Thoughts on the State of Things

I am taking a break from the parade circuit and church festivals (and the heat!) to reflect on the state budget and more…

• So we have a state budget on time for the first time in years, and the governor and legislative leaders nearly broke their arms patting each other on the back about it. Really, this is cause for celebration? The bar really has been set low for Harrisburg. We meet our mandated deadline every year in the county. Next year maybe we should have a big signing ceremony.

• When you consider that the Republicans control the entire state government and basically refused to consider any input from the minority Democrats it makes me wonder what exactly took so long?

• Public education was the big loser in this year’s budget. Wow. I can’t recall a governor who is so openly hostile to public education. I am all for cost control, but this budget simply passes those costs to local school districts. And we’re already seeing the impact on the price of state colleges and universities.

• Remember your school tax bill and tuition bills the next time some legislator glad hands you and tells how hard he’s working to “save you money”.

• Human services, of course, took a big hit. It’s always shocks me that the state whacks funds from those who need it most. Then again, it is the easiest to take from the voiceless – they don’t have high-paid lobbyists.

• The big winner, of course, was multi-national gas companies. It’s nice to know that Exxon Mobile and Chevron won’t have to pay an extraction tax or impact fees as they drill for Marcellus shale, while our school taxes go up and our local governments are left to deal with the impacts to the roads and other infrastructure, as well as emergency response.

• Speaking of infrastructure, I attended the opening of the final section of the reconstructed Route 22 near the Indiana County line. It is outstanding that we finally have a safe, modern four-line highway running through the northern corridor of Westmoreland County. But I wonder, is this the last significant transportation improvement project we’ll see in the near future? The state budget includes no initiatives for our aged roads and bridges. The state Transportation Funding Commission recently released a study calling for increased license and registration fees as a way to increase revenues for roads. We’ll see if any legislators who sign those ridiculous no-tax pledges left enough wiggle room to support any changes to decades old fees.

(By the way, a local state representative recently wrote a letter to the editor in the Tribune-Review defending these overtly political schemes. I’ve always thought the only pledge that mattered was your oath of office – not this silly attempt to placate voters and appease some right-wing activist group.)

• There was some good news in the state budget for county government. The state finally approved changes in the way hospitals are paid for inmate services. A new law caps fees charged by health care providers for inmate services at the rates set by the Medical Assistance fee schedule. In the past, we’ve had to fight with hospitals that sent us expensive bills for inmate services at private pay rates far higher than Medicaid rates. We’ve always been able negotiate them down. But now, we’ll avoid that dance in the future.

Further, the law includes language that will permit inmates who qualified for Medicaid prior to commitment to prison to qualify for Medicaid in the event they receive services in the hospital. This is good legislation that will help keep down the rising cost of care for inmates. My thanks to the General Assembly for finally helping to address this long overdue issue.

• Some mixed news from the state on the issue of assessments. The governor was right to veto legislation that would have exempted only Washington County from court-ordered reassessments. The whole assessment system is fragmented enough as it is without creating yet another discrepancy. Plus, it’s always nice to see a transparent political ploy fail, as this legislation so plainly was.

• The state did pass some resolutions to create task forces to study assessment standards. We’ll see if anything actually comes from this, but it’s nice that the state is at least talking about property assessments. As I’ve said over and over, there is no value in spending millions to reassess properties under the current system – the values are outdated nearly the moment it’s complete.

Some asides…

• We got our first invitation for a Commissioners candidates’ forum this September. Kudos to the Central Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce for putting this together. It is a shame though that it is not a debate – that would be fun. I am hoping that some groups organize some debates this fall. That’s an ideal way to distinguish the candidates from each other. And it might make my opponents actually have to say something specific as opposed to the same generic campaign speak they’ve offered since the beginning. I am open to any and all invitations.

• Another recent letter to the editor took shots at me for approving a copy machine contract that actually saves the county money (yes, they are amazingly still trying to make this sound wrong). It’s bad enough that the letter read like a political advertisement. What wasn’t mentioned was that it was written by a local Republican Committee member. Nonetheless, I e-mailed her (she is constituent after all) asking her if she would like some clarification on this and explain how it is a good deal for taxpayers. Not surprisingly, I never heard back.