Op-Ed: Fostering Fairness in Pennsylvania’s Election Operations

An Op-Ed by Senator Lisa Baker (R-20) and Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-28)

“Elections shall be free and equal.”

That’s what Article I, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution declares.

That bedrock of democracy was obviously ignored with the recent discovery that millions of private dollars were directed to only a few of the Commonwealth’s counties for the stated purpose of helping to fund 2020 election operations.

A hearing held by the Senate Special Committee on Election Integrity earlier this year initially brought to light that, in addition to using taxpayer dollars, Philadelphia County received a private grant for the election. The grant was provided by the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). At the time, Philadelphia City Commissioners were unable to provide information on who funded this non-profit. This immediately raised a question about third party funding. There must be parameters and transparency surrounding each and every election.

After further examination, we learned that approximately $22 million came the Keystone State’s way from CTCL, which is in fact a Chicago, Illinois-based election reform advocacy group formed in 2012 – bankrolled, prior to the 2020 election, to the tune of more than $300 million by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. Zuckerberg is already under intense scrutiny for his failure to flag posts that represented a threat to democracy. This funding constitutes something more dangerous – a secretive effort to influence the outcome of an election.

Philadelphia, which had a $21 million elections operations budget for 2020, received $10 million of that $22 million, with nearly $8 million of the remaining money going to Philadelphia’s collar counties: Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. The other $3 million was scattered among at least 17 counties, though the six predominantly rural counties receiving funds got a combined total of less than $150,000. The rest of the state’s 67 counties got nothing.

Looking at those dollar amounts on a per-registered-voter basis, those rural counties, combined, averaged about 68 cents per registered voter while Philadelphia and its collar counties averaged $4.58 per registered voter.

This violates every common understanding of fairness, equity, and nonpartisanship in the conduct of elections. 

It’s also clear, based on emails sent from the Office of Governor Tom Wolf and from the Pennsylvania Department of State, several of the recipient counties – those more politically aligned with Democratic Governor Wolf’s administration, and where there are high concentrations of Democratic voters – were selectively alerted to the upcoming availability of this money and apparently aided in the process to secure the funding before the majority of county election officials knew about it.

Money distributed in such an inequitable manner creates the potential to influence who casts ballots, as well as how they are cast, collected, and counted.

The duty of overseeing election operations rests with our Commonwealth and each of our 67 counties. 

Private organizations are not held to the same standards or checks-and-balances as our counties and their election employees. Organizations like CTCL, and the others employed with the funds that were distributed, are certainly not accountable to Pennsylvania voters and taxpayers.

Outside groups, regardless of their motivations, cannot be afforded an opportunity to use their financial resources to influence election officials, policy, and procedures, during the conduct of election operations. 

While entities across the political spectrum can, and do, engage in constructive efforts to educate voters as provided for in our federal and state Constitutions, the process of carrying out an election should be funded entirely by the government, so there is no question about the motives behind the distribution and use of money.

In the near future, we will be introducing legislation in the Senate to prohibit outside groups from contributing to election operations.  The Constitution makes clear the conduct of free and fair elections is a core function of state government. To uphold this, we must ensure private funding does not influence or undermine any election at any level.

As Pennsylvania Begins its Slow Recovery from COVID-19, Small Businesses Must Be a Top Priority

By Senators Ryan P. Aument, Camera Bartolotta, Kristin Phillips-Hill and Judy Ward

As restaurants, bars, gyms, entertainment venues and other small employers look forward to higher capacity limits and fewer restrictions starting April 4, there is a sense of optimism that the worst of this year-long COVID-19 nightmare may finally be behind us. However, reality tells us these and other small businesses will take years – not just weeks or months – to fully recover from the extraordinary struggles of the past year.

Many of these businesses had to take out loans just to cover payroll and keep the lights on. Many others had to sell off property and equipment, while others still were forced to delay critical expansions and upgrades. The perfect storm of supply chain disruptions, mandated business closures, increased costs for PPE and cleaning supplies, strict capacity limits, and reduced revenue dealt a fatal blow to many employers forcing them to permanently close their doors, while others are holding on for dear life.

