Aug 25, 2010

Dumb & Dumber

Guest Column By G. Terry Madonna & Michael L. Young

Somebody needs to check Pennsylvania’s water supply. Perhaps it’s something those guys are drinking, or maybe smoking, that explains the faux pas outbreak spreading in the Keystone State. Either way, it’s threatening to become a serious epidemic.

First, Attorney General Tom Corbett, considered by many experts to be governor-in-waiting, recorded one of the truly boneheaded moments of the political season by trying to subpoena Twitter records in a legal showdown with a convicted Bonusgate defendant. This well-aimed shot to his own foot needlessly portrayed him as an enemy of the First Amendment.

Then, for an encore, he opined in an interview to a public radio reporter that Pennsylvania’s unemployed just weren’t looking for jobs hard enough because their juicy unemployment benefits kept them fat and happy.

These two gems, you might imagine, didn’t make anyone very happy. An embarrassed and uncharacteristically quiet Corbett quickly beat a strategic retreat, presumably seeking treatment for the foot-in-mouth disease he had recently contracted.

Almost on cue, Corbett’s backtrack came barely in time for incumbent Governor Ed Rendell to take center stage with a dazzling display of his own verbal mal adroitness.

Rendell, always the consummate politician, is apparently concerned about keeping a bipartisan balance in Harrisburg. The governor doesn’t want anyone to think that only Republicans have dumb and dangerous ideas to proffer. Indeed, Democrats can hold their own in that category very well.

And here’s the proof if you doubt it. Rendell would like to mount cameras along highways to photograph license plates and compare the numbers against a database that would verify whether the driver has insurance. In short, he proposes that the state should monitor with cameras every driver out on Pennsylvania’s roads in case they’re doing something nefarious.

Not, you will note, because drivers have done something wrong or because there is a reasonable suspicion of wrong doing, but just in case. Is there an extra copy of George Orwell’s 1984 for the governor to peruse? Or maybe just a copy of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would do.

You will be relieved to know that strictly speaking Rendell’s plan is not a law enforcement proposal designed to get dangerous or financially irresponsible drivers off the roads. Allegedly Penn Dot and the state police are doing that already.

Instead, Rendell’s modern-day version of Candid Camera is really aimed at getting more money into the state’s fast dwindling treasury coffers. Who can blame him for good intentions? As Rendell winds up his final term, the state is, shall we say, financially embarrassed. It presently faces a $5 billion structural deficit and is flat broke by any benchmark you care to apply.

Now, Rendell is smart enough not to try to sell his camera scheme as law enforcement since everyone (over six years old, at least) knows that the state does almost nothing to enforce an insurance law already on the books for more than two decades. But he is naive enough to think he can get any serious money out of uninsured drivers who mostly are uninsured because they can’t afford insurance. This is the level of intellectual effort going on at the highest level of state government, circa 2010.

Rendell’s camera-in-every-lamppost proposition is so far his only recent entry in the I-can’t-believe-I-said-that category. Technically Tom Corbett’s still ahead. But stay tuned; these guys are very competitive. The campaigns still have many weeks to go, and the governor’s term doesn’t end until January 20. It’s still early.

What can we say about any of these not-quite-ready-for-prime-time doozies from the state’s top two officials? Rendell’s camera idea seems just plain frenzied. The state’s fiscal situation might be desperate, but the state’s governor doesn’t have to be.

As for Corbett’s blunders, maybe the less said the better. He’s likely sorry for them, and everyone else is too.

But Rendell and Corbett have added further evidence, as if we needed it, that many politicians are falling more and more out of touch with average citizens. Even as Corbett seeks the governorship, his missteps are ominously bookended by Rendell’s late-term struggles. Yet both represent, by any measure, Pennsylvania’s best and brightest. None of this augurs well for a state facing its greatest governing challenges since the Great Depression. Get ready—the fun might just be starting.

Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly. Dr. G. Terry Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Dr. Michael Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner at Michael Young Strategic Research.

Aug 7, 2010

A Mid-Summer Night's Nightmare. Annual transportation drama now playing in Harrisburg.

Guest Column By Lowman S. Henry

Governor Ed Rendell will leave office in January, but travelers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike will only just be starting to pay for the legacy of profligate spending he will leave behind.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission recently announced that tolls on America's first (and now most expensive) superhighway will rise by 10% effective January 2, 2011. Those of us who use E-Z Pass will see only a 3% increase. This is just the latest in what is expected to be a series of fare increases.

The worst part about the ever-rising cost of driving on the turnpike is that revenue generated by the higher fares is not being reinvested in the highway itself. Instead some $450 million per year is being diverted to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to pay for the upkeep of other roads and bridges.

Regular fare hikes would be easier to accept if the money were being invested in the turnpike. Although some upgrades to the Pennsylvania Turnpike are already underway, many badly needed capital improvement projects remain unfunded. Not the least of these are replacing the turnpike's aging tunnels, the need to expand the entire highway to a minimum of six lanes - eight in higher traffic areas; and the continued upgrade of interchanges and service plazas. These projects languish as $450 million per year goes elsewhere.

How did we get into this mess? You can blame it on mass transit and urban politics. The Rendell Administration has poured billions into the bloated and inefficient mass transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This has created a domino effect that deprived PennDOT of needed revenue, and led to the passage of Act 44 which set up the diversion of turnpike funds that have in turn prompted the recently announced toll increases.

Transportation funding has become an annual farce in Pennsylvania. The script is always the same: In the opening scene, the state's largest mass transit agencies - Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia and the Port Authority Transit (PAT) in Pittsburgh - announce they have hefty budget deficits. In Scene 2, SEPTA and PAT threaten massive lay-offs and service cuts. Governor Ed Rendell rides to their rescue in Scene 3 by diverting federal highway funds to the mass transit agencies.

The curtain rises on Act II with the governor declaring the state's roads and bridges are crumbling. He declares the state to be in the clutches of a transportation crisis. This leads him to call in Scene 2 for increases in taxes and fees. Conflict arises in Scene 3 when the legislature refuses to raise taxes and fees, which are unpopular with their constituents. They point out the money isn't there to fix highways because the governor spent the federal highway money on mass transit. And that is where the drama suddenly ends: with no resolution and a guaranteed sequel next year.

Governor Rendell is once again planning to "flex" federal highway money to mass transit. And, of course, he is again calling for the legislature to raise taxes and fees. The governor has given the legislature options, magnanimously agreeing to sign into law whatever tax and fee hikes they might select from a menu of revenue enhancements he has presented to them.

At no point does Ed Rendell, or for that matter anybody else, begin to address the underlying cause of Pennsylvania's transportation dilemma: the fact billions are squandered by SEPTA and PAT due to inefficiencies, bloated bureaucracies and unreasonable labor union contracts.

Ed Rendell is captive of the Philadelphia political forces that prop up SEPTA. He would have taxpayers from across the state, and turnpike travelers, pay more rather than take the politically painful route of forcing SEPTA and PAT to clean up their acts.
And so the curtain will close on the Rendell Administration with no resolution to our transportation drama. Perhaps the next governor will come into office with a different script. In the meantime, our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate while turnpike tolls continue to rise. And that, will be Ed Rendell's enduring legacy to we the people of Penn's Woods.

Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is