Brit kids featured in PA Republican budget ad

Who thinks Gov. Tom Wolf should accept the GOP’s budget compromise?

Apparently, British kids!

For the past week or so, Pennsylvania House Republicans have tweeted out this photo of smiling kids to promote their push to get a budget done:

PA House GOP kids photo-2

House Democrats have called them out for a faux pas: Those kids almost certainly aren’t Pennsylvanians.

The photo used in the ad can be traced on ShutterStock, which shows the photo is copyrighted by Monkey Business Images, a company located in the United Kingdom.

house dems with british photo

Anyone with a subscription has access to an array of all-encompassing stock photos. Sometimes we’ve seen politicians use them in what appears to be dishonest ways, like when former Gov. Tom Corbett’s campaign had a Photoshop incident to put a black woman in a crowd scene.

Slapping some text on a stock image doesn’t quite rise to the same level. But we’d think lawmakers have made enough school visits to grab some photos of students who will be affected by the decisions they and their counterparts across the aisle must make… or if they’re chary of using unsuspecting Pennsylvania tots for political purposes, there are plenty of “model” American children on ShutterStock. Like compromise, it just takes that extra step.

UPDATE: House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin contacted us to say Thinkstock, the program both caucuses use for images, did not indicate where the photo was taken. He did not dispute it was the same photo listed as British on ShutterStock.

PA House Dems create dance video; Republicans call foul

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

UPDATE: After a few days circulating the web and other media reports, Pennsylvania’s House Democratic caucus removed the “Watch Me” video from its website. Spokesman Bill Patton explained: “Out of an abundance of caution on the question of music rights, the video was deactivated.”  May it live on forever in our hearts -

Watch me whip…now watch me backfire?

After a few session days in Harrisburg this week, a group of House Democrats posted a music video of themselves dancing to the summer smash dance craze hit from Silentó’s “Watch me (Whip/Nae Nae)” to the caucus YouTube account. It ends with a callout telling viewers to ask their legislator to vote in favor of a severance tax to fund public education, a top priority of Gov. Tom Wolf.

Take a look:

The cutline says the video attempts raise awareness about the state budget impasse to a younger generation – those who might not want to read about the state budget in the papers but might watch a video to a hit song.

But like so many actions of Harrisburg lawmakers, this one immediately was called out by the critics from the other side.

Republicans – like Sen. Scott Wagner’s chief of staff Jason High and Americans for Prosperity official Katy Abram – turned the video on its head:

jason high 1

Democrats voted “no” when Republicans attempted to override Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget veto line-by-line this week.

katy abram 1

Creative outreach, or goofing around on the taxpayer dime? Either way, thanks for the earworm!

UPDATE: In response to the questions about taxpayer resources, we’ve been informed by the House Democratic caucus that the video was not created with any House staff or equipment.

“It’s no surprise they had time to do this given the slow pace of the budget negotiations,” said spokesman Bill Patton.

Sen. Casey sounds alarm over Chinese currency manipulation

Bob CaseyBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Days after wild swings in the stock market, Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey is  raising concerns with the Obama administration about China’s currency manipulation, urging them to take stronger enforcement against such actions.

Casey, in a letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, wrote that China’s manipulation of the yuan can have possible implications for U.S. dollars. China recently devalued its currency nearly 2 percent against the dollar, the largest single-day devaluation of the yuan since 1994.

Casey urged the administration to get tougher against currency undervaluation, “and reevaluate the efficacy of its current regulatory and diplomatic policy on this matter.”

Casey wrote: “I ask that you not only closely monitor China’s activity to manipulate their currency to ensure they cannot continue to harm American workers and American trade through unfair practices, but I also reiterate my August 11 request that the Administration focus more intensively on China’s cheating and label the country a currency manipulator.”

The topic is a particular area of focus for Casey, who is a lead sponsor of the Currency Undervaluation Investigation Act.

In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to visit the United States.

Casey’s letter:

8-27-15 casey to lew pt.18-27-15 casey to lew pt2

Online voter registration comes to PA – without legislative approval

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

It took Pennsylvania more than two years to implement a law the state Senate once passed unanimously – but only because Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration decided to implement it themselves, without legislative approval.

The governor’s office announced on Thursday that the state had launched online voter registration, a process available in 22 other states.

