Nearly 60,000 new PA voters registered online since August

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

New digital tools are helping purple-state Pennsylvania grow its electorate before the 2016 primary.

Secretary of State Pedro Cortes announced that the state’s online voter registration portal has served 97,800 Pennsylvanians since it launched on Aug, 27, including 60 percent who registered for the first time.

But how many of those users would’ve registered anyway? The state doesn’t say.

The remaining 40 percent of online applications dealt with altering voter information, such as name, address or party affiliation.

First-time voters who want to participate in the state’s April 26 primary must register by March 28, which is also the deadline for updating records.

Cortes said the tool will help the state have the most accurate voter rolls possible during an election year.

State data show 8.1 million voters are registered statewide, including 3.9 million Democrats and 3 million Republicans. Another 687,000 or so voters don’t have an affiliation, and more than 437,000 are affiliated with another party.

In Allegheny County, Mark Wolosik, division manager at the Board of Elections, said they’ve received 6,546 completed applications with signatures, including 4,073 new voters. Another 1,604 online applications were submitted but did not have corresponding signatures, necessary for processing.

Wolosik said he can’t estimate whether the new voters would or would not have registered without the online system, or if the new digital application is causing any cost-savings. But he did speak in favor of the accuracy of the system, with the voter supplying their own information to cut down on any handwriting-related issues in processing paper forms.

“It’s been verified by the voter before it gets submitted to us,” he said.

Gov. Wolf and the war of words in Pennsylvania

wolf budget screenshotBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2016-2017 budget addresses was unlike any others in recent memory.

Instead of the usual outline of the fiscal policies the governor hopes to see enacted, Wolf scolded legislators and told them if they didn’t want to live up to their responsibilities, they should get another job.

In the midst of a budget stalemate with the Republican-led legislature, Wolf projected dire times to come without real action to address a $2 billion deficit. He went through the problems and pains that the lack of state funding has caused in the past eight months, and eviscerated Harrisburg for failing to take the budget crisis seriously.

But don’t take our word for it. Take a look at a word cloud created from the Governor’s speech, based on a provided copy of the text.

The message is clear.

“PENNSYLVANIA” “BUDGET” “CRISIS” “PEOPLE” “PROBLEM” “TIME”

budget address feb 2016

Republicans actually booed the governor at one point – and were at the ready to respond to reporters in Harrisburg just after the speech, when the Capitol rotunda turns into a temporary spin room for reporters to gather reactions from lawmakers, lobbyists and activists. Chances are those words will be strong, too – with the added venom of being unscripted.

Click here for the Governor’s speech in its entirety.

Labor lining up behind McGinty for U.S. Senate

McGinty2BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

The three-way race in Pennsylvania to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey lacks a clear frontrunner, but some big names in the labor community appear to be lining up in one direction.

Katie McGinty’s campaign this week secured an endorsement from AFSCME 13, the union representing state, county and municipal employees – one of 10 unions that have backed her thus far. The board’s vote was unanimous in her favor.

“Katie McGinty has always been an advocate for labor and working families. She has devoted her life to public service and also brings private sector experience to the table,” Council 13 Executive Director David Fillman said in a statement.

The endorsement adds to the likes Gov. Tom Wolf, former Gov. Ed Rendell and a long list of Democratic politicians McGinty has secured.

Getting the blessing of a group like AFSCME 13, which represents more than 65,000 members keyed into issues of government and politics by the very nature of their jobs, might bring more of a boost than the big-name endorsements.

Statistically, the race is still anyone’s to grab. Most voters in Pennsylvania haven’t made up their minds.  A January poll from Franklin and Marshall College found that 61 percent of registered Democratic voters didn’t know who they would pick if the election were held that day. But 17 percent chose one-time congressman Joe Sestak, 13 percent said McGinty, and 6 percent opted for Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.

For their parts this week, Sestak continues to tour the state and tout his congressional record, while Fetterman recently announced a signifcant television ad buy.

Preparing for the worst (and re-election) – PA budget edition

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Experiences of the past seven months are causing Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider what will happen the next time they and the governor fail to pass an on-time budget.

With all the House and half the Senate up for re-election in 2016, many undoubtedly want to be able to tell their constituents they have a plan to prevent a similar stalemate in the future.

