Tag: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Lawmaker Portraits Now Come With Conviction Footnotes

Truth in legislative portraiture from the Pennsylvania State Capitol, as reported by Kris Maher in the Wall Street Journal: “On Tuesday, officials in the capital, Harrisburg, placed plaques beneath the portraits of three former state House speakers and a former Senate president pro tempore listing when the lawmakers left office—and when they were sentenced to prison.” The idea was a compromise between those who felt the portraits should be taken down entirely and those who favored keeping them on display with no mentions of criminality. The plaques cost $63.75 each, and if their shaming presence even slightly improves lawmakers’ incentives to avoid corruption, they could prove a good investment: 

Pennsylvania was ranked the fifth most corrupt state in a recent study that analyzed federal data from 1997 to 2008. During that time, malfeasance among state officials appeared to boost per capita spending by about 5% in the 10 states with the highest levels of corruption, the study published in Public Administration Review found.

Will Pennsylvania Join the REAL ID Rebellion?

Since Congress passed a national ID law called the REAL ID Act in 2005, states have been registering their objections. The law tries to coerce states into implementing the feds’ national ID and would have them issue uniform drivers’ licenses and put drivers’ personal information into a federal data exchange. By 2009, fully half the states had barred themselves from implementing REAL ID or passed resolutions denouncing the law.

The states continue to play their constitutional role in counterbalancing federal overreach. I noted a few weeks ago how New Hampshire is resisting E-Verify, the federal background check system. But—as I also recently wrote—federal “bureaucrats and big-governmenters” are working to revive their national ID.

Pennsylvania may soon join the REAL ID rebellion. The legislature there has sent Governor Tom Corbett (R) a bill to opt the state out of REAL ID’s national ID system.

As we often see, though, there is confusion about the relevance of IDs and a national ID to national security. In the story linked above, state representative Greg Vitali (D) is cited saying that the 9-11 hijackers were carrying multiple phony drivers’ licenses. “And I’m just concerned with regard to the message that we send by backing away from more secure IDs,” he says.

Representative Vitali is mistaken on the facts. The 9/11 hijackers did not have false identification documents. The 9/11 Commission report said: “All but one of the 9/11 hijackers acquired some form of U.S. identification document, some by fraud.” Those “frauds” were things like fibbing about the length of their residency in Virginia, not their names.

The security issues are complicated. I dealt with them in my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood. But here’s what it boils down to: Had REAL ID been the law prior to 9/11 and operating perfectly—100% compliance, no corruption at DMVs, and no forgery of breeder documents or licenses—that might have required the 9/11 attackers to keep their visas current. That’s the extent of its security value.

How many hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars should we spend, how much of Americans’ privacy should we give up, and how much power should we transfer to the federal government when the only benefit is to mildly inconvenience some future attacker?

Many of the threats we imagined in the years after 9/11 were not real. Sleeper cells? Osama bin Laden sleeps with the fishes.

Terrorism didn’t get its start on 9/11, and it will never be non-existent. But our strong nation can celebrate its victory over terrorism by deep-sixing the national ID card. That’s the “message” that would come from defeating the federal government’s national ID law.

Pennsylvania Moves to Starve Poor People

That’s the message I came away with after reading an online article from a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter about a decision by the state of Pennsylvania to limit eligibility for food stamps. The article is a perfect example of the difficulty advocates for limited government face in communicating their ideas through the mainstream press.

At issue is the PA Department of Public Welfare’s decision to eliminate eligibility for food stamps for people under the age of 60 who have more than $2,000 in assets (the value of one’s house, retirement benefits, and car would be excluded). The DPW estimates that only “2 percent of the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps would be affected by the asset test.” Indeed, the DPW’s website notes that “Because of changes to SNAP, most Pennsylvania households are not subject to a net income limit, nor are they subject to any resource or asset limits.”

(SNAP is the acronym for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was known as the Food Stamp program until 2008 when Congress changed its name to sound more palatable. The program is run jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state governments, but federal taxpayers pay for the direct benefits.)

One of the “changes” that the DPW refers to is categorical eligibility, which basically means that Pennsylvania households already receiving benefits from other welfare programs, including cash welfare and Supplemental Security Income, automatically qualify for food stamps. In recent years, both the state of Pennsylvania and the federal government have made it easier to qualify for food stamps benefits.

Unfortunately, the Inquirer reporter either wasn’t aware of these details or didn’t deem them important enough for inclusion. Instead, he quotes ten—let me repeat that, ten—critics of the DPW’s decision. The critics include a “national hunger expert,” the legal director of a “leading anti-hunger group,” the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, the executive director of the “liberal Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center,” and an older woman who says that she’ll “have to give up paying for my health insurance.”