Back in April 2013, the Senate unanimously passed a proposal sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, explicitly to allow online voter registration. Once it had passed the Senate with flying colors, the bill languished in the House for the rest of the session.

The executive branch implemented the policy unilaterally on Thursday – a decision that Secretary of State Pedro Cortes said was enabled by Act 3 of 2002, which amended state law election law.

The site was already live Thursday morning before the announcement.

Online voter registration is one measure good-government advocates say can lead to higher turnout. Wolf noted that the process may make things easier on county election offices, and boost Pennsylvania turnout figures.

“Judged by our voter turnout rate, we’re not as good as we once were,” Wolf said.

The Tribune-Review covered access to voting policies in May 2014, following a primary in which fewer than one in five voters turned out. Of course, in that cycle, only registered Democrats and Republicans could cast a vote due to PA’s closed primary laws. Changing that, we imagine, would take more than departmental action.

Poll: Sestak leads McGinty, but Toomey rules them all

US Senate race trypticBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

U.S. Senate candidate Joe Sestak doesn’t have the same institutional support as his Democratic primary opponent Katie McGinty, but he has a barely-there lead over her among Pennsylvania voters – when you discount the two-thirds who are still undecided.

A Franklin and Marshall College Center for Opinion Research poll released Thursday shows Sestak leads McGinty by three points – 16 percent to 13 percent – with 66 percent of Democrats undecided.

But in a general election match-up, incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey – whose approval rating has gone up to 40 percent from 34 percent in June – leads Sestak by 12 points, 41 percent to 29 percent. Toomey leads McGinty by just 7 points, 35 percent to 28 percent.

Interesting that among Democratic primary voters, Sestak has a narrow lead, but in the general, McGinty does better against Toomey.

F&M pollster G. Terry Madonna said it’s too early to discern why this may be the case.  Both Democrats, he said, are little known.  But the figures do make one thing clear, he said – that Toomey will tough to beat.

“He’s not provocative, he’s not boisterous, he doesn’t step into big controversies,” Madonna said.

Expect to the see numbers shift as both Democrats try to boost their name recognition with television ads, Madonna said. The race will become flooded with money because it’s one of the seats Democrats seek to win to take back control of the Senate.

“Eventually the two of them have to point out their differences,” Madonna said. “We’re going to see how that plays out, and who can raise the money.”

McGinty is a recent entry to the race, having left Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration in July specifically to run. She joined Wolf’s cabinet after running against him the gubernatorial primary – and finishing fourth of four. Since her announcement, she’s racked up endorsements from the well-funded labor union United Steelworkers, pro-choice political organization EMILY’s List, and her one-time boss in Harrisburg former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Endorsements, however, don’t always translate into votes.

Accountability for prison industry makes communities safer, saves money

photo courtesy The Patriot-News/PennLive.com
photo courtesy The Patriot-News/PennLive.com

BY DONALD GILLILAND  dgilliland@tribweb.com

Pennsylvania is in the midst of an historic shift in how it deals with prisons, and results from one of the state’s initiatives released this week show competition – specifically holding prison contractors accountable for outcomes – makes communities safer.

To be clear: this is not a partisan issue. Rather, it’s that rara avis of the political world: effective policy with solid bipartisan support.

wetzel portraitPennsylvania’s Corrections Secretary John Wetzel – a former jail guard and semi-pro football player – is as close to a rock star as it gets in Harrisburg. First appointed by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, Wetzel performed so well that Democratic Governor Tom Wolf asked him to stay on. He’s the Robert Gates of Pennsylvania state government.

Under Corbett, Wetzel launched an ambitious push for prison reform that ended more than 40 years of runaway prison growth and corrections spending. The core focus of the reforms was to reduce costs, but a key element of accomplishing that was reducing the number of people in prison by making sure inmates don’t return after release.

In other words: if the justice system does a better job “correcting” inmates – especially those with addictions – fewer will commit crimes after they are released, and taxpayers will spend less because fewer repeat offenders will need to be housed.

About two-thirds of released inmates end up back in prison within three years. At roughly $100 a day to cage them, that’s an expensive rate of failure.

Note that Wetzel’s reform was focused on fewer crimes: less crime equals less spending.

The initiative has its skeptics, but Wetzel – as usual – has numbers on his side.