Senators and representatives are full of plans – here are just three from Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette County, Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks County, and Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery County – on what should happen if, once again, they do not have a budget in place by June 30 – from what will happen to their salaries to the treatment of state-paid entities.

State Rep. Dan McNeill, D-Lehigh County, is one of many lawmakers who says he wants to suspend pay and per diems for legislators and administration officials if a budget is not passed on a timely basis.

“Games and posturing force the citizens of Pennsylvania to view us as ineffective and as not taking the state’s collective interests seriously,” he wrote in a December co-sponsorship memo.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, has a similar proposal to suspend pay, as well as one to make budget negotiations public.

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, thinks the state needs to have a protocol for budget fights that might force lawmakers to get something done. A plan he circulated last week would require designated negotiating teams from the governor’s office and each of the four legislative causes to meet for at least 10 hours a day if a complete budget agreement is not in place by July 5, four days after the official start of the fiscal year.

Of the three senators mentioned above, only Ward is up for re-election this year; Stafano and Fontana will be up for re-election in 2018.

Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, wants to give taxpayers a little something for the troubles: if a budget isn’t enacted on time, he proposes a suspension of personal and corporate net income taxes.

“The Taxpayer (sic) has been held hostage for far too long by budget negotiations with no voice and in the end are often left with less money in their paychecks once a budget is enacted,” he wrote in a co-sponsor memo to other lawmakers.

In the spirit of preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, any of these ideas could wind up on the table: Gov. Tom Wolf has to give a budget address next month for the 2016-2017 budget year that begins in July, when much is still unresolved in this current year’s budget, including hotly debated tax hikes or increases to public education funding.

As the Trib’s Brad Bumsted reports from Harrisburg, negotiating two budgets at once is uncharted territory. What’s more, the tax hikes favored by Wolf are an unlikely sell in an election year, just one facet of a state budget – and government – in a state of deep disorganization.

Judging by their ideas for the future, it doesn’t seem like lawmakers are anticipating things will get easier any time soon.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct two typos.

Shuster announces he’s running for another term

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, is officially running for re-election in Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District, setting up a primary rematch with a conservative outsider candidate.

bill shusterShuster, a congressman since 2001 and chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced his re-election bid during a Monday morning conference call with reporters.

Shuster defeated challengers Art Halvorson and Travis Schooley in a three-way Republican primary in 2014. This year Halvorson is making another bid, pointing to Shuster as a career politician entrenched in Washington’s establishment.

But Shuster said his record as a conservative is strong. He pointed to attempts to defund Obamacare, his plans to remove air traffic control from the government’s oversight, and his ability to broker bipartisan compromise, like ushering through a long-term transportation plan that did not increase taxes.

“I’m gonna go out there and put my record on the line, and let the people of the 9th District decide,” Shuster said.

Shuster paired his candidacy with the rest of the GOP, underscoring what he said was a need for conservatives in all branches of government to pass their policies.

“We’ve got to work hard as Republicans to elect a Republican president and keep a Republican majority in the House and the Senate,” Shuster said.

Shuster didn’t choose a favorite in the packed presidential primary that currently has Donald Trump ahead in the polls, but he said he’ll support “whoever can beat Hillary Clinton.”

Shuster disparaged Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee, saying she’d bring more of President Barack Obama’s “liberal agenda” to the White House.

He said he anticipates a leader will emerge as Pennsylvania’s April primary draws closer.

“I’m tired of being defensive,” he said. “I want to be there when we elect a Republican president.”

Can Pennsylvania handle a recession?

national recession preparednessBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

As if a seven-month budget stalemate weren’t indicator enough of Pennsylvania’s precarious economic position, a new study examining financial preparedness says the commonwealth is ill-prepared for economic hard times.

Pennsylvania’s lack of a rainy day fund leaves it unprepared for an economic recession, according to research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The study, called “Weathering the Next Recession: How Prepared Are the 50 States?” examines which states have fund balances squirreled away in case of fiscal emergencies – funds they could rely on instead of raising taxes.

Mercatus notes the state’s savings account had a zero fund balance in 2014.

rainy day fund

Pennsylvania – which still does not have a budget let alone a rainy day fund – ranks 49th out of 50 in the study.

The state’s previous fund balance was depleted during the Great Recession, as the state needed to transfer money to general fund beginning in the 2009-2010 budget and onward.

