Oh no they didn't. Last week in Harrisburg: poorest lose out on budget "compromise," vouchers-lite, GOP brags Voter ID will help them win PA, and two anti-immigrant bills.
The budget is "compromised" on the backs of the state's poorest, Corbett & Co. renew school privatization push, GOP openly says voter ID will help it win PA (!), and two bills target immigrants.
Oh no they didn't. Last week in Harrisburg: poorest lose out on budget “compromise,” vouchers-lite, GOP brags Voter ID will help them win PA, and two anti-immigrant bills.
“Oh no they didn't” is Daniel Denvir's weekly blog post on last week's moments in state politics. Philadelphians know precious little about the legislature or governor, though capitol lawmakers have enormous power over our schools, the care of our poor, and whether or not you can access a safe abortion. Are you an advocate, concerned citizen, legislator or aide with something to say? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for tips or comments. Follow him on Twitter @DanielDenvir.
Budget: the state's poorest lose on “compromise”
Pennsylvania looked like it had a budget agreement late last week: Republican Gov. Tom Corbett had capitulated to Senate Republican's demand to somewhat restore proposed cuts to higher education, schools, and county programs for the poor and disabled. County-run social services, however, which Corbett proposed slashing by 20 percent, still looked like they in line for a 10 percent cut.
Higher-than-expected state revenues gave Corbett political cover to restore spending without raising taxes―something that, according to the 2010 pledge he signed with the Washington anti-government powerbroker George Norquist, he is forbidden to do. Ever. Until death do they part.
But then, as the The Allentown Morning Call reported: “Republicans rebel over human services cuts.”
Now there's a string of words you don't expect to encounter strung together in the Tea Party era.
House Human Services Committee Chairman Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), from suburban Philly, is leading the fight to undo cuts and stop Corbett's proposed conversion of that funding into a block grant, which providers say would pit groups against one another (for example, homeless programs versus those for the disabled).
But amidst the headlines celebrating moderation and negotiation lies what amounts to one of the greatest assaults on the poor in Pennsylvania's recent history: General Assistance, the modest $205-a-month cash assistance provided to the temporarily disabled, domestic violence survivors, people taking care of a disabled or elderly relative, and recovering drug addicts, will be eliminated. And it will be gone, according to a Department of Public Welfare memo, on July 1.
There is no indication that the state is giving recipients any warning that they will lose their benefits or trying to connect them with other social-service providers. This could be really ugly. It could, as I have reported, put thousands of drug addicts in a situation where they have no place to go but Philly's streets.
Of the 69,115 people receiving General Assistance statewide, 35,097 live here.
The state government that is ostensibly too cash-strapped to fund General Assistance, however, appears poised to approve Corbett's $1.65 billion tax subsidy, based on fairly dubious job creation projections, to Shell oil.
This, I suppose, is what “compromise” looks like when the only people at the table are Republicans.
MoveOn.org is circulating a petition to oppose the giveaway to Shell.
Why did the campaign to save General Assistance fail? It failed, obviously, because conservatives control state government. And it failed because conservative legislative strategy appears to be a brilliant one: generate as much anti-government legislation as possible so as to 1) confuse the opposition and ensure that at least some devastating legislation squeaks through and 2) make it all look like a compromise and a partial victory for progressives while it is in reality a historic defeat.
And so Corbett demanded widespread and draconian cuts to higher education and social services for the disabled and poor, generating big headlines but perhaps knowing that he would not get it all.
Finally, the poorest and most suffering people who depend on General Assistance had far less powerful champions than higher education, schools and people with disabilities.
As Philadelphia journalist and City Paper contributor Jake Blumgart put it in today's Inquirer, “It's hard to imagine a less politically connected group than the low-income people helped by general assistance. In Pennsylvania, they include the temporarily disabled, those caring for elderly or disabled relatives, domestic violence victims, and recovering addicts.”
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profiled a blind man laid off from his job who depends on the program.
"It's going to kill me," he said. "It's hard when they take programs away. You're screwed."
The AP profiles a former addict who credits General Assistance “with paying his way back into the land of the living,” but notes that it is “now on Gov. Tom Corbett's chopping block, while Republican-controlled Harrisburg is poised to shift the cash instead toward tax cuts for businesses and a business tax credit that helps subsidize private school scholarships.”
And more dismantling (of course) of public education
They're not done yet!
Corbett and legislative Republicans hope to pass a corporate school-reform-wish list before the session ends, including using high stakes standardized test scores to measure teachers. This even though the past ten years of No Child Left Behind high-stakes tests have narrowed the curriculum to test prep math and reading boot camps (goodbye arts, literature, history, science and sports!) and driven teachers to cheat. Oh well.
Oh, and the biggest news of all? Corbett and legislative Republicans want to expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), which pays corporations back for donating money to private school tuition.
Last Thursday night, the AP reported that the program could double from $75 million to $150 million in taxpayer funds.
Yes, this is the same EITC that the New York Times found funnels money through politically connected middlemen and sends taxpayer dollars to religious fundamentalists.