As we look forward to what the future holds for us in a post-COVID world, we must be mindful of how much our small employers have suffered, and how much time and effort they will need to get back in good financial shape. That is why we have introduced a package of bills designed to prioritize PA small businesses and ensure the employers who make up the lifeblood of our economy can not only survive, but thrive in the years ahead.

Our Prioritize PA Small Business package takes a three-pronged approach to solving the daunting problems facing employers: direct financial assistance, tax reform and regulatory relief. We are not only giving them the tools to deal with the immediate strain created by the pandemic, but also creating a roadmap for these employers to come back stronger than ever in the years ahead.

The package would:

  • Create new loan and tax credit programs to support employers affected by government restrictions during the pandemic.
  • Change state tax laws to help impacted businesses and level the playing field between small and large employers, while also providing parity with federal law.
  • Cut red tape and eliminate many of the regulatory burdens on small employers, while providing greater oversight of new regulations that could create financial strains on small businesses.

If we want to emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before, we need to make a concerted effort to create a favorable environment for business and job growth. That means taking bold steps like the bills in the Prioritize PA Small Business package to ensure these critical parts of our community remain open for business for generations to come.

People should have final say in COVID-19 pandemic response, and with Senate Bill 2, they will

Over the last 10 months, York Countians have inundated our offices with questions and concerns over unilateral decisions set by the governor.


During any crisis, communication, collaboration and transparency are key to provide clarity to avoid confusion.


In the early days of the pandemic, the governor unilaterally shut down many businesses – large and small – across all sectors, with few exceptions.


Businesses then had to submit a waiver to be granted permission by state bureaucrats to open their doors and provide their good or service.


According to a report by the former Auditor General, the business waiver process was “subjective” with “inconsistencies” and “puzzling decisions.”


This has been a key a theme throughout the pandemic.


One York County kitchen cabinet manufacturer was denied a business waiver to operate, while the business bearing the governor’s family name continued to operate. There was no rhyme or reason, and the shuttered cabinet manufacturer had no recourse.


Then the state’s top health official at the time saw fit to move her mother out of a care home, which raised eyebrows as the same state officials forced nursing homes across the state to accept new COVID-19 positive patients. Imagine family members with loved ones in nursing homes seeking assurances that their loved ones were safe. What was their recourse?


Over two million Pennsylvanians were laid off through no fault of their own and were forced to navigate an outdated unemployment compensation system they have paid into only to find themselves tangled in a bureaucratic web. The General Assembly authorized over $300 million to make upgrades to this system since 2013. When these workers needed the system the most, it failed them. What was their recourse?


The state-owned liquor stores were eventually able to offer curbside pick-up, yet our locally owned small business retailers were not afforded that same option. What was their recourse?


Locally owned garden centers were shut down throughout the spring, yet you could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbors at the large big box home improvement stores and buy the same products our small businesses offer. What was their recourse?


The governor would use late-afternoon press conferences to announce his unilateral decisions that went into effect within hours.


Now we are seeing teachers, first responders and police officers placed on a waiting list behind smokers to get their COVID-19 vaccine. What is their recourse?


Let me be abundantly clear: The people who are ordering these massive shutdowns and requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-19 positive patients have not missed a paycheck. They have dutifully signed the back of their paycheck every two weeks since March.


The majority of the members in the General Assembly want to give you the recourse.


Here is the one little known fact: the governor, the legislature and the courts cannot amend your constitution. Only you can.


If you believe the status quo is working, then you can express your opinion at the ballot box. However, should you believe there should be more collaboration, you can express your opinion at the ballot box. The key point is that you will make the ultimate decision.


We kept hearing the phrase: we are all in this together. This does not mean that we all blindly follow the orders of one individual. It requires collaboration, communication and transparency.


We are starting with collaboration and that is where you come in – Senate Bill 2 is a proposed constitutional amendment, which means no governor, court or legislature can stand in your way from exercising your rights to change your state constitution.


In order for your state constitution to be amended, the legislature must approve the same proposed constitutional amendment as a standalone bill in back-to-back legislative sessions.


The legislature approved this measure last session and again, at the start of this new legislative session.


In stating his opposition to the measure, the governor said, “So, now they are attempting to amend the Constitution to get their way.”


