how important reforming the DRPA has become to the Southeast, home to half the state’s population. His board appointees and the lack of bold leadership have sent the message that, as of now, nothing has changed.

And here’s the biggest irony.  In four months, when commuters and shore-bound drivers realize the toll is $5 (up from $4 now, and $3 two years ago), compounded by $5/gallon gas, whom will they blame? Here’s a hint: it won’t be Rendell, but the man in charge.

Despite changes to the DRPA over the last year, conflicts and corruption still exist.  Time will tell whether the Port Authority can earn back the public’s trust, but if a serious effort isn’t made by Governors Corbett and Christie to clean house, fire CEO Matheussen, and stop the impending 25 percent toll increase, that may just be… a bridge too far.

 

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

 Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

 

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March 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm Comments (0)

How To Pass Pennsylvania School Choice

Author’s Note:

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia just announced that it will be closing seven more schools, a trend that has been occurring for decades. Despite some disingenuous critics who label any choice program as a “bailout of the Catholic Schools,” it is no secret that non-public schools would significantly benefit from comprehensive school choice legislation. And the more non-public schools there are, the more competition there is.

These school closings — four of which are in Philadelphia —reinforce Freindly Fire’s earlier-stated position that Senate Bill 1’s effectiveness will be extremely limited, not just because it caters only to low income families, but for the simple reason that fewer and fewer schools remain as alternatives to the current monopolistic system.

And to repudiate yet another fallacious argument that school choice costs taxpayer money (when in fact it would save it), consider the following:

The seven schools had a cumulative projected enrollment of 857 students next year.  Based on dwindling number of non-public schools, assume that half will attend public schools.  At an average cost of $15,000 per student, per year to educate one student in the public schools, these 428 students will cost taxpayers an additional $6,427,500 per year.  If each student has, on average, six years of grade school remaining, the cost rises to over $38 million. 

And of course, that figure does not reflect inflation, nor the huge costs of hiring more teachers, funding additional pensions, building more classrooms, buying more textbooks, and increasing busing. 

Pennsylvania can’t afford NOT to enact school choice.

The school choice bill in the Pennsylvania Senate is significantly flawed legislation which should never have been introduced.  Rather than craft a new bill to reflect the positions of the current legislature and Governor — both far more receptive to comprehensive school choice than their predecessors — the prime sponsors didn’t do their homework and jumped the gun by dusting off outdated legislation.  As a direct result, Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) is effectively dead-on-arrival.

Since SB 1 was introduced a mere week after the new legislature was sworn in, no preliminary vote count was conducted during those seven days.  Therefore, statements that SB 1 is “the best we can hope for at this time” and “school choice can be expanded incrementally in the coming years” are fallacies based on the musings of out-of-touch ivory-tower proponents naively setting the bar artificially low.  Incomprehensibly, they are throwing in the towel before the fight has even begun.

Here are the facts why statewide school choice is needed, and suggestions on how to accomplish that goal:

1)      Pennsylvania students are 42nd in SAT scores, and rank low in literacy, graduation rates and those going to college.  Their performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam has not improved.  And most startling, nearly HALF of all 11th graders are not proficient in math and reading.  This cannot be attributed to just the poor-performing urban schools pulling down scores, but is testament to an across-the-board educational failure. 

Advocating school choice for only low-income students results in the default perception that education is adequate everywhere else, which, based on the results of PSSA standardized test scores, is not remotely accurate. We cannot afford to waste another decade, forsaking our children — our future — because some choose to ignore the widespread failure occurring on a daily basis.

2)      Pennsylvania spends $26 billion per year on education — more per student than 39 other states — an amount which has doubled since 1996.  Despite a drop of 27,000 students over the last ten years, the public school system had added 33,000 employees in that time. Therefore, by definition, increased funding, more personnel and decreased class size has not improved student achievement.

3)      Teachers’ salaries and benefits rank among the highest in the nation, yet Pennsylvania leads the nation every year in school strikes — more than all other states combined. 

4)      The components in SB 1were derived during a prior legislative session with a Democratic House and an anti-school choice governor (Rendell).   But the current legislature has thirteen more House Republicans than last session, giving the GOP a ten-seat majority.  While education should never be partisan, it is no secret that Republicans are much more favorable to choice than Democrats.  And Governor Corbett made school choice a cornerstone of his campaign. Combined with the pro-school choice positions of several Democrats, including Senator Anthony Williams, passage of comprehensive choice is eminently obtainable.  (And if Williams and his colleagues won’t support statewide school choice, but only a program only for low-income families, their motivations will be questioned and their credibility severely undermined).

5)      With a legislature approximately 80 percent different (and one clearly less open to choice), no votes from the Black Caucus, and only a one-seat House Republican majority, the statewide school choice effort in 1995 failed by a mere three votes. Given the night-and-day differences between then and now, it is indisputable that political will from Governor Corbett and legislative leaders could, should and would result in the nation’s most comprehensive and inclusive school choice program, one which will save taxpayer money.

6)      The argument that school choice will take money away from the public schools is not just wrong, but irrelevant.  The only thing we should EVER be concerned with is the children. Schools don’t get jobs and lead nations; people do.  The funding should follow the child, not the system — a brilliant aspect of SB 1, where parents designate the school to which the state subsidy will be applied.

Following are the steps necessary to ensure that meaningful school choice is passed in Pennsylvania:

A)    SB 1 must be re-written and introduced as a new bill, or a separate bill needs to be introduced in the House.  Grassroots organizations cannot support flawed legislation with the hope or “promise” that it will be amended at a future date.

B)    The bill must make school choice available to all students, regardless of family income.  This type of comprehensive program is the only way to bring accountability and competition to all schools, public and non-public alike. Our dire situation demands no less.

C)    The provision for public schools to “opt out,” as is permitted in SB 1, must be stricken.  Opting out will result in the public school establishment’s “Good Old Boys” network to kick in, guaranteeing that the vast majority of schools won’t participate.  If that occurs, school choice is meaningless.

D)    The bill should contain strengthened language that no additional regulations may be imposed on non-public schools.  Current government requirements are adequate and unobtrusive, such as core curriculum and length of school year.  Vouchers or subsidies do not lead to additional regulation, as the highly successful post World War II GI Bill attests, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so such language will alleviate this issue.

E)     While government should not impose tuition mandates on non-public schools, the possibility of inflated tuition costs at these schools is an area of concern. Language can be written that limits the subsidy (which cannot exceed tuition cost) to a maximum two percent increase per year, based on the tuition charged in the first year that school choice is enacted. This common sense solution would keep tuition inflation in check while keeping government out of private school decision-making.

F)     Expanding the Educational Improvement Tax Credit is a positive step, as the program has seen positive results.  But to be clear, the EITC is not school choice since parents do not control their tax dollars; the scholarships, which average $1000, are doled out by organizations and schools.  Parental control is significantly limited, unlike a true statewide school choice program.

Like any controversial issue, the school choice debate lends itself to misinformation, half-truths and personal attacks.  Pennsylvanians should not be hypnotized by the complexities of education reform, but rather focus on what is indisputable: our government-run public school system is a monopoly with no incentive to change, and only competition can begin to reverse decades of educational failure.

Comprehensive school choice provides that free-market solution, and, when passed, will be a model for the nation.  Failure to do so will destroy another generation’s chances for success.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countriesand all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/nationaltelevision, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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March 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm Comments (0)

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