This week Wetzel released results of a first-of-its-kind program he launched two years ago that holds accountable the private contractors running the state’s community corrections centers – also known as halfway houses.

Multiple studies showed that inmates were actually more likely to commit another crime if they went through the programs at Pennsylvania’s halfway houses than if they were released straight onto the street.

Wetzel tore up the existing contracts and told the companies running the facilities their compensation henceforth would be tied to their performance.

When the howling stopped, Wetzel said: Sign it.

And they did.

The first full year of measured results are in: the overall recidivism rate for contracted community corrections centers dropped 11.3 percent from July 2014 to June 2015.

Wetzel’s chief numbers-cruncher, Bret Bucklen, tried to put that in real terms: 122 fewer victims of crime.

That’s an estimate, created by applying the difference in recidivism rates to the number of releases. I quizzed Bucklen on the math to determine how real that number might really be. A significant portion – as many as 44 percent, Bucklen said, given the population – could have been drug offenses, for which one might – note might – argue the only victim is the recidivist himself. But Bucklen still feels the number is low – because violent crime arrests in the recidivist cohort had on average 5.8 charges per arrest, some of which indicate multiple victims.

So, 122 fewer crime victims as a result of this policy is likely within the ballpark.

As always with prison reform, success is incremental.

Only six of 42 centers qualified for higher per-diem payments as a result of measurable reductions in recidivism.

There’s obviously still room for improvement.

But in a system that had been shown to be making things worse, the policy of payment for performance has powerful results: only one of the 42 centers had its recidivism rate exceed its baseline. That center has been placed on “warning” status, and if its failure continues a second year, its contract can be cancelled.

The “performance incentive funding” contract model was developed as a result of a partnership between Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections and University of Maryland criminologist Dr. Kiminori Nakamura. The Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based independent, non-partisan research group, recognized the program in June as one of the nation’s most innovative public policy proposals.

Of alternate universes and the pitfalls of populism

JacksonSpokTrumpBY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

Populism is all the rage with all the pundits contemplating the “inevitability” of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination – because he’s so far ahead in the polls.

Nominating Trump is the equivalent of that alternate universe episode of Star Trek – you know the one – where Spock has a goatee and Sulu gets all up in Uhura’s face before getting taken down with that little pain-making device.

In the end, although Spock is evil, he helps the good Captain Kirk get back to his own universe because evil Spock realizes the evil Enterprise needs its own evil version of Kirk back.

For some reality:

First: it’s early. We have no idea what the field is going to look like in January when the first caucus and primary votes are cast… and certainly no idea what it will look like by the time primary races matter in February and March.

Second: there is always an insurgency candidate who early-on captures the imagination of voters and the press… until competition, the candidate’s own behavior and public scrutiny brings them back down to earth.

The only populist candidate ever to really capitalize on voters’ discontent and win the presidency was Andrew Jackson.

That was 1828.

Jackson understood that for the riled rabble to catapult him into the White House their anger must be grounded in civic-virtue, the restoration of rights, and a selfless service rather than demagoguery.

If you read some of Jackson’s campaign literature from the 1824 election, (“the letters of Wyoming”)  it is fairly striking the way he moderated his populist appeal.

He very rarely directly appealed as ‘a man of the people.’  Rather, he appealed as the last member of the Revolutionary generation.  This made him the last man of “republican” / revolutionary virtue, charged with rooting out “intrigue” and “corruption” (which had special meaning then) and restoring lost rights.  Jackson compared himself a lot to George Washington (no man of the people) – as a successful General who could take or leave politics but was willing to become the tribune of the people’s virtue in retaking their government from an aristocratic cabal.

Monday evening Donald Trump did his best turn as evil Spock when he used Twitter to attack Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly during her show. Whatever one thinks of Kelly, Trump took the low road.

Kelly “must have had a terrible vacation, she is really off her game,” he tweeted.

He tweeted: “I liked The Kelly File much better without @megynkelly. Perhaps she could take another eleven day unscheduled vacation!”

He then called her a “bimbo.”

This is not what Presidents do.

We get the election we deserve… but Trump is not going to be anybody’s nominee, unless there’s a resurrection of the Know Nothing Party whose ideals would fit nicely with Trump’s.

But the historical fact remains: the Know Nothings never elected a president.