The people of Pennsylvania will finally get a front row seat in providing a referendum of sorts as to how this governor has handled this pandemic over the last 10 months, and how future emergencies should be handled – with or without the will of the duly elected state representatives and senators of the General Assembly.


No threat from the governor can stop the people of Pennsylvania from exercising their constitutional right to amend their own constitution.

Could a 20-year state contract sink efforts to close Pennsylvania’s digital divide?

In 2019, the Commonwealth entered into a 20-year contract with an Ohio-based company to help expand access to broadband in underserved areas of Pennsylvania. Although this contract was originally billed as a way to help deploy high-speed internet throughout the state, it now appears that this contract is more of an albatross weighing down our efforts to close the digital divide – while lining the pockets of out-of-state interests with money that rightly belongs to Pennsylvania taxpayers.


A heavily redacted 585-page contract spells out the terms between the Pennsylvania Department of General Services (DGS) and Agile Network Builders out of Canton, Ohio. Agile’s contract with the state allows them to solicit interest among broadband companies in state-owned properties, like the towers no longer in use by the State Police.


The problem is that most broadband providers do not see a large enough customer base to make these investments worthwhile. Instead of exploring other avenues to help rural communities, the Wolf Administration allowed Agile to shift its focus to marketing state-owned assets in more populated (and profitable) areas throughout the Commonwealth.


When we initially heard about this contract during a Senate Communications and Technology Committee public hearing on September 23, 2019, DGS Secretary Topper confirmed that the contract does not have specific wording to deploy broadband to areas in need.


At that hearing, we discovered that the state is estimated to gain $5 million per year through this contract, totaling up to $100 million throughout the 20-year contract. What is not known is exactly how much this Ohio-based firm is set to gain.


As the middleman in that process, Agile stands to gain potentially tens of millions of dollars on the deal without ever bringing high-speed access to a single home in rural Pennsylvania. How on earth would anyone ever think this contract was a good idea for the people of our Commonwealth?


More troubling is the fact that we were told that there were three bids on this contract, but after requesting more information, we have only seen one – Agile’s.


Forest County Commissioners recently voiced their frustrations about how the state is hindering efforts to deploy broadband to rural households. The Wolf Administration was seeking to charge the county upwards of $350 per month per pole in order to deploy broadband using a handful of abandoned State Police towers. That money would flow directly out of the pockets of local taxpayers, and directly to the state and potentially Agile.  


The exorbitant fees coupled with outdated regulations make it nearly impossible for Forest County to invest federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security (CARES) funding to deploy high-speed internet throughout the community by the end of the year, when the funding goes back to the state and likely disappears forever.


Forest County and York County are in a similar predicament. CARES funding for broadband deployment must be invested by the end of the year. Adding new hurdles and hoops from state agencies is counter-productive to a bipartisan effort to close the digital divide.


Furthermore, the contract is standing in the way of bipartisan efforts to allow electric cooperatives to utilize existing utility poles to place fiber-optic lines. Although we have legislation pending final consideration in the Senate to accomplish this goal (House Bill 2438), officials with the governor’s office and DGS are seeking a carveout for the state so these easements do not apply to state land – the same land Agile is marketing for profit.


Keep in mind that the state owns over 12 percent of all land in the Commonwealth, which is the fifth-highest percentage in the nation. Most of the state-owned land includes areas lacking access to high-speed internet and would benefit from House Bill 2438.


In fact, we believe legislation should be advanced to require any revenue raised from the Agile contract to go directly into a dedicated broadband deployment fund, as suggested in Senator Wayne Langerholc’s Senate Bill 835.


Our focus remains on ensuring our constituents can learn, work and receive critical services with the benefit of reliable high-speed internet, regardless of their ZIP code – not growing the profits of an out-of-state middleman.


Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill, a Republican from York County, chairs the Senate Communications and Technology Committee. Senator Scott Hutchinson, a Republican from Venango County, serves as the Vice Chair of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee.

State laws and rules should apply to everyone – including the governor

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sense of unity and hope that our state and our country could confront this crisis head-on and come out stronger in the end. Americans have always come together in our darkest hours and confronted our greatest challenges with a spirit of cooperation.

Before we are Republicans or Democrats, we are Americans – united under one flag. As a nation of laws, we are required to all live by the same standards.

