Class War in the Keystone State

Pennsylvanians are in the middle of a class war.

It has been a less-than-dramatic event.  Instead, it’s been a protracted affair, a slow but steady, one-sided war that’s been waged for decades now, and things have gone very nicely for the ruling, upper classes, thank you very much.

This war has been waged in the open right before the eyes of the public, and the public suffers the consequences of a losing combatant.  Even though this is a class war, nobody calls it that.  Is it because there are no cops and scabs smashing through picket lines, no strikers’ heads being busted, and no jailed workers or union leaders to rally around?

Certainly that’s part of it: workers rarely strike any more.  There were only three major work stoppages (those involving 1,000 workers or more) in the entire state last year, including the multi-state Verizon strike.  No, the arena of this class war isn’t the workplace or the streets. This life-and-death struggle is something of a stealth war, fought and won during semi-annual elections and in halls of the state capitol over the crucial issues of revenue raising and spending.  The battleground is the state’s budget.

It’s the budget, stupid

As Gov. Tom Wolf enters his third year in office, he faces the same obstacle that has plagued him the previous two – a huge Republican majority of “fiscally-responsible” yokels in both houses of the General Assembly who are pledged to oppose the level of spending required to run a modern state.  As a result, Pennsylvania faces a budget deficit for the current fiscal year, as well as for 2016-17 which is against the state constitution.

Wolf’s current budget proposal attempts, to his credit, to return spending for public education to pre-Corbett levels (but without accounting for inflation).  He has chosen to limit expenditures on everything else while raising revenue through regressive taxation: personal income and general sales taxes account for 69 percent of increased revenue in this year’s budget and 62 percent in next year’s.  Another huge portion will come from still higher taxes on tobacco products.

The sales tax and the flat income tax now regularly account for 70 percent of the general revenue raised by the state.  (Visit the Pennsylvania Budget Policy Center for a detailed analysis.)  Politicians and pundits say that Pennsylvania faces an intractable “structural” debt problem, but the reasons for this situation aren’t hard to fathom and the problem is far from unsolvable.  It is now unheard-of for our state “leaders” to suggest levying taxes on those who can afford to pay.  Wealthy Pennsylvanians and corporations that make huge profits here are considered sacrosanct.  So the money has to be raised from those of us of more modest means.

Royal Dutch Shell will receive some $1.65 billion in taxpayer incentives for locating its ethane cracker plan in Beaver County.  Shell says building the complex will create thousands of jobs, and that once it is up and running it will employ 600 workers.  This is all well and good but, besides the fact that many of those jobs will be taken by people living in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia, why should Pennsylvania taxpayers subsidize a profitable corporation like Shell?

The conventional answer is that if we don’t offer incentives to the company, another state will.  Large corporations and their executives are engaged in dividing and blackmailing the country, state by state, municipality by municipality.  And yet, they’re lionized in the general and financial media as fine, upstanding citizens whose goodness and motives are not to be questioned.

The biggest beneficiaries of state and local subsidies in Pennsylvania include Alcoa ($5.7 billion from 1995 to 2016), U.S. Steel ($100 million from 1995 to 2016), BNY Mellon ($76 million from 1997 to 2016), and PPG Industries ($54.6 million since 1992).  You can track government subsidies to corporations at Good Jobs First.

Wolf is to be commended for substantially raising K-12 spending, and he proposes small increases in vital programs that had either disappeared altogether (for example, the Conservation Corps) or were receiving next to nothing to begin with (shelter for the homeless, domestic violence and rape centers, mental and behavioral health services, long-term care, help for those with intellectual disabilities, and many other county-based services).  Funding for other crucial services hasn’t fare as well.  In just one example, the failure to restore cuts to the higher education budget leaves Pennsylvania’s spending 49th in the nation!

As mentioned earlier, corporations no longer shoulder a fair share of the state’s tax burden, nor do wealthy individuals, who pay taxes at the same rate as a fast-food worker.  Corporate and business taxes now generate about 15 percent of the state’s General Fund revenue, down from 28 percent in the 1970s.  According to the Budget Policy Center, “From 1988-1989 to 2002-2003, when business tax cuts first began, taxes on corporations were, on average, 22.25% of all General Fund revenues.”

To those of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s, Pennsylvania may not have seemed like a Utopia but at least an adequately funded safety net existed and helped people.  There was money coming in from federal programs and the state raised enough money to fulfill its obligations while balancing the budget because corporations paid higher taxes – at federal and state levels.

Taxes on corporations and wealthy people have been low for more than three decades now.  They accumulate, hoard and waste great amounts of wealth, in turn increasing their lock on political power.  Life will get better for everybody when we start taxing these people at a socially just rate.  Taxes have been low for decades at the federal level, as well as the state level, so there is no legitimate “crying poor” on the part of the wealthy and corporations.

We must demand that the corporations contribute to the general fund at rates like those in the 1970s and 1980s.  We must demand a progressive state income tax and an end to endless sales and sin tax increases.  The future of the quality of life in this state hinges on these changes.

