Limited Government, Unlimited Opportunity

Remarks from Matthew J. Brouillette’s unveiling of the Commonwealth Foundation’s “Unlimited Opportunity Blueprint” at the Tuesday Club’s Breakfast Lyceum on January 11, 2005.

For seventeen years, the Commonwealth Foundation has been “Liberty’s Lobbyist” in the Pennsylvania Capitol.

We’ve been the organization, asking Governors and members of the House and Senate—Republicans and Democrats alike—to view the policies they advocate and the laws they write in the context of a single, grand and overarching principle—that Liberty still works.

But what do I mean by Liberty?

Well, this is how Thomas Jefferson defined it in his first inaugural address. He said:

“…a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government….”

That 19th century definition of Liberty, we believe, still works in 2005.

In concrete, practical ways, the ideal of Liberty makes as much sense for kids trapped in failing inner-city schools as it does for struggling small businesses on Main Streets all over Pennsylvania.

The Commonwealth Foundation has argued for this principle on the opinion pages and airwaves across Pennsylvania. Anywhere that citizens and elected leaders are debating and discussing the deep challenges facing our state, we’re right there—asking decision-makers to view the problem and the prescribed remedy through the clear lens of a tried and true principle—that Liberty still works.

But some, even many, in the public arena have already decided that Liberty just isn’t practical. Or more precisely, that the Jeffersonian definition and its implications of Liberty can’t really work in the complex political realities of 21st century government.

Our response to this notion that “Liberty” is great for marble monuments and history books—but impractical for solving problems—is right here in Pennsylvania.

Every now and then, a governor or legislative leader will decide to embrace a public policy solution grounded in the solid principle of Liberty. Once in a while we spend “political capital” in Pennsylvania on ideas that really make a difference for working families, job creators, and kids in the classroom.

For example, in 2001 we were proud partners in a coalition that stood with courageous leaders in the Senate and House—from both parties—to send out a lifeboat to kids falling behind and falling through the cracks inside some public schools.

Respectfully, the critics were wrong. And today, more than 20,000 children have been given an overdue chance to learn because their parents were given the ability to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.

That’s why I’m so pleased to have Kirk Hallett—an educator and founder of Harrisburg’s Nativity School—with us here this morning. Kirk is joined by 13-year old Jamel, an 8th grade student at Nativity, who received special permission to join us for breakfast.

Thanks to the passage of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit in 2001, Kirk and a dedicated group of people opened the schoolhouse doors to children in need of a public school alternative.

Today, that program has 28 kids who every day, defy the odds and challenge the statistics in math, reading and science. They’re also getting their daily recommendation of values and character development.

Kirk, your school is proof that—even in places where hope isn’t always obvious—Liberty still works.

But school choice isn’t the only place where a sound, principled approach has worked in Pennsylvania. Throughout last year—under the leadership of Gov. Rendell—state government utilized the power of the competitive marketplace to get a better deal for taxpayers.

That means contracts for thousands of desktop computers, cases of pens and paper—even asphalt—now go to a vendor that offers the best price for taxpayers. By endorsing this approach, in one area of government, Gov. Rendell is saying—Liberty still works.

Now, at this point you might think my assessment of things political is a bit too optimistic for someone from the Commonwealth Foundation. And I don’t mean to inspire false hope for anyone wanting the unvarnished truth about the current state of affairs in Pennsylvania.

In fact, I’ve blazed through some noteworthy successes only to encourage the people who invest entire lives and careers in public service to do more—to consider what might happen if we gave Liberty a real fighting chance on the floor of the House or Senate every day.

You see, we know that the big picture of our commonwealth is not all that pretty. The rest of the story is a sad one. It stares back at us in the rusted-out warehouses, the abandoned steel mills, and the struggling coal towns dotting Pennsylvania.

The story is written in cold black ink on pink slips for thousands of workers—jobs outsourced—or as I like to say, outFORCED—to a right-to-work state or foreign country.