The AP writes that the bill “would be one of the largest expansions of a discretionary program from the budget that's in force now.... Republicans are making more room for the tax credit at the same time that they are planning to eliminate a decades-old cash benefit that provides $200 a month for poor adults who are disabled and temporarily unable to work. Business taxes also would be cut by $275 million.”
Yesterday, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported it would be more like $100 million.
Anyhow: so much for cash-strapped. The state, pleading that they're broke, cuts funding for everything public while expanding taxpayer funding of privatization initiatives.
State Rep. James Roebuck (D-Phila), a leading opponent of school vouchers, called it "school vouchers on steroids – the worst bill yet."
"Make no mistake – it's just vouchers through a tax credit. The business donations would be 90 percent reimbursed with state tax credits. It deserves careful scrutiny just as the Shell Oil tax credit proposal does.”
State Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver) is the lead sponsor of the EITC expansion. According to the anti-voucher Keystone State Education Coalition, “Christiana and 'Commonsense for the Commonwealth' a PAC that shares the same address as his district office, received $170,000 during 2012 from the Students First PAC and Fighting Chance PAC. All the money came from the $1.7 million contributed by Michigan Amway heiress Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children and from main-line mega millionaires Jeff Yass, Arthur Dantchick and Joel Greenberg via the Students First PA PAC and the new Fighting Chance PA PAC aligned with the Philadelphia Archdiocese.”
You'll remember Students First PA PAC and these Main Line hedge fund managers from this April, when they spent loads of money backing a candidate to go after anti-voucher state Rep. Roebuck―a race I extensively covered here at City Paper.
Education Voters PA is urging you to contact your representative and tell them to oppose the “vouchers lite” bill and a second bill weakening charter school oversight.
That second bill, backed by charter advocates and Corbett, would take charter authorization out of the hands of local school districts and give it to the State Department of Education, undermining already-barely existent oversight.
What else is going wrong with charters? Well, Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report last Wednesday that found the state's faulty charter school payment formula costs taxpayers $365 million per year. Cyber charters, which I and others have pointed out are sometimes nothing but complete frauds against public education, are the greediest and most wasteful of the bunch.
Education advocates and unions are supporting a bipartisan bill that would cut charter funding down to size.
Meanwhile, legislation passed by the Senate that would (re)place Chester Upland and three other fiscally-strangled school districts under state control would, according to Businessweek, give the state far more authority to put schools under private charter management and break unions than similar laws across the country. As I mentioned last week, Chester just finished 16 years of life under state control in 2010. Sixteen more years will, I'm sure, be fantastic.
Dissent from some House Republicans has so far blocked Corbett's school vouchers legislation, which would directly allocate taxpayer dollars to private school tuition, from passage. But the corporate school reform movement, like the conservative movement as a whole, seems to have a strategy of inundating the legislature with as many bills as possible, knowing that most will be defeated but ensuring that some will pass.
So they are still poised to inflict considerable damage on Pennsylvania public schools.
How much? On Wednesday we'll find out if Harrisburg becomes the first school district in the state to eliminate Kindergarten.
As the Patriot-News darkly muses, “Perhaps it’s really the start of a trend. As school boards across the state finalize their budgets, they’re working through a list of programs that, by law, can be eliminated.They’re laying off teachers, closing buildings, limiting transportation and charging kids to play sports. Kindergarten sits at the bottom of that list, but in many places, the knife is getting awfully close, if it hasn’t broken through already.”
Payday lending bill: Unfortunately not Onion headline
As you know: the House has passed a bill by state Rep. Chris Ross legalizing payday loans and raising annual interest rates from 24 percent to potentially more than 400 percent; payday lenders prey not only on the poor but on members of the armed services; and payday lending giant Cash America has, according to Inquirer Harrisburg correspondent Amy Worden, reported spending $125,000 on lobbying this session.
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, writing at Young Philly Politics, wants to you to contact your state senator and tell them to oppose the bill.
Philly state Reps. Keller, Sabatina and Taylor, he writes, voted for the House bill.
House passes anti-immigrant bill
The legislature is moving a slew of anti-immigrant bills, many of which are part of far-right state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe's (R-Butler) “National Security Begins at Home” package.
On Thursday, the House passed "Senate Bill 9" which will ostensibly bar undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits. It would make it a third-degree felony for an undocumented immigrant to use an ACCESS card (food stamps), prompting protests that federal law protects their use of food stamps on behalf of their citizen children or an elderly neighbor.
The legislature is also poised to move a bill that would make it illegal for government contractors to hire undocumented immigrants.
And here's the rub: the ACLU says the bill, which requires that employers use federal databases to verify citizenship, is a dangerous effort to create a "national identification system” that often misidentifies citizens and undocumented immigrants.
GOP leader openly says voter ID law will help Romney win Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason told the conservative Pittsburgh-Tribune Review that the new voter ID law―which could keep Democratic-leaning black people, the poor and students from voting in November―will help Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania in November.
Critics have long-argued that “voter fraud” is a made up problem and that the bill is really nothing more than a cynical Jim Crow-style attempt to suppress Democratic votes. Gleason has come pretty darn close to admitting just that.
Booze privatization fails
Republicans dropped their last-minute push to privatize the state wine and liquor stores after failing to round up the necessary votes in the House. Expect this proposal to return in the fall.
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