We need leaders at all levels of government to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Unfortunately, we have seen something very different from state leaders in recent weeks.

At Governor Wolf’s news conferences – which until recently were not actually open to reporters – he has stressed his understanding of the hardships faced by employers and employees, since he was once a business owner.

He fails to mention that the cabinet-making business bearing his family’s name remained open during this pandemic. Meanwhile, another cabinet manufacturer in York County was deemed “non-life sustaining” and was denied a waiver from the Department of Community and Economic Development.

When out-of-work Pennsylvanians protested the governor’s shutdown orders in cities throughout the state, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Levine said these protesters pose a “public health risk.” The governor referred to those who defied his orders as “cowards” and “deserters.” However, the governor later stood shoulder-to-shoulder with protestors in a march through Harrisburg in what he admitted was a direct violation of his own orders.

Even as nursing homes have been devastated by this virus, accounting for two-thirds of all deaths statewide, universal testing at these facilities has now been delayed until July 24. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Health moved her mother out of a personal care facility at the outset of the pandemic to protect her from COVID-19, while mandating these facilities continue to accept residents who tested positive for the virus.

Governor Wolf has claimed that he is open to different approaches and working with lawmakers, but he has vetoed every attempt to open the state in accordance with federal guidance from the CDC.

Actions speak louder than words.

Meanwhile, ABC27 reported last week that 16 percent of Pennsylvanians seeking unemployment compensation are still without assistance. That means 350,000 of our fellow Pennsylvanians remain without a paycheck or unemployment compensation for more than three months. To add insult to injury, legislators received word from the Department of Labor and Industry this week to inform them that major problems with the Unemployment Compensation System and fraud related issues have presented major obstacles to resolving constituent issues and remedies won’t be in place for at least another three weeks.

It’s no wonder that Republicans and Democrats agree: the governor’s go-it-alone approach is not working. We cannot allow it to continue any longer.

The legislature approved, with bipartisan support, a concurrent resolution that would end his emergency declaration. According to the laws governing disaster emergencies, the governor has no say in the matter; he is required to issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of emergency. But once again, Governor Wolf has asserted that the rules don’t apply to him by refusing to do his duty under the law.

Ending the disaster declaration will not impact Pennsylvania’s ability to access federal funding, nor will it affect the availability of money for unemployment and other emergency programs because they are tied to the federal disaster declaration – not the state’s. The only real impact will be limiting the governor’s ability to suspend laws and spend money at will, in direct contradiction to the system of government we have in place.

Senate leaders have asked the Commonwealth Court to intervene and compel the governor to rescind his disaster declaration. The court is giving the Wolf Administration until this Thursday to submit a brief to support their position. Furthermore, the Wolf Administration appealed to the state Supreme Court to take up the case and has asked the Commonwealth Court to postpone Thursday’s deadline. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court announced it will hear the case. 

Our system of government was created to prevent any one branch from accumulating too much power. It is designed to make sure no one is above the law, and I sincerely hope that the judicial branch appreciates this principle in its ruling. It is far past time to restore our system of checks and balances so that we can work together to responsibly, safely and intelligently restore lives and livelihoods.

Op-Ed: Governor’s address marks the start of a broken budget process

Throughout my first five years in office – four as a state Representative and one as a state Senator – one thing is as consistent as Punxsutawney Phil coming out of his slumber in Gobbler’s Knob on February 2: there are always budget gimmicks and games played in Harrisburg.

Our state’s Constitution has some guiding principles when it comes to the practice of budgeting. Over the years, the lines have become more and more blurred over whether or not these guidelines in our Constitution are being used or abused. No political party is immune or guilt-free of these practices – it has happened under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

Last year’s budget was met with little of the fanfare or theatrics that I saw in my first few years of working on state budgets in Harrisburg. Lengthy impasses and revenue challenges were not the problems we encountered in the 2019-2020 state budget.

Instead, the debate revolved around a Rainy Day Fund (RDF), an account the state has reserved for unexpected expenses. Our last state budget set aside $300 million in the RDF.  It was the first time this amount had been deposited in nearly two decades.

State financial experts suggest setting aside enough funding to cover any losses incurred during an economic slowdown or recession.