— James Collins


GOP Lockout Prevails in Budget Battle

Governor Tom Wolf gave in last week and succumbed to the GOP lockout of spending for social services and education by letting the general assembly’s GOP budget pass. Wolf gave up after almost nine months of trying to trade increased spending in exchange for regressive tax hikes and a promise to look at private liquor-store options, but the Republicans were having none of it.

GOP leaders boasted of holding the line on tax increases while shaving some $800 million from the budget compromise Wolf had agreed to back in December. And they promise more of the same for the 2016-17 budget battle – at least until they get some action on pension evisceration and liquor store privatization. Just the thought of all the missed money-making opportunities for businessmen being “wasted” in the state store system makes Republican politicians crazy with anger, as does the act of paying decent pensions to lowly public school teachers and state workers.

I wonder how many of them object to the $140,000 annual pension the disgraced Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge, Michael Eakin, will get. The state’s judicial discipline court ruled that Eakin, a Republican and key player in the email scandal, “dramatically lessened public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the entire judiciary.”  Most commentators describe the emails as “lewd,” “racist,” and “sexist” – just like the majority in the General Assembly.

For his efforts, Gov. Wolf got around $200 million more for education – half of what he originally wanted – but the most cash-strapped school districts borrowed a billion dollars during the budget impasse and are stuck with $40 to $50 million in interest obligations. Human service providers are likewise in the hole.  The director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership was reported in the P-G as saying that nonprofits will be paying debt service for years as a result of this one budget fiasco.  And the next one is only a few months away.

Get mad or stay sad

Wolf, a political neophyte, basically got played. He came into office presenting himself as a nice, reasonable guy.  But today’s conservatives eat nice guys for snacks; you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to be serious about being tough, just to hang with them.

But the governor and his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly aren’t the only softies who’ve been exposed by this GOP offensive. School boards and superintendents, and teacher’s unions – those people in the business of “teaching” the youth various lessons about life – sure failed this civics lesson: their students watched their wannabe role models whining, complaining and pleading helplessly from the sidelines.

Nonprofit agencies, charged with administering the safety net that the GOP cares so little about, mimicked to no effect the high-sounding, empty phrases of their educated cohorts. Unions, public and private, exercised no muscle and didn’t threaten to flex any on behalf of the middle class, working class, or any other class. The poorest, most disadvantaged people – the people who count most on social and human services – were left out in the cold.

So, where do we go from here? The Republicans have promised to continue blocking anything resembling a semi-humane budget.  The afore-mentioned representatives and champions of civic and civil society have shown themselves to be confused, weak, and totally incapable of countering this opposition.  This is, in part, a product of their steadfast allegiance to myths about representative democracy that haven’t applied in a long time.  This is the age of the Almighty Dollar, and everyone who’s anyone knows that at least 90 cents of every single one should go to those who are “smart” and “talented” enough to have rigged the game in their favor.

The people who need to be drawn into politics today are the people who aren’t “educated” enough to believe in bureaucracies, procedures, processes and lies. We need to hear from the people who don’t have anything to believe in – not even hope – and who don’t have anything to lose. Those who are charged with speaking in their behalf have been on a losing streak for some time now.

James Collins

On to a Curmudgeonly New Year

The pessimist has been characterized as a person who gazes at a half-full glass and proclaims it half-empty.  But what if the glass isn’t even close to being half anything?  What if it’s damn near dry?

Take the displaced people of East Liberty and points nearby.  People use words like “renewal” and “revitalization” to describe the process but everyone knows those words mean that poor people have to go.  People with low incomes need low-cost housing, and gentrification is not about cheap housing. The historical record shows that gentrification always results in a net loss of affordable housing in the targeted neighborhood.

Being forced to move is hard for people who don’t have money.  In fact, just living in general is hard for people who don’t have money.  Maybe real urban renewal would include the creation of decent-paying jobs in the targeted neighborhood.

Maybe we could revitalize the entire region with an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour?  I bet the people pushing “revitalization” in the mainstream sense would oppose that idea: somehow, we are told, raising the wages of the least paid would hurt the standard of living of the better-off classes.  (We’re even told that higher wages for the poor would hurt the poor!)  You can’t please everybody, they say, so we should serve the good and universally-accepted cause of economic growth by  catering to the wealthy.  Makes $en$e to them.

The public gets served

I wonder if they’re still teaching the old bull crap about the social contract in Pennsylvania’s public schools?

You know how it goes. The people faithfully perform their duty by paying taxes; voting for an assembly and governor to govern them; joining the National Guard or military so that people overseas (poor people who, much like our own, are often forced to move against their will) can be told how to live like us; and, most importantly, always obeying the rules and believing the official hype. The governor and legislators are hardworking, altruistic “servants” of the aforementioned people.

And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat . . . !

As you know by now, we will not have a state budget for the New Year and, if you’re reading this blog, you know what I think about that!  Of course, the Republicans are the biggest culprits.  Under former Governor Corbett’s leadership, they shamelessly cut education and social service funding while heartlessly refusing Medicaid expansion.

What are the priorities of the public servants of the GOP?  The privatization of liquor stores (so they can break the union and sell franchises to their cronies who will be able to hire people on the cheap), pension reform for teachers and real public servants (meaning the phasing out of guaranteed benefits and adding more 401(k) chips for Wall Street to gamble with), no new taxes and more tax relief for the overburdened corporations, and a sleeper, H.R. 1538.

