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Blue Pennsylvania: Holiday Newsletter - 2023

This letter is a little bit longer than usual because it covers an end of the year wrap-up, a look at what the new year brings, and how we can prepare for 2024. 

What we have accomplishedJust as a reminder, in 2022, Democrats captured a one seat majority in Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation, and, as an historic first, the Commonwealth had two Democrats seated at the same time in the U.S. Senate.  We also claimed a one seat advantage in the Pennsylvania House, and we are now within three Democratic wins of splitting the state senate 25 Democrats to 25 Republicans, with the current Democratic Lieutenant Governor being the deciding vote. 

 

2022 was a hard act to follow, but in this November's election, Democrats won races up and down the ballot.  They won all of the state appellate court seats – from the Superior and Commonwealth Courts, all the way to the Supreme Court.And in the school board races that Blue Pennsylvania worked on – Central Bucks, Perkiomen Valley, and Pennridge – all of the Democratic challengers shut out the Republicans – even the incumbents.

 

In leading up to the November election, Blue Pennsylvania hosted two pro-Democracy events – an April online event entitled “Defend Student’s Rights”, as well as an August event with pizza at the Salem Church in Doylestown entitled “A Slice of Democracy”. Blue Pennsylvania volunteers canvassed, phone banked, and addressed envelopes for candidates running at every level of the ballot in both Bucks and Montgomery counties.New Years Challenges

The new year affords us an excellent opportunity to keep two Democrats from Pennsylvania in the US senate, while delivering a few extra seats in Congress to Democratic candidates.  There is a possibility in 2024 of picking up three crucial state senate seats, although those chances improve in 2026.  In the commonwealth’s row office races, the state Democratic Party has endorsed Malcolm Kenyatta for Auditor General and Ryan Bizarro for Treasurer – two young legislators who will no doubt bring a new vibrancy to these rather stolid positions.

 

But a Blue Pennsylvania is a lot more than who holds public office.  It is also the laws that are passed and the way that money is spent, and the tone that the state’s government sets.  To those ends, it is important to consider how our elected officials – whether Democrats or Republicans – handle their governmental duties.  The following sections describe some of the issues that we will be watching.

 

Privatization of Public Schools

Our Democratic legislators could learn a lesson or two from some of those  newly elected school board members who have begun rectifying the oppressive conditions established by their predecessors.

 

Earlier this month, the General Assembly finalized legislation detailing how money in the most recent state budget was to be distributed.  This budget included a $130 million increase in educational tax credits– a type of school voucher program supported largely by Republicans.  School vouchers are scholarships to private and religious schools, supported by either government dollars or cuts in government programs.  In Pennsylvania, schools receiving this money have very few reporting requirements to the state. 

 

The largest sacrifice made in the state budget to accommodate the tax credit increase was the elimination of all Level Up funding this year, which would have gone to bolster the 100 most underfunded school districts in the state; which is rather ironic, given Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s ruling earlier this year that the state must address its underfunding of public education.  Did legislators and the governor confuse the word “private” for “public”? 

 

And although these private schools share little information with the state, their websites reveal a disturbing pattern of discrimination, as this compilation of remarks, made by some of the schools reveals.  (Document compiled by Education Voters).

 

Water & SewerPrivatization Is not only a problem in education.  Many municipalities around the state have become victimized by Act 12, a piece of legislation passed in 2016 that makes it easier for private companies to purchase water and sewer systems from local governments.  Many local governments – both Democratic and Republican – have viewed such private takeovers as a way to obtain quick cash for their treasuries while eliminating the burden of repairing deteriorating infrastructures.  One of the major reasons why this issue has become so prominent is that, since 1977, federal funding for municipal water systems has plummeted 77%.  The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 addresses this issue, but only partially.

 

The problem is that water companies have raised rates far more steeply than their public counterparts, assuring investors a profitable return.  Local governments can also borrow money cheaper than private companies, thereby minimizing rate increases.

