Of Earmarks and WAMs
Let's Make a Deal

Friday Happy Hour: The WikiLeaks Version


Most of the material in this week’s memo comes to you courtesy of WikiLeaks, who dominated the news cycles this week by releasing what turned out to be the State Department equivalent of the time when you passed a love note to your junior high sweetheart, and the teacher intercepted it and read it in front of the whole class.  That is to say, the big data dump may have embarrassed some folks, but the world didn’t stop spinning. 

President Barack Obama this week made headlines by announcing a federal employee pay freeze for the next two years.  The practical effect of this move is that it placated his enemies for about six seconds, while infuriating his base for the next two years.  Think Bill Clinton doing welfare reform.   

Also dominating the national headlines this week was the upcoming vote (happening as you read this) on the bipartisan fiscal commission’s report on how to make the deficit go bye-bye.  We could bore you into a coma with the details, but suffice to say that The Washington Post’s inimitable Ezra Klein did a nice wrap up on it, which you can read here should you run out of Lunesta. 

And it looks like Christmas/Chanukah/Festivus has indeed come early for 86,000 Pennsylvanians who won’t be seeing anymore unemployment benefits, thanks to Congressional inaction.  NOTE: To be fair, Chanukah did, in fact come early this year.  Thanks, y’all, we were stuffed from Thanksgiving dinner anyway.  No need for any food in December. 

Pharmaceutical distributing behemoth Express Scripts this week also jumped on the Scrooge bandwagon and announced it would close two Bensalem facilities and lay off almost 1,000 people, despite being wildly profitable in recent years.  The reason?  It wanted $8.8 million in labor concessions, and the union only offered a meager $8 million. For the uninformed, the state has, as recently as 2009, come to the table with significant financial help for Express Scripts for the express (no pun intended) purpose of keeping them in Bucks County.  We are sure there are some unhappy elected officials in Bucks County today.

Governor Ed Rendell continues to be a very busy lame duck, as he whipped out his veto pen this week and deep-sixed the Castle Doctrine bill (please contain your shock.)  Expect the issue to come back early next year, when a much more sympathetic governor occupies the big chair. 

Hey, remember earlier this year when Rendell announced a Special Session on Transportation Funding?  Yeah, neither do we, perhaps because as Special Sessions go, this one was kind of less than productive.  Not one new law was passed, which to be fair, qualifies as being hugely successful in the eyes of some government watchdogs.   

All was not lost on that front, however, as it looks like Pittsburgh’s Port Authority will escape the Transit Cuts of Doom at least for this year.  Rendell announced yesterday that he had “found” $45 million in new transit funding from federal money that had gone unspent.  Or, it may have been under the cushions of his couch.  Either way, this move buys some time until the next wildly successful Special Session.

Auditor General Jack Wagner spent the week dominating the headlines.  He began by reiterating his call for a moratorium on new charter schools in Pennsylvania, comparing the current funding system to a leaky home.  Or a misfiring sparkplug, or burnt toast or something or another.  Do not expect too many of the General Assembly’s school choice advocates to jump on this particular school bus.   

Wagner then made the bold, controversial move of telling Governor Rendell to, ahem, look elsewhere for approval on $1 billion in debt that Rendell says in necessary to finish capital projects both inside and outside of government.  Wagner says a billion clams is too steep, and he is not signing off, dang-nabbit.  Wagner and Rendell have gotten along so famously lately, we were shocked by the move.  In other news, the Hatfields still really dislike the McCoys. 

Another issue prime for a re-run in 2011 will be the so-called “sprinkler mandate”, which requires all new residential construction to have sprinkler systems.  There was a last-gasp attempt by builders’ groups to place a one year moratorium on the mandate, but it ran out of time during sine die session.  Next year, look for the builders to again square off against emergency responders (otherwise known as the people who run into a fire as you are running away from it.).  That’s a fair fight, sure.

Whatever municipal pension reform ends up looking like may come too late for the City of Pittsburgh, which has until January 1stto fund its pension liabilities by at least 50%.  For perspective, that pension fund currently has three pairs of old sweat socks and a rotting eggplant in it.   City Council and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, you’ll recall, are still at odds over the mayor’s plan to lease the parking authority to help inject the needed cash. 

Late this week however, Ravenstahl signaled that he could, theoretically, save the pension fund from state takeover by using the city’s fund balance.  This would be nothing more than a stopgap measure, however, as everyone knows that using your savings to pay for an operating cost is a great way to find yourself in a heap of trouble, with sweat socks and a rotting eggplant in your savings account.

Looking across the Delaware to our dysfunctional pals in New Jersey (you know, the fiscal miracle workers to whom we should all aspire to be), and we find this week that the City of Camden is about to go ace-deuce if it doesn’t lay off half of its police force and a third of its firefighters.  Fewer cops in Camden?  Sure, what could possible go wrong there? 

You know who is gonna be holding the smelly end of the plunger if lawmakers privatize liquor sales in the Commonwealth?  That would be the company who manufactures those nifty wine kiosks that are popping up in grocery stores (and soon, Wal-Marts) everywhere.  You gotta hand it to the company though. It was a snazzy idea while it lasted.

An Administrative Law Judge this week ruled that a private pipeline company is not, in fact, a public utility, and therefore should not be able to fall under Public Utility Commission jurisdiction and, more importantly to the company, avail itself of eminent domain to locate pipelines.  In any case, it is not often you see a company formally ask for the government to regulate it.  That kinda stuff would give a Tea Partier hives.  

And finally, here is a reminder about Megabus, which is now serving a whole bunch more routes in and out of Harrisburg for a buck.  Yes; ten thin dimes gets you from here (where we are) to Philly (where many of you are.)  The only problem is that Megabus looks nothing like the Mammoth Car from Speed Racer.   Or the Melange, for that matter.


That’s all from Harrisburg, where the Corbett Transition Team keeps on transitioning, with some help from Triad’s own Mike Acker, who this week was named Chairman of the Labor and Workforce Development Transition Team.  We’ll be back next week with more echoes, silence, patience and grace from your state capitol.  In the meantime, do your Facebook pals a favor and suggest Triad’s page to them.  You’ll be the hit of your next holiday party.  And as always, follow us on Twitter and you’ll be the first to know.  Well, the second, anyway.

From all your friends at Triad, have a great weekend!


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Thanks for the clarification, Bram. And judging by the level of venom between all the parties thus far, it looks like the City Council elections have already begun!

Cheers, and thanks again for reading!

Bram R

Ravenstahl's idea to tap his City's fund balance is not offered to save the pension fund from a takeover -- as you might imagine we don't nearly have a $220 million fund balance. It is merely intended to temporarily ease the burden of that state takeover when it causes scheduled payments to skyrocket.

Politicians here are settling grudgingly in to wargaming the coming takeover, figuring out how to blame the opposing, intransigent faction for the horrendous consequences. In terms of new solutions, the closest we've seen is this http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10336/1107616-53.stm from Council President Darlene Harris, and it is not yet generating much enthusiastic support.

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