H.R. 1538 would protect the identities of police officers who shoot people while the investigation is pending.  The director of Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission writes:

The bill allows the release of officers’ identity only if they have been criminally charged, creating an additional requirement that names be withheld if the release of the information can “reasonably be expected to create a risk of harm to the person or property of the law enforcement officer or an immediate family member of the law enforcement officer.”

This bill would obviously undermine present and future attempts at police reform everywhere in the state.  H.R. 1538 passed the state house in November and now awaits senate action.

The minority Dems in the general assembly and Gov. Wolf want to return funding to the schools and to social services, but they want to do it through regressive taxation — they now feel too sorry for the Marcellus Shale frackers to tax them.  In fact, Wolf proposed lowering the corporate tax rate from the very start.  These guys and gals may, for the most part, truly want to serve the public; but our society is divided into the haves and the have-nots. You can seldom serve both of them simultaneously.  The Dems, both locally and nationally, haven’t understood that for a long time.

Unless they have understood and are just pretending to care about us.  After all, the Dems joined the GOP in passing an antiunion bill that was all showboating and bluster: it makes it illegal for unions to do what is already illegal — stalk, engage in harassment, and threaten to use “weapons of mass destruction.”

Maybe we’re the ones who need to learn the lesson; maybe we should stop supporting people who just keep serving someone other than us. If we want 2016 to be a year of justice, then we’ve got to find ways to make it happen without counting on the Democrats to act out fairy tale versions of an obsolete civics lesson.

Our crazy corner of the world

I no longer know what to think about the case of Anthony Mohamed.  He is the African American gentleman from Hazelwood accused of paying his cab fare with gunshots on Thanksgiving evening.  He was also alleged — by the media — to have made anti-Muslim statements to the cabbie during his ride home. This news understandably riled up the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), and yours truly.

Now we hear that the victim of the shooting pointedly refused in court to accuse Mohamed of making such statements. Mohamed, as always, should be considered innocent until proven guilty, but not even his lawyer denied that he came out of the house leading with a rifle rather than his wallet.  Hmmm . . .  From now on, I’m staying out of it!

It’s not often I give kudos to the police, but some compliments are in order for the Pittsburgh police.  First, after the Thanksgiving shooting of the Muslim cab driver, Chief Cameron McLay met with the community at the Islamic Center to strengthen ties between the police and the local ummah. Then, earlier this week, during a shootout in Brighton Heights, police shot the armed suspect in the lower extremities, wounding rather than killing him.  Maybe it was just poor marksmanship, but I’d like to believe the police were actually trying to wound him.

Maybe 2016 will hold some positive surprises after all.  Just maybe . . .


— Jim Collins








Sacrificial Lambs

The Good Book tells us that those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied, that the merciful shall obtain mercy and that the meek will inherit the very earth.  This is good news for Pennsylvanians who fit into those categories because the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic governor Wolfe are using this year’s budget showdown to further the ongoing, successful bipartisan crusade to make life for our state’s needy hell on earth.

The bad news is that the Bible doesn’t tell us when to expect this relief but it is definitely not forthcoming from the leadership of either political party.  Austerity is the name of the game.  The two sides are duking it out over conflicting conservative budgets.  In a state that already has one of the most unequal tax structures in the nation (according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy), we are given the choice of balancing our budget on the backs of poor and working people through such measures as regressive taxation; cuts or freezes in services; and increasing our pious state’s involvement in gambling (and preying on people who are often low-income or suffering from a serious addiction).

Not mentioned so far are state-run brothels, although it’s been said that pimping is profitable if not easy.  Also off the table is any talk of taxing profitable corporations (including fake nonprofits like UPMC) and the rich.

So intent are both sides in “winning” — and so great is their disregard for the people who are suffering while programs aren’t funded — that they can’t even agree on stopgap funding measures while they calibrate the extent of our long-term suffering.

Meanwhile, who are the sufferers?

  • The meek. They don’t come much meeker than foster children,many of whom are victims of abuse and neglect; public and parochial school children, pre-K to twelve; homeless adults and children; victims of domestic violence; people who suffer from serious mental illnesses and disabilities; and those caught in the throes of serious addictions, including gambling.
  • Those who hunger for righteousness (a.k.a., justice). Just about anybody who utilizes Neighborhood Legal Services or a women’s shelter needs some justice. So does anybody mentioned above.
  • The merciful are about to be laid off, if they work for legitimate nonprofits and tend to the aforementioned sufferers: social workers, therapists, counselors, nurses, case managers, etc.  School employees are next if the budget stalemate, now well past the 100-day mark, drags on much longer.

I love reading the gospel according to Matthew, to which I’ve alluded in this piece, but I disagree with his conclusion. The meek and humble will not get what they deserve on this earth — or in this state — unless they become decidedly unmeek in making their demands known. Instead, they’ll continue to be the sacrificial lambs for the austerity budgets demanded by the wealthy and faithfully passed by Republicans and Democrats alike.

— Jim Collins