In 2018, State Treasurer Joe Torsella found that Pennsylvania could not last one day if it had to rely on its RDF to cover all state expenses. Meanwhile, Ohio could survive on its RDF for over 23 days and West Virginia could last over 61 days. In fact, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were the only states in the entire Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that could not survive one day on reserves.

The state prioritized saving for a rainy day not only because it made good fiscal sense; it also provided taxpayers with a safety net in the event of an economic downturn.

However, despite these well-intentioned efforts by the General Assembly to set aside funding in case our economy takes a nosedive, our governor and his administration have continued to spend more money than lawmakers have authorized.  

Historically, the Governor’s Budget Office will hold mid-year budget briefings to update both the legislature and public on the state’s finances. This year, there was no public briefing by the Budget Office; only a few slides posted to the office’s website that essentially proclaimed six more months of overspending.

At the current rate, the state is on track to overspend the agreed-to state budget amount by over $750 million, far eclipsing the $300 million reserves sitting in the RDF. Last year’s overspend amount was more than $670 million.

Representative Seth Grove (R-York) and I believe the constitution is clear. Article VIII, Section 13 reads, “Operating budget appropriations made by the General Assembly shall not exceed the actual and estimated revenues and surplus available in the same fiscal year.”

When the Administration decides to spend more than they were legally appropriated, the General Assembly (and eventually the taxpayers) is handed the bill.

This overspending and bad budgeting is often lumped into the following year’s budget package, allowing the bad behavior to continue. Hundreds of millions of dollars in overspending is swept under the proverbial rug. This process lacks transparency and encourages greater overspending each and every year.

The good news is we have identified a way to stop this – but it would need the support of the General Assembly and a majority of voters in this Commonwealth. Rep. Seth Grove and I have proposed a constitutional amendment to require any overspend (or supplemental spending) to be voted on as a separate measure.

A constitutional amendment requires the General Assembly to pass the bill in two consecutive sessions. If it passes, it then goes to the voters for their approval. A constitutional amendment is the ultimate way to provide voters with a voice in the budget gimmicks that play out in Harrisburg.

Families all across the 28th District sit down at the kitchen table to review their finances weekly, monthly and annually. If you had one year where you overspent, it would be the exception and not the rule. Incurring that much debt could land you in legal trouble. However, in Harrisburg, it’s simply common practice. It is the rule, not the exception. And it needs to end.

The legislature and governor will debate a final spending number to reach the June 30, 2020 deadline to fund state government for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. However, if we do not take action to rein in overspending, that budget figure becomes just another meaningless number. It is far past time for these kinds of deceptive budget gimmicks and games to be returned to hibernation.

Election issues must be corrected for next year’s critical contests

Following Governor Wolf’s unilateral decision in 2018 to decertify the state’s current voting machines, the legislature had significant concerns about the implementation of this costly unfunded mandate. The legislature sought additional time for counties to plan for this transition, appropriately fearing the potential to create more confusion for voters, exorbitant costs to local taxpayers, and severe challenges for local polling places and poll workers.

Unfortunately, these fears were fully realized on November 5 when York County voters witnessed firsthand what happens when Harrisburg pushes an unfunded mandate down to local governing bodies.

The problems were abundantly clear: wrong-sized ballots, compromised ballot privacy, and incorrect marking devices that created a situation in which voters were left waiting for an hour or more just to have their vote counted. The chaos on Election Day essentially deprived many York County voters of their fundamental right to participate in the election of their local leaders.

There is no excuse for what many voters experienced on Election Day. In 2018, voters elected a divided state government – a Republican General Assembly and a Democratic Governor – but they did not elect a dysfunctional government.

The frustration and outrage of voters has become a rallying cry for all stakeholders – state and county – to work together to fix these mistakes and get it right for 2020’s elections.

I was pleased to help lead efforts to take a first step toward improving the election process recently by passing a compromise bill that will make voting easier for all Pennsylvanians. The modernizations in this new law included some of the biggest reforms to our state’s election code in over seven decades.

Part of the bipartisan package included much-needed funding from the state to counties to implement and pay for the new mandated voting machines.

The election modernization package also included many other major pro-voter changes.

Gone are the days of only being allowed to vote by absentee ballