Legislative Leaders Set Clear, Decisive Agenda

Next session, Republicans in the House and Senate will hold a majority margin over the Democrats not seen since the Eisenhower years. The overarching theme for their legislative agenda could likewise hail from a less complicated time: hold the line on taxes and government spending, and drive the economy forward.

In a post-election statement, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said, “Voters across Pennsylvania elected the largest GOP Senate majority in seven decades, sending the clear message that they want us to put taxpayers first and control government spending. Our new members will be key players in heeding that call.”

President of the Senate Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), and Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) released similar statements that state government must be restrained.

We will see whether Governor Tom Wolf is at all chastened by these new circumstances when he presents his fiscal year 2017-18 spending plan to the General Assembly in February. If he again presents a budget to grow government and increase Harrisburg’s bite on taxpayers’ wallets, the Republicans could gain even more political capital by holding to their post-election day statements.

Look no further than what happened to Democratic officeholders under President Barack Obama. The more Congress resisted his progressive agenda, the more the president flouted the constitutional limits of his office and relied on executive orders and regulation pile-on through his federal agencies. His approach was one of get-with-his-agenda or get out of the way; any show of compromise was merely that - a show for public consumption.  

The Democrats’ erosion began in 2010, when Republicans took the U.S. House by winning 63 seats, the biggest pickup since 1948. The GOP also took six seats the U.S. Senate. In 2014, Republicans gained another 13 U.S. House seats and took control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats lost more than 900 state legislative seats in this period.

In this past General Election, the Republicans also picked up more governorships, including Vermont, and gained more power in state legislatures from Kentucky to Connecticut to here in Pennsylvania.

Voters showed their discontent with sluggish economic growth, flat wage growth, and government officials who were more enthusiastic about new taxes and regulations than new jobs. Energy independence and a pro-production energy agenda received a mandate all across America.

“Pennsylvania manufacturers rely on Marcellus Shale natural gas for fuel and also as the building blocks for hundreds of products,” said PMA President David N. Taylor. “The Shell cracker plant coming online in Beaver County is testament to that, and the right policy approach by state government can help bring forth a petrochemical manufacturing industry that will generate thousands of jobs and billions in wealth all across Pennsylvania.”

In the General Assembly, Senate Republican caucus has a veto proof majority of 34 members, while the House Republican caucus has 122 members, just 12 votes short of a super majority.

Those rank-and-file members will hold leadership to their pledge of resisting Wolf’s spending agenda, or they’ll face an electorate that is in no mood for excuses.

“There will be a lot more pressure from the caucus for the leadership not to make deals with the administration,” said G. Terry Madonna, Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

Unfortunately, the bureaucrat unions still have pull inside the majority caucus, which has delayed consequential reforms to address Pennsylvania’s public pension crisis.

“The veto proof margin in the House is now 134 but they would probably need 144 Republicans to ensure they have an actual veto proof number,” said one long time political observer, referring to the members who take a walk from the caucus on bills opposed by the public-sector unions.

Still, the pressure on leadership from the bottom up will be substantial. Wayne Langerholc Jr., the Republican who won the race in the 35th Senate District (which includes all of Cambria, Bedford and part of Clearfield Counties), said that the anti-Wolf and anti-Harrisburg sentiments were palpable.

“We had different issues in each county, but jobs and taxes and just anti-Harrisburg were the biggest drivers in all three,” Langerholc said.

And in Philadelphia, Republican Martina White, who first won the 170th House seat in far Northeast Philadelphia in a special election in March 2015, and won again last Tuesday, said the voters were most concerned about job losses, and were frustrated with Harrisburg.  

“Voters were incensed over the budget impasse that held up school funding but they also understood it was because we were holding out against higher taxes,” she said. “There was a huge sense of relief when the budget went through and schools were funded without the new taxes.”

In the end, the insider game in Washington and Harrisburg only energized the voters even more. They didn’t believe the phony, glowing job numbers out of Washington reported just weeks before the election; they saw for themselves that high paying jobs were disappearing under avalanche of taxes, regulations, and unfair trade practices.

Erie County, for example, with its 3-2 Democratic voter registration lead, went for a Republican president for the first time since 1988. County GOP chairman Verel Salmon said it was all about jobs.

“This year GE (locomotive) laid off 1500 and the fear around here is that the jobs are never coming back,” Salmon said. “That’s why even a lot of union members voted Republican.”

Similarly, the traditional Democratic counties of Luzerne and Northampton went for the GOP.

Voters also didn’t buy the insider game of destroying jobs to fit a political agenda of remaking the economy from the top down. One statement from Hillary Clinton all the way back in March 2015 may have put Pennsylvania over the top for the Republicans.  At a CNN Town Hall Clinton said she planned to “put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”

In coal country Pennsylvania, the numbers for the Republicans were off the charts. Greene County, for example, which went 58 percent to 40 percent in favor of Romney in 2012 went 69 percent to 27 percent for Trump. Fayette County went for Romney by eight points in 2012; Trump took the county by 30.

The challenge for the Republicans will be enormous. Budget experts estimate the state will be $2 billion to $3 billion in the red come the end of the 2016-17 fiscal year on June 30. But the challenges also represent opportunities to cut spending, and raise revenues by selling off assets that should be in the private domain.

From liquor privatization, to 401k management, to consolidation of government services, as Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York) has been proclaiming, “We need to turn over every rock before we can even begin to think about raising taxes.” He concluded his thoughts by saying, “We simply aren’t turning many rocks over right now, but that will change.”

Please view this latest episode of “PMA Perspective” as we break down the 2016 General Election and cover all the important PA General Assembly races. Guests include: Dr. Kyle Kopko of Elizabethtown College and Chris Nicholas of Eagle Consulting Group, Inc.