Pennsylvania earned a "C+" for providing citizens information on how public schools spend money, according to a recent report from the Cato Institute titled "Cracking the Books". While the report ranks Pennsylvania 9th among states, our mediocre grade and comparison to “A” states shows opportunity for improvement.
We should strive to provide the most comprehensive and user-friendly tool for parents, teachers, researchers, and taxpayers to know how public schools are spending money.
Legislation (HB 1411) pending in the General Assembly would do just that. In 2011, state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Corbett signed, legislation which put state spending—including budgets, payments to vendors, and employees' salaries— online. That website, PennWATCH, has already proven to be a useful tool for tracking state spending. HB 1411 would mirror this success, creating SchoolWATCH to put public school spending data (including charter schools) into a searchable website.
There are ways to improve SchoolWATCH from its present form. Because Commonwealth Foundation has run OpenPAGov.org—a transparency database letting users find school district spending, performance, tax, and salary data acquired from the Department of Education—for the past four years, we have some suggestions. Some of these have already been proposed as amendments to HB 1411.
- SchoolWATCH should include school performance data already being collected by the state Department of Education. Being able to link spending with performance is an important tool for parents and researchers. Such information will allow education advocates to identify successful schools and develop best practices for what works and is cost-effective.
- SchoolWATCH should include collective bargaining agreements. Putting these union contracts online provides a resource for teachers, parents, advocates, and members of the media—particularly during contract disputes and strike situations.
- SchoolWATCH should include individual salary information for all employees. Salary information is public record and is already collected (and provided on request) by the state Department of Education. Moreover, salary information for state workers is currently available on PennWATCH. It would be inconsistent to treat public school employees different than state workers.
Commonwealth Foundation already provides individual school employee salary information on OpenPAGov.org—in fact, that is our most popular search. Newspapers have also posted this information from state data. If SchoolWATCH is to be the most comprehensive tool for school financial information, it should include data already being provided on external databases like ours.
In the past, transparency has been a bi-partisan issue. Lawmakers should be able to work together once again to enhance our ability to get good information from state government.
RELATED : EDUCATION SPENDING, ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT, TRANSPARENCY, EDUCATION
"Junk policies," "sub-standard plans," "policies not worth keeping" and "bad apple insurance companies" are just a few of the terms used by the President and advocates of the ACA to criticize insurance companies for plans that don't include the ACA’s 10 essential benefits. That’s ironic when you consider Obamacare has thus far sentenced 9 out of 10 enrollees on state exchanges to one of the most sub-standard plans of them all: Medicaid.
It sounds harsh, but it's Medicaid—not individual health care plans—that has a reputation for limited access to doctors and, in some cases, outcomes worse than the uninsured. If ever there was bad apple insurance company, Medicaid is it. The program boasts a wide variety of benefits including prescription coverage and transportation assistance, but provider payments are so low that enrollees often struggle to find a doctor that will accept their coverage.
In the last month, Medicaid enrollments in Maryland, Washington, Kentucky and Oregon have more than quadrupled the number of private insurance enrollments on the exchange. Oregon hasn’t enrolled a single customer for private coverage since their website is still down, but managed to add 62,000 dependent on the state’s Medicaid program because the state is pre-qualifying welfare beneficiaries for Medicaid.
The jump in Medicaid enrollment isn't just a bad deal for the newly insured. Higher Medicaid enrollment means that individuals purchasing plans on the exchange will have to pay more expensive premiums as Medicaid expansion shrinks the pool of as exchange shoppers. And state governments will be facing higher costs: In 2020, states will be responsible for at least 10 percent of Medicaid costs.
In the Washington Post, president of the Commonwealth Fund David Blumenthal, argued:
"The ultimate goal is to make insurance more affordable for Americans. I don’t think the program’s success should be judged by the ratio of private insurance to Medicaid."
But that’s just it, government-run health care like Medicaid is MORE expensive than private insurance and the program’s low doctor reimbursement rates drives up everyone’s premiums through cost-shifting.