 

Ideally, Act 12 should be repealed, but there are a number of Democratic sponsored bills (HB1862, HB1863, HB1864, HB1865) currently making their way through Pennsylvania’s house that would greatly mitigate the pressure on many of the communities impacted by the law.  

 

Crime

One of the last actions that the Republican dominated Pennsylvania House performed before relinquishing control to the victorious Democrats in 2022 was to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney, Larry Krasner.  The main reason they gave for his impeachment was the high homicide rate in the city.

 

This year, the homicide rate in Philadelphia is down by 20%, yet no PA house member is crediting the Philly DA for the decrease.  Instead, the house voted recently to take some of Krasner’s powers away from him, supposedly in a trade with Republicans to increase the childcare tax credit this year.

 

Although the constitutionality of this vote is questionable and the law may never see the light of day, the message that it sends to Philadelphia voters is that their ballots do not count.  And as Mt. Carmel native, and current Philadelphia resident Mike Carroll writes in his hometown paper, voting against the interests of a jurisdiction other than one’s own can lead to unpleasant consequences for everyone.

 

And there is the sheer hypocrisy of placing the blame for gun deaths on Krasner, when research shows that rigorous gun legislation – the type that Pennsylvania fails to enact – does save lives.

 

EnvironmentAbout a third of Pennsylvania’s drinking water systems exceed the EPA limits for ‘forever Chemicals’, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have been linked to liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility issues, and cancer, and do not degrade easily in the environment. 

 

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently found 27,886 miles of streams to be environmentally impaired to the point of harming either wildlife, recreation, or drinking water.  Plus, the commonwealth ranks 39th out of the 50 states and Washington, DC in the quality of its air, and ranks 7th out of the 50 states in the production of greenhouse gasses in the country.

 

In January, the DEP released a report detailing how the state’s oil and gas operators abandoned more than 3,000 wells - the most of any reporting period - without properly plugging them, thereby releasing methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

 

One way to address all of these important issues is to bolster the budget of the DEP, which has seen drastic personnel cuts over the past two decades. 

 


2002

2005

2007

2013

2015

2022

% Reduc-tion

Oil and gas program





226

167

-26%

Air quality program


349




250

-28%

Water program



778



650

-16%

Hazardous sites cleanup program




245


209

-15%









All Positions for DEP (previous line items plus others)

3,211





2,337

-27%

 

While the number of key positions in the state’s environmental offices has declined, the amount of work assigned to these agencies has skyrocketed.  In the early 2000’s, Pennsylvania’s natural gas production stood at around 150 billion cubic feet.  Today, that number is about 7 ½ trillion cubic feet.

 

 

The recent state budget includes nearly 11% more funding over last year’s budget for the DEP.  The money will go primarily to issuing permits and administrative work, which would hardly make a dent in addressing those environmental problems listed above.

Next Steps?

First, enjoy the new year.  We start in earnest at the end of January, with petitions for political candidates beginning on Tuesday, January 23, 2024.  

Meanwhile, build up your knowledge by reading, listening to, watching, and discussing the news with friends and family – but don’t get overly elated or despondent over every story or poll or opinion piece you come across.  Life and politics are often much more complicated than the forecasts of such reports.

Certainly, voters are interested with the top of the ballot, where our biggest challenge will be convincing folks who depend on social media and word of mouth for their news, that the economy is actually doing quite well, while, at the same time, the government has been acting quite responsibly on the issues of climate change and economic inequality.

 

And remember, every race up and down the ballot is important.  An enlightened Congress can either bolster a good President or stymie a bad one.

We will therefore provide ample opportunities, not only for you to help get the good folks elected, but to make sure that good policies get enacted.  Let’s make 2024 more than just about overcoming evil.  Let’s make it the start of the path to a cleaner, healthier, and more socially and economically just state.

 

Happy 2024!!!

Coleman

 

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