I think that sometimes the drumbeat of statistics masks the fact that these are real people—our neighbors with mortgages and doctor bills, car repairs needs and tuition payments.

In our own back yard here, Hershey chocolate factory workers are losing their jobs to more competitive Virginia. And hundreds of workers at the Pennsylvania House furniture factory—just down the road in Lewistown—recently watched their jobs head out the door to China. And the list goes on.

Our diagnosis of Pennsylvania is a flashing red light in hospital emergency rooms understaffed because lawsuit abuse has sent first-rate specialists to North Carolina or the sunny California coast. And the same abuse by trial lawyers is shutting down family businesses—unable to keep pace with a legal system that gives lottery-sized rewards to professional plaintiffs. This is money taken directly from the sweat equity of risk-taking and job-providing entrepreneurs and businessmen.

But it wasn’t always like this—was it? Remember, Pennsylvania was once the home state of the Carnegies and the Fricks, the Mellons and the Wanamakers. Pennsylvania was America’s original enterprise zone—the destination point for an all-star cast of business and industry titans.

It was the workhorse engine of a national economy. A place where innovation and top competitors were homegrown, NOT recruited by a team of state government headhunters and economic development bureaucrats.

Today, key indicators place our commonwealth at the bottom in economic freedom and financial prosperity—45th in the nation, to be precise. Politically driven proposals—not Liberty-inspired policy initiatives—dominate campaigns and the legislative debate. A record-setting tax burden, the highest level of government spending, and a bevy of regulations that hamstring our ability to compete.

This is a Pennsylvania whose gears have been brought to a gasping, grinding halt. This is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2005. It is our present reality—but I believe, it does not have to be our future!

You see, we are here this morning with different stripes and convictions, politically and ideologically—yet each of us wants to help bring Pennsylvania back. Instead of mourning Pennsylvania Past, I know we all share a hope for what the Governor calls a “New Pennsylvania.” A Pennsylvania better than what we’ve lost, a magnet for the next generation of pioneering risk-takers and job creators.

That’s why I’m so pleased to highlight a few items from the Commonwealth Foundation’s Unlimited Opportunity Blueprint. With a legislature now gaveled-in for a new term, we believe our elected officials in the Capitol can confront Goliath-sized problems without taking one more inch of personal Liberty and economic freedom.

Briefly, here is what we propose.

First, if our shared vision for a “New Pennsylvania” is to become our future, we must begin where it matters most—at home—with stronger families and communities.

In the coming legislative session we’ll be standing with lawmakers who believe that zip codes or family income should have nothing to do with the kind of school your children get to attend. It’s time to expand Liberty for moms and dads—giving them the freedom to choose the safest and best schools for their kids.

The tired, industrial-age concept of a one-size-fits-all school system should be permanently retired. It’s time to invent the 21st century model of education—one that puts parents and kids ahead of special interest group agendas.

On the healthcare front, our Unlimited Opportunity Blueprint calls for a healthcare system that meets the changing needs of workers and families while recognizing the financial challenges facing employers and taxpayers.

This year, the Commonwealth Foundation implemented a significant change to the healthcare plans for our own employees. By switching from a traditional plan to employee-owned Health Savings Accounts, we give our employees’ families greater control over healthcare decisions and retirement planning.

Portability, more choices, and greater control means expanded freedom for our employees while giving our organization the ability to begin to manage out-of-control healthcare costs. We believe its time to give every Pennsylvania worker the chance to take charge of their own healthcare and help job-providers rein in costs. We look forward to working with our legislative friends to make the creation of Pennsylvania Healthcare Savings Accounts a signature accomplishment of this next session.

But reforming our schools and improving healthcare doesn’t complete the job of making Pennsylvania fully competitive. We must do more.

In addition to shutting down ineffective corporate welfare programs, and ending junk lawsuits, our Unlimited Opportunity Blueprint calls for new accountability for state government tax and spending power.