It took me all of two minutes to get a quote from Nathan Benefield, the director of policy analysis at Pennsylvania’s pro-liberty Commonwealth Foundation:

Unfortunately for taxpayers, politicians in Harrisburg and Washington have for the past few years considered it a “success” to have more families on welfare. Pennsylvania welfare eligibility and spending—including for food stamps—has exploded, threatening to crowd out everything else in the state budget. Means testing for assets is a common-sense reform to ensure those who truly need aid get it.

There, was that so hard?

Of course, journalists who are interested in getting the pro-liberty take on welfare reform are welcome to contact my colleagues and me at the Cato Institute. Honestly, we don’t want people to starve in order to save a buck—we just believe that the federal government is an improper and less effective means for assisting those who are truly in need. Pressed for time? Here are Cato essays on food subsidies, welfare, and federal subsidies to state and local government.

School Choice Murder-Suicide in Pennsylvania

A huge school choice opportunity has been lost for the moment in Pennsylvania. But that lost opportunity is not the voucher program that has  drawn so much attention.

The political conflagration touched off by the push for a targeted, failing-schools voucher program incinerated along with it a massive expansion of an existing, popular, successful, bipartisan-supported, and better program; the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). The House passed this expansion of credit program by a massive margin. And when I say “massive,” I mean 96 percent in favor to 4 percent opposed. Unfortunately, a stand-alone credit bill was not considered in the Senate, and the expansion fell by the wayside as the voucher battle raged.

In the next session, it would be good policy and politics to consider vouchers and credits separately. They are substantively different means of fostering choice, and the public deserves a clear debate and vote on both policies in separate bills.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit program is vastly superior to all of the voucher bills. Vouchers are open to credible legal challenges, afford no accountability directly to taxpayers, and government money brings stifling government regulations. Furthermore, giving vouchers only to kids in or around “failing schools” won’t produce a dynamic market because there is an ambiguous, limited, and potentially shifting customer base. A failing-schools voucher program is a terrible policy design.

The EITC should not be legislatively handcuffed to vouchers. Vouchers are an inferior policy and a proven political liability. For once the popular, politically smart, most principled, and most effective thing to do are all the same; drop the voucher drama and expand the education tax credit program.

Tuesday Links

  • “Vouchers and tax credits differ from one another in important ways, and Pennsylvanians deserve to have their representatives consider them one at a time.”
  • “So, if the Supreme Court’s precedents defer to Congress’ assessments of its powers, but Congress is relying for ‘constitutional authority’ on the Supreme Court’s precedents, then NO ONE is actually looking at the Constitution itself to see if a bill is within Congress’ enumerated powers.”
  • “Carbon dioxide, thought to be a significant cause of the warming of surface temperature since the mid-1970s, is currently the respiration of the world’s economic civilization. Getting rid of it isn’t as simple as banning CFCs and switching to another refrigerant.”
  • “As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained in his book of that name, the presidency’s transformation from limited, constitutional office to Supreme Warlord of the Earth has been ‘as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.’”
  • It’s the expenditures, stupid:

Educational Freedom in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania state House has just passed an expansion of its existing k-12 scholarship-donation tax credit program. The vote was a deafening 190 to 7 in a state that has voted Democratic in every one of the last five presidential elections.

Nevertheless, there is serious opposition to this expansion of education tax credits in the Senate, where several prominent lawmakers prefer a voucher bill. It’s not clear which path the legislature will ultimately take, but there seems to be considerable agreement on the goal: giving parents true freedom of choice in education.

A key point to consider, then, is which type of program is most likely to preserve the freedom and diversity of the education marketplace, thereby giving families a meaningful range of alternatives to choose from. I ran a regression study on precisely this question last fall (now forthcoming in the peer-reviewed Journal of School Choice). What I found is that vouchers impose a large and statistically highly significant burden of additional regulation on private schools while tax credits do not.

This is not the only advantage of the tax credit program, but it is a compelling one.

Pennsylvania School Choice Bills

Much attention and controversy have been focused in recent months on Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1, which would create a government-funded school voucher program.  Less attention, and far less controversy, accompanied the passage yesterday of an expansion of the state’s existing education tax credit program out of the House education committee. The vote was 21 to 4.

Apart from the seemingly more favorable reception it is receiving, the tax credit program has three notable advantages: it is less likely to curtail educational freedom by suffocating participating private schools with regulation (which would defeat the purpose of a school choice program), it does not force taxpayers to support types of education that may violate their convictions, and it encourages direct co-payments by parents toward the cost their children’s education, when they can afford to do so (which is associated in the international and historical research with higher school efficiency and greater responsiveness to parents’ demands).

Worth thinking about.