Mercatus figures are dated 2014. A Senate Appropriations Committee memo dated June 2015 noted that the state does have a fund balance of $231,000 in the rainy day fund, “an amount that would support the state government for about four minutes.”

Whew.

“A few short years after the Great Recession, some states have managed to bounce back and prepare for the worst-case scenario,” said the study’s author, economist Erick Elder of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “Others failed to learn from the experience.”

Across the border, West Virginia ranks second in preparedness, with a fund balance in 2014 of $956 million that has steadily climbed over the past five years.

If Pennsylvania lawmakers wanted to start saving up, Mercatus cites a target of $1.32 billion for a rainy day fund to weather a typical recession, or 4.6 percent of its revenue. A severe recession would need about $3.43 billion to get by.

Pennsylvania also has a pension problem: its pension systems are underfunded by tens of billions, and the plan to remedy the issue requires increasingly large portions of each new budget.

Given that the Republican-controlled legislature appears largely disinclined to raise taxes even in the current economic environment, the study raises the question of what would happen if a recession did hit – would they take the vote then?

A partially-passed state budget has put a dent in the stalemate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders that allows some state funds to flow out to schools and human service agencies, but there’s still no consensus on big-picture policy changes like new taxes, pension reform, or liquor privatization.

So maybe they can start planning for a savings, too?

“No one knows exactly when the next recession may hit, and fortunately, no recession seems imminent at the national level,” Mercatus researchers write. “This new research shows that even ill-prepared states may still have time to fully fund their rainy day funds, shielding taxpayers and residents who rely on government services from future pain.”

 

McGinty ‘dangerously short’ of cash at close of 2015 cycle

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

It’s not quite 2016, but that hasn’t stopped next year’s political candidates from acting like it is.

The coming close of 2015 fundraising cycle for political candidates has many campaigns – including Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty – pleading with their supporters for last-minute donations.

McGinty’s campaign blasted out an email Thursday afternoon saying they’re falling “dangerously short” of their goal (emphasis original):

mcginty screen grabbed

The email continued to say the campaign needed 28 donors by midnight to meet the campaign’s mid-month fundraising goal. They don’t specify what that goal is, exactly.

While the dire language could be a fundraising trope, all signs point to McGinty and fellow Democratic Senate hopefuls Joe Sestak and John Fetterman needing a strong fund balance to compete with incumbent Republican Sen. U.S. Pat Toomey.

The Pennsylvania race was most recently labeled “leans Republican” by the election watchers at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

And while he doesn’t know who is going to be up against, Toomey’s campaign has already launched a website called WhoIsWorse.com attacking McGinty and Sestak.

Some signs point to the Democratic Senate candidates having the wind at their backs for 2016 – especially in Pennsylvania. The City of Brotherly Love will be hosting the Democratic National Convention, potentially gearing up the party’s voters in advance of the presidential election that could see party favorite Hillary Clinton at the top of ticket. Clinton, you’ll recall, won Pennsylvania when she ran in 2008.

So, whether it’s en masse fundraising emails, or preliminary attacks, there’s more than one indicator that the competition of 2016 has only just begun.

New group courting Democratic women candidates in PA

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Pennsylvania has a new organized effort to get Democratic women elected.

Emerge Pennsylvania, co-founded by state Reps. Tina Davis and Mary Jo Daley, is getting off the ground with a new executive director, Anne Wakabayashi, and hosted its kick-off event earlier this week.

Anne Wakabayashi
Anne Wakabayashi

Emerge is a national program that launched in 2002 designed to encourage women to run for office and get them elected. The program has graduated 1,500 Democratic women, about 52 percent of whom have been elected to office.

Wakabayashi previously worked on campaigns for candidates running for Philadelphia City Council and Pennsylvania Supreme Court; she also served as the political director and communications director for the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.

Pennsylvania has a well-known dearth of women in elected office, never having elected a woman governor, or to the U.S. Senate. The 18-member U.S. congressional delegation is made up entirely of men, and the state legislature ranks 39th in the nation for number of women members, according to Emerge Pennsylvania.

Republicans in the past have started programs to encourage women to run for office, including the Anne Anstein Excellence in Public Service series from renowned fundraiser and committeewoman Christine Toretti. There’s also the non-partisan Ready to Run training program hosted at Chatham University. But it seems Emerge is the first Democratic counterpart to take shape in Pennsylvania.