New checks and balances that put taxpayers first—similar to ones successfully implemented in other states like Colorado. We propose a common-sense “Spending and Tax Accountability” measure. We say, empower citizens—those very same people whose paychecks pay for government—and give them the ballot box power to approve or disapprove state spending and tax increases that exceed the rate of inflation and population growth. It’s a simple idea: Government can only grow when Pennsylvanians prosper.

Lower taxes and restrained spending—that’s a formula for a Pennsylvania comeback.

A few years ago I met Bill Brightman—one of the founders of H2O-to-GO. Bill is here with us this morning. Now, you may not recognize his company’s name, but you know who they are. His company puts those water-purification systems in your local grocery stores so you can fill up your drinking water jugs.

Bill started his business on a shoestring budget a few years ago—giving up a well-paying job with a Fortune 500 company. Why? Because he believed in the American Dream.

Bill is hard-charging, entrepreneurial—in every sense a risk taker. He’s ready to expand, buy more equipment, hire more employees—but only if government would just get out of his way.

Pick a name, of any business—big or small—from virtually any section in the Yellow Pages. And you’ll find that Bill Brightman isn’t alone. His story’s pretty typical.

Bill and thousands of other job-providers have navigated the growing maze of red tape, paid the tax increases, complied with the decrees of the Alphabet Soup of regulatory agencies. They’ve done their part. NOW it’s time to create a state that lets long-suffering innovators like Bill Brightman do there work—without the fear that government is just going to take another bite out of his bottom line.

That’s why our Unlimited Opportunity Blueprint details a plan to phase out and eliminate outmoded and oppressive regulations. It’s why we advocate a new legal protection for small businesses—a law that would prohibit state and local governments from competing against private-sector enterprises.

And it’s why we’re calling on legislators to honor a commitment to get rid of what everyone recognizes as the “job crushing” Capitol Stock and Franchise Tax—an unfair tax that screams to potentially new employers: “Pennsylvania: Closed for Business.”

We know what Pennsylvania can do. We’ve seen it before. We know the spirit of the people of this great commonwealth is just waiting to be stirred once again.

We know that Pennsylvanians—even with a little less Liberty every year—are still generous and compassionate. We see it in places like the Bethesda Mission, here in Harrisburg. Its executive director, Bryan Yesilonis, is here with us this morning.

For 91 years now, Bethesda’s been giving a warm, safe, welcoming haven for men and women—people often at a point of great personal crisis and loss in their lives. Brian and his staff will serve more than 100,000 hot meals this year, along with clothes, mentoring, and—most important—hope for a better tomorrow.

That’s Pennsylvania—with all its challenges and opportunities.

But feeding the homeless, starting a business, providing jobs, and giving children real educational opportunities are all threatened today because NONE of these things can come from a people whose Liberty is not cherished and protected.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we are hardly an oppressed country. I wouldn’t trade our government for any other government in the world. But just ask yourself: Is Liberty expanding or contracting in Pennsylvania? I think if you answer honestly, we have much to be concerned about.

That’s why we are so stubborn in our defense and promotion of limited government, economic freedom and personal responsibility. We believe opportunities will become unlimited if our commonwealth rediscovers that Liberty works! We must shelve the notion that government can artificially replace a free and civil society. It simply can’t.

So while we will never sugarcoat the very real and deep challenges facing us in Pennsylvania, I believe that we can re-chart Pennsylvania’s course. In fact, I’m convinced of that!

We at the Commonwealth Foundation are standing by—ready to make Pennsylvania a powerhouse once again. We are eager to help our elected officials make a lasting difference—and a better future.

Together, with Liberty as our guide, we can create even greater educational opportunities for Jamel. We can allow Bill to create even more jobs. And we can help Brian rescue more people from drug addiction and homelessness. But it will require a re-commitment—a re-dedication—to Liberty as the highest political end. Only then will we be able to write the next chapter of Pennsylvania’s success story.

Thanks for listening.

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The “Unlimited Opportunity Blueprint” is available here in PDF.