Politics was front and center this week, even though the House and Senate finished their work on the budget and left town.
Political conventions, new taxes and another indictment of a former statewide officeholder all made headlines.
We were also treated to another credit agency warning on state finances, a new chapter of the Kane Khronicles and, to add an interesting international flare, a Pennsylvania connection to the attempted coup in Turkey.
If it wasn’t the drama of the Republican Convention in Cleveland, it was the last minute preparations in Philadelphia to welcome the Democratic National Convention that were much in the news.
The primary contribution Pennsylvania Republicans made to the GOP Convention (those that attended at least) was to pass during the roll call vote on nominating Donald J. Trump so New York state could put him over the top.
The PA Delegation was courted by the likes of House Speaker Ryan (PA could win the whole thing for us), Donald Trump, Jr. (I spent 5 years at boarding school in Pottstown), V-P nominee Mike Pence (make PA red again) and even by former TV mailman John Ratzenberger of Cheers fame (Trump is a builder).
Philadelphia is getting ready for the Democrats in its usual fashion: having its airport workers vote to go on strike during the Convention [Update: Strike Averted!], suing the DNC organizing committee for their donor list, having the IRS disapprove the nonprofit status of the organizing committee so contributions are not tax deductible and getting an emergency order from the PUC to allow Uber to use 15-year old vehicles to cart delegates around Philadelphia.
You’ll be glad to know all of Philly’s “DNC Donkeys” are back in place and cleaned up after fracking opponents put “poo” in strategic locations on many of them. Click Here for a DNC Donkey Gallery.
Oh, and all the homeless people were moved out of the Convention Center so the delegates won’t see them and just to be sure, the City of Philadelphia bought $5 million in DNC protest insurance to cover unexpected costs.
The DNC officially starts Monday, July 25, but pre-Convention parties and hosting events started Friday, July 22 and last through the weekend.
Click Here to visit the Philadelphia 2016 website for all things DNC.
Tax Man Cometh August 1
If House and Senate members left town without really knowing what they voted for in the tax bill, they will August 1.
That’s when the $1 increase in the cigarette tax and the new taxes on snuff, chew, loose tobacco, roll-your-own and e-cigarettes (but not cigars) will go into effect.
The 6 percent Sales Tax on digital downloads (music, movies, books, satellite radio, apps) and software also goes into effect.
At least $609 million in new revenue sources were adopted as part of the FY 2016-17 budget.
No one is mentioning the additional fact there will be an automatic 10 cents per gallon increase in the gasoline tax starting January 1 from the transportation funding package adopted during the Corbett Administration.
All these tax increases raise a legitimate question: If legislators and the Governor are going to raise taxes anyway, why not at least address the legal obligations we have to clean up our rivers and streams?
Instead, the FY 2016-17 budget saw more environmental budget cuts and $39 million in environmental funds diverted to balance the state budget.
Where’s the leadership on environmental issues?
New Credit Agency Warning
The S&P Global rating agency Tuesday announced it has removed Pennsylvania from its CreditWatch list (good), but as a precursor to a credit downgrade (bad). It also issued a warning about the state’s looming structural deficit and near-term shortfalls.
The S&P said the new $31.5 billion budget is structurally imbalanced and that many of its revenue assumptions could prove optimistic. The gap, they said, is $475 million.
Optimism is nothing new in Pennsylvania budgeting.
On Thursday, former Auditor General, State Treasurer and longtime political figure in Allegheny County Barbara Hafer, now 72, was indicted by a federal grand jury for lying to federal investigators about $500,000 in consulting fee payments.
43 minutes after the Hafer indictment was announced (according to Brad Bumsted of the Tribune Review), Richard Ireland, 79, of Coatesville, another long-time political operator, was indicted for making straw campaign contributions to support convicted State Treasurer Rob McCord’s campaign.
Current State Treasurer Timothy Reese issue a statement in reaction to the indictments saying, “In light of the federal indictments implicating two former state Treasurers, I want to reassure the public of the prudent management and safekeeping of all funds within Treasury's custodial care.
“While I will not comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, it is important to note that these indictments do not allege any improper use or mismanagement of public funds entrusted to Treasury.
“Since assuming this office, I have insisted on maintaining the highest ethical standards throughout the Department, which is staffed by dedicated professionals who take their responsibilities as fiduciaries very seriously.”
David R. Fillman, Chair of the State Employees’ Retirement Board, also issued a statement, "Recent news accounts have associated the State Employees' Retirement System (SERS) with the indictment of Richard W. Ireland through his relationship with former Treasurer and ex-officio SERS Board Member, Rob McCord.
“Based upon a thorough review, SERS has found no direct holdings or investments with any companies that are known to be owned or operated by Mr. Ireland.
“SERS members and the general public can rest assured that all investments are made according to SERS' Strategic Investment Plan, and opportunities are evaluated using a strict due diligence process - including an extensive third-party review - and are voted upon by the collective 11-member SERS Board. No one board member can unilaterally make an investment decision."
Indicted Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s Office of Attorney General this week resolved a complaint filed by Ellen Granahan-- Kane’s twin sister who also works at the AG’s Office-- with a settlement that included a 19 percent pay raise and other payments totaling $80,000.
The other cash payments were to cover legal fees and “emotional distress.”
The indicted Kane’s now first deputy Bruce Castor was quoted Tuesday by the Morning Call as saying, “I concluded she had been not discriminated against, not because of her sex, but because she is General Kane's sister and someone prior to me thought that optic looked bad.”
With indicted Kane’s criminal trial set to begin August 8, Castor said he was also concerned about the timing of the release of the porngate email report and its potential impact on Kane’s criminal trial.
Castor said he may seek the advice of the judge overseeing the criminal trial on whether to release some or all of the report.
PennLive.com Thursday reported Castor as saying, "If there was something so explosive I thought it would affect the trial, I would contact the judge in that case and ask for guidance.”
And, he added ironically, “It's important that, to the greatest extent possible, the public has confidence in that case [against indicted Kane, Castor’s boss]."
Castor canceled the release of part of the porngate report in May saying it was not ready.
The Attorney General’s Office has already paid former Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler’s law firm $385,000 to produce the report. A report, Gansler said in February, will not result in any criminal indictments.
He called the notion of indictments “far-fetched.”
Speaking of interference, the Morning Call Wednesday reported Kane’s Office of Attorney General interviewed the son of one of the primary witnesses against the indicted Kane at the criminal trial for a possible job in the Office.
The witness’ son applied for a job in the Internet pornography unit run by Kane’s twin sister.
Again, ironically, we found out in May Kane’s twin sister forwarded some of the porngate emails from her personal email account, something others in responsible positions resigned for doing, including two PA Supreme Court justices. In her case, however, Kane decided not to punish her sister.
Coup In Turkey
President Erdogan of Turkey is blaming Poconos-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen for organizing the coup that fizzled out over last weekend and wants him extradited from the United States to face charges.
Gulen has lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years and has established the largest charter-school chain in America now operating in 26 states, including Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and State College).
It may be a very long August, if July is any indication.
NewsClips:[By David E. Hess, Editor PA Environment Digest. To understand why and how environmental issues are considered or not by the Governor and General Assembly, you have to understand the political landscape on which they operate.]