If you want to know what someone should do to counter Trump… I’d say follow Jackson’s lead.

Republican self-loathing: a crisis of party un-faithful?

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Thanks to the advent of social media, hating on either Democrats or Republicans has never been so easy. According to the Pew Research Center, hating on both has never been so popular.

Pew’s latest survey of Americans’ attitudes about political parties showed nearly one in four is disgusted with both parties, an all-time high since 1992.

The ‘hate-em-both’ attitude is most common — as you might imagine — among independents at 36 percent, compared to 9 percent among Democrats.

Pew negative three linesWith Republicans, it’s a little more interesting.

Twenty-two percent of Republicans have negative views of both parties, up from 9 percent in January. The numbers suggest the events of 2015 — maybe, say, that GOP presidential primary that’s dominated news networks — have damaged the party’s view of itself.

Similarly, Pew found the share of Republicans who view the GOP unfavorably more than doubled since January, from 12 percent to 27 percent.

Pew offered an explanation on why unfavorability figures are even higher among those who lean in a particular direction, saying Republican ‘leaners’ tend to show more criticism:

“Those who lean toward a party tend to have a less positive view of that party than do actual partisans,” according to Pew. “This is particularly true for Republican leaners, who in recent years have consistently expressed more negative views of the GOP than Democratic leaners have of the Democratic Party.”

Does all this point toward the rise of a meaningful third party? Or a wave of voters booting out the old guard in favor of alternative candidates like Trump, Sanders or Deez Nuts?

Salena Zito’s latest analysis of this burst of populist dissatisfaction with party norms suggests no.

Given historic issues with turnout this country has grappled with, perhaps the result will simply be more vitriolic tweets.

Body double: Kathleen Kane’s courthouse fakeout

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane appeared in Norristown today for a preliminary hearing on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to an alleged grand jury leak – and, of course, the media circus followed.

But Kane and her team had a trick or two up their sleeves to put circus off.

Reporters at the scene tweeted that it was not Kane but her twin sister who drew the attention of photographers and cameramen:

Esack Tweet

Ellen Granahan is a top prosecutor in the AG’s office, who received a raise and a promotion to head the Child Protection Unit a few months after Kane took office. At the time, Kane defended the promotion, citing Granahan’s past as a child abuse prosecutor.

Shut down liquor stores, line item overrides – ideas to beat PA’s budget impasse

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Republicans want to override Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget veto on Tuesday, with a line-by-line vote on items that can fund the government.

It could be an attempt at compromise, it could be a threat, or it could be totally unconstitutional. If it doesn’t work for whatever reason, President and CEO Max King from the Pittsburgh Foundation has a suggestion on how to bridge the budget impasse – close the state wine and spirits stores.

In a press release published Friday, King wrote: “We believe this might be the right time to call for shared pressure and pain for state officials and residents.” He said leaders should decline using their savings fund to pay themselves, and have Wolf’s staff and cabinet also give up their paychecks until a compromise is reached.

“In addition, we believe this would be the perfect time for an executive order immediately closing all state-run wine and liquor stores until a budget is passed, so we all can focus on the concept of giving up things we believe we can’t live without.”

If the state closed down the wine and spirit stores, you can bet lawmakers would have their phones, emails and Twitter accounts flooded with angry, thirsty Pennsylvanians demanding a state budget.

As far as the veto goes, an override requires a supermajority, or 136 members. There are 119 Republicans, meaning 17 Democrats would have to join the vote.  It doesn’t seem a likely proposition, as The Associated Press reported House officials don’t see their members crossing the aisle for this, and it raises constitutional questions.

Both the veto plans and King’s letter were triggered by the lack of a stage budget affecting entities like nonprofits and schools which rely on state funds.

Gov. Wolf said the state may need to start paying interest on loans those entities take out to get them through the impasse. House Majority Leader Dave Reed responded with the veto plan as a way to fund the parts of the government that the lawmakers and the governor can agree to on spending.

Will they follow through, or will the constitutional questions get the better of the plans? Give it a few days and we’ll find out.

Until then, if you want to reach out to state lawmakers on the budget situation, even without a liquor ban triggering riots in the streets, there’s a couple directories that make it pretty easy. Here’s the Senate and House lists with emails, office phone numbers and social media contacts.