Sub-standard Medicaid should be the first target of any health care reform effort. To promise affordable health care, but provide no way for patients to utilize their coverage fails to help anyone in need of health care.
RELATED : HEALTH CARE, MEDICAID
The irony is that all of that money was first signed over by McCord to the unions. In a perfectly legal practice, the state collects unions dues and fees—even the union PAC money—directly out of workers paychecks and sends that money over to the union leaders. As state treasurer, McCord was the one actually signing the really big checks over to union leaders.
|Total Payments from PA Treasury to Government Unions|
|To Union PACS||$707,398.81||$736,300.59|
|For Dues/Fair Share||$41,002,733.68||$41,377,039.16|
|Source: Data provided from PA Department of the Treasury to Commonwealth Foundation via Right to Know Request|
This method of government collecting and sending union political money, for unions to spend on politics, is what we call the Political Power Cycle. Because of this unfair political advantage, Pennsylvania's government unions were able to spend nearly $5 million on political activity and lobbying last year, and another $4 million from PACs in contributions to candidate.
A full 79 percent of Pennsylvania voters oppose the practice of using taxpayer resources to collect union political money.
The photo below shows one such check from the State Treasury to AFSCME, though the really big payments are sent via electronic transfer.
|Largest Monthly Payment from PA Treasury to Government Unions|
|UFCW Local 1776||AFSCME AFLCIO Council 13|
|Source: Data provided from PA Department of the Treasury to Commonwealth Foundation via Right to Know Request|
RELATED : UNIONS & LABOR POLICY, UNION DUES AND POLITICS, TAXPAYER FUNDED LOBBYING
In a scathing investigative report, Chris Papst at CBS 21 revealed a widespread culture in Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare (DPW)—and orders from supervisors—to look past fraudulent claims to enroll more people in welfare program.
DPW accounts for 40 percent of the state's budget and makes an estimated 15 percent of all Medicaid payments in error, according to a report by the Auditor General, wasting an incredible $1 billion annually.
Examples of abuse are legendary.
From taxpayer-funded cruises, to NCAA basketball games, to unnecessary luxury vehicles, DPW has had long history of fiscal profligacy.
What's the solution? Here are just a few examples from our policy report on reforming welfare.
- Utilize performance-based budgeting to expand programs that work and end programs that don't.
- Aggressively identify and cut waste and abuse by enforcing eligibility standards.
- Establish time limits on benefits and enhance work requirements to keep the safety net from becoming a permanent welfare hammock.
Watch CBS21's full report featuring a whistleblower's first-hand account of the culture of waste at DPW and comments from our own Nathan Benefield.
RELATED : JOBS & ECONOMY, WELFARE, GENERAL
Did you know that raising the minimum wage harms the low-skilled workers the policy is meant to help?
Or that prevailing wage laws artificially increase the cost of public works projects at the expense of lower taxes or expanded government services?
Associate Professor of Economics Matthew Rousu joins us for a wide-ranging discussion on Pennsylvania's labor policy in our latest Google+ Hangout and podcast.
Matt teaches at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., and has written on economics for Forbes and US News and World Report as well as for Pennsylvania newspapers The Patriot-News and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Matt helps us rethink the impact of economic policies that seem beneficial on the surface but have unintended negative consequences.
Click here for an audio-only podcast version.
Want to hear more from Professor Rousu? Visit his blog on economic policy at paeconomist.blogspot.com.
RELATED : JOBS & ECONOMY, ECONOMY, MINIMUM WAGE, UNIONS & LABOR POLICY, PREVAILING WAGE, UNION DUES AND POLITICS, RIGHT TO WORK
Could natural gas replace gasoline or diesel for Pennsylvania drivers?
With natural gas certain to become even more plentiful, many people are asking whether that could someday be the norm for transportation. But state lawmakers have taken the speculation one step further by introducing a package of legislation, called Marcellus Shale Works, to subsidize vehicles fueled by natural gas.
Unfortunately this legislation is simply corporate welfare that will do little to make natural gas vehicles economically feasible for companies or taxpayers. Petroleum Products Corp., an operator of pipelines and storage facilities notes one hauler decided against compressed natural gas and liquid natural gas for safety and economic reasons. According to the company, it cost up to $100,000 per truck bay to “explosion-proof” its maintenance areas and trucks would have smaller payloads due to the additional weight of fuel tanks.
Reuters reports that C.R. England purchased five liquid natural gas trucks in 2011, but hasn’t recuperated the almost $80,000 premium per vehicle. The company is seeking a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to add CNG trucks. Without the grant, the company’s Director of Fuel admits, they wouldn’t be considering natural gas trucks.
Freight hauler Con-way Inc. found natural gas-based fuels are expensive even with subsidies, according to Randy Mullett, a company vice president.
Con-way is testing two compressed natural gas trucks in the Chicago area and plans to add three or four liquefied natural gas (LNG) trucks in Texas, where state incentives will help offset the added costs. But Mullett said fueling big rigs with natural gas is "not the slam dunk that it's presented to be."
Natural gas-fueled vehicles have been economical for gas suppliers like Cabot Oil & Gas, which owns a $1 million compressed natural gas fueling station in Susquehanna County. And natural gas appears to be attractive for companies with certain situations like UPS, which is investing $50 million to support 1,000 liquid natural gas truck tractors whose routes are within 150 miles of a fueling station.
Companies will switch to natural gas when it makes economic sense. Government can’t predict future energy trends, and they shouldn’t be choosing winners and losers.
RELATED : CORPORATE WELFARE, ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT, NATURAL GAS
This week, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board released its annual report. In case reading a 56-page government document isn't in your weekend plans, here are my notes:
- Their stated vision is to "be recognized as the best-in-class wine and spirits retailer, distributor and regulator in the United States." Practically speaking, the highest goal of the PLCB is to be better than Utah, it's only competition.
- Of the $512 million transferred to the Treasury, a whopping 83 percent was simply tax revenue. Private stores would generate that same amount and more in taxes as outlets arise.
- Our tax dollars funded 20,594 radio commercials and 6,181 TV commercials. To advertise alcohol. In a monopoly.
- The PLCB boasts of newly-created "wine specialist" positions to to "answer consumer wine pairing questions, provide product knowledge and help to educate other staff members." Wine specialists now serve most Premium Collection stores, which number only 75 out of the 604 PLCB stores. So the boast is that roughly 10 percent of state wine & liquor stores have a wine expert in the store.
- Future plans include rebranding all 604 wine & liquor stores. What does "rebranding" mean? For one, changing the name of Wine & Spirits stores to "Fine Wine & Good Spirits." Additionally, new floors, new shelving, new "color schemes" and lots of tax dollars.
- The PLCB paid $4,499,117 in workers' compensation claims last year.
There's plenty more in the report, but it all reiterates the one common thread: The government can't run a business better than the private sector. The PLCB cannot—and should not—be tasked with regulating and maximizing returns of the same industry.
In trying to persuade states to expand Medicaid, Obamacare advocates are using enough scare tactics to fill a haunted house. From threatening to discontinue Gross Receipt taxes to forcing states to pay more hospital bills, the federal government's created no shortage of Bogey men.
But the biggest scare tactic of all, right up there with those creepy masked chainsaw guys, is the claim that if Pennsylvania doesn't expand Medicaid, residents' tax dollars will go to fund Medicaid expansions in other states. But this is based on a misunderstanding of how Medicaid expansion works.
Under Obamacare, the federal government will cover the entire cost of a state's Medicaid expansion for three years and then gradually reduce the match to 90 percent by 2020—though President Obama has already proposed reducing that matching rate, twice.
When a state opts-in it will not receive additional expansion dollars from opt-out states. New York, for example, will not get more money if Pennsylvania’s expansion waiver is denied.
Rather, when a state opts-out of Medicaid expansion, the entire cost of the Affordable Care Act shrinks. In contrast, when a state chooses to expand Medicaid, it increases future federal spending. Granted, that spending increase would be spread across all 50 states—but should Pennsylvania expand it will hit Pennsylvania residents with higher federal deficits and future taxes, now that's scary.
All together, the 25 states, including Pennsylvania, that are not expanding at this time would save taxpayers about $481 billion over ten years in federal deficit spending. That’s five times the sequester cuts!
States should jump at the chance to force some fiscal responsibility on D.C.
Don't be spooked by Obamacare myths, read our Medicaid Expansion Myths and Facts.
RELATED : WELFARE, HEALTH CARE, MEDICAID
Rep. Vanessa Brown (D-Phila.) knows what it's like to lose a good school teacher. For her son, it was nearly a matter of life and death.
For years, Brown has had to fight for a good education for her son, who has special needs. Learning was always a struggle—until the second grade. Then one day he came home and told his surprised mother that he loved school.
The reason? Mr. Hammond. The dynamic new teacher was creative, and knew how to connect with Brown’s son. In one year the boy moved up three grades.
By the time Brown’s son reached ninth grade, massive teacher layoffs began in Philadelphia city schools. Mr. Hammond was laid off simply because he was young and didn't have enough seniority to keep his job according to teacher union rules and state law. His excellent results with students like Brown’s son didn't even come into play.
The older teacher who replaced Mr. Hammond, according to Brown, interpreted every learning obstacle that the boy had as a disciplinary problem. The teacher often consigned him to a corner of the classroom with a laptop and instructions to work through modules on his own.
Brown’s son grew frustrated, and started acting out. Without Mr. Hammond to advocate for him, he didn't even get the accommodations he needed to take the SAT, and so failed the test. He missed out on an opportunity to go to college, and that was the beginning of a "long, dark" depression, Brown says.
She calls it the lost year.
Were it not for Brown watching her son, thoughts of suicide might have overwhelmed him. Brown has seen how a good teacher can turn around a child's life. That's why she's co-sponsoring HB 1722, which would retain teachers in the classroom based on their performance, not on how young they are or how little time they've served.
Rep. Brown is not alone in her experience. She just happens to be a legislator who’s gone through what many families and teachers have endured. Just ask Dominique, who took a job at one of Philadelphia’s most challenging turnaround high schools, only to see her young colleagues—including one who had won a city distinguished teaching award—laid off. Or parent Nina Liou, who saw a great teacher bumped from her children’s school.
As Philadelphia schools sink under a longstanding budget battle, the district must find ways to provide a quality education. Seniority rules to the exclusion of performance hurt good teachers, and they especially hurt children like Brown’s son. No more Pennsylvania children should lose the life-changing teachers they need.
RELATED : EDUCATION
Public safety improved in Washington state after liquor store privatization, we told you back in July. As further data comes in, the results continue to impress: Most state alcohol-related arrests continue to decline. DUI collisions and charges for “minor in possession” both improved following privatization.
But what about preventing sales to minors? Pennsylvanians have heard the UFCW claim they can do it better than the private sector, though state police don't peform sting operations in PLCB stores. Here's how they've fared in Washington:
Judging from the first year of data, the private sector has stepped up to this challenge. According to the WSLCB’s “Compliance Rates for Retailers Since 2012,” those private sector stores with at least 10,000 square feet (as required by Initiative 1183) or former state contract stores have averaged just over a 92 percent compliance rate. The most recent check for August 2013 showed a compliance rate of nearly 94 percent. These numbers do not show a significant drop in compliance rates with private liquor sales.
Using data from the Washington State Patrol, the Washington Policy Center has found that the improving trends of alcohol-related arrests in their state were not reversed, to the consternation of privatization opponents who claimed otherwise.
State control wasn’t keeping Washington residents safer. And now residents are enjoying improved public safety reports, in addition to increased sales and tax revenue, thanks to ending their government alcohol monopoly.
RELATED : PRIVATIZATION, LIQUOR STORE PRIVATIZATION
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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.