One more thing: If you hear about these efforts and think, “Is it necessary to have a concerted effort to get more women in office?” – we point you to the latest news about misogynistic emails circulating among male prosecutors and judges in Pennsylvania, then ask you to consider whether establishing equitable gender representation in government might be a culture change that’s long overdue.

When transparency and tradition create confusion

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Sometimes it takes a mistake to learn something new in this life.

We were reminded of that this week when a Senate calendar showed H. Geoffrey Moulton, a former Office of Attorney General special deputy, up for nomination to a Montgomery County judgeship. But the document doesn’t tell the full story, far from it.

Turns out, Moulton’s name was used as a placeholder to keep an appointment open until a final candidate is agreed upon by the governor and the Senate.

Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for the Senate Republican caucus, said while the nomination is official, the placeholders don’t file paperwork that would otherwise get the ball rolling on the confirmation process, so there’s never any vote on the placeholder. This is fairly routine when a nominee hasn’t been agreed to, she said.

But – and this is where the tradition causes confusion – the Senate nomination lists are now publicly available on Internet, meaning they show names like Moulton’s that are never truly up for consideration.

All of this sounds like a great lesson in Senate Rules Shadowgames 101. While it’s reasonable to assume that leaders will come to agreements and rules among themselves, how can that be clear to the citizenry at large accessing these documents online, which is arguably the motive behind posting them?

We’re big fans of the transparency that goes into posting legislative information – including calendars -online, but most citizens aren’t familiar with Senate traditions, and in this instance, the tradition – combined with transparency – fosters confusion.

Perhaps it’s time to tweak the “placeholder” tradition… for future placeholder names, instead of actual people, maybe names like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Major Tom,” or “Mr.Tambourine Man” would eliminate confusion… or simply “Placeholder” or “To Be Determined.”

Kane-appointed investigator to become judge with prosecutor who charged her?

Special Deputy Attorney General H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. speaks on Monday, June 23, 2014, during a news conference on the results  of a probe into the Jerry Sandusky investigation as Pennsylvania  Attorney General Kathleen Kane (left) stands by.
Special Deputy Attorney General H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. speaks on Monday, June 23, 2014, during a news conference on the results of a probe into the Jerry Sandusky investigation as Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane (left) stands by.

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

H. Geoffrey Moulton, the special deputy hired by Attorney General Kathleen Kane in 2013 to examine the Jerry Sandusky investigation conducted by her predecessors, appears on a list of nominees up for confirmation in the Pennsylvania Senate on Friday – as a nominee to become a Court of Common Pleas Judge in Montgomery County.

Appointment requires a two-thirds vote. The seat was previously held by Judge Emanuel Bertin, who hit mandatory retirement, according to the Senate.

And in an interesting small-world happenstance, Moulton, if appointed, would serve on the bench alongside Risa Vetri Ferman, the Republican MontCo district attorney who charged Kane, and then won a judgeship this November.

UPDATE: Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesman Jeff Sheridan said Moulton is not actually being nominated to the position; rather, his name on the list as a “placeholder” so they can appoint a future candidate, he said.

There apparently is a long tradition of placeholders being used to keep an appointment open until a candidate is agreed upon by the governor and the Senate. Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for the Senate Republican caucus, said this has been the case “forever and a day.” The placeholder names are kept until a final nominee is agreed to, she said – the placeholders also don’t file paperwork that would otherwise get the ball rolling on the confirmation process.

Moulton’s Sandusky report pulled together all of the emails in the attorney general’s office. Later, Kane released some that showed pornographic, misogynistic and racist messages shared among prosecutors and high-ranking state officials, beginning the “Porngate” scandal that has led to the resignation of gubernatorial cabinet members and a Supreme Court justice. The scandal embroiled Sandusky prosecutors now working in Philadelphia, including Kane’s nemesis Frank Fina.  Now, Kane is running those emails through another special investigation while she fights back against criminal charges that involve allegedly lying to a grand jury.

To be clear, Moulton did not release the emails – Kane did – but it was his investigation that opened up the servers to scrutiny.

Following the report’s June 2014 release, Moulton did not fade altogether from government work. In February he was hired by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, The Associated Press reported. With all the challenges for Kane, given the criminal perjury charges against her, Moulton was considered a likely candidate to replace her should she resign or the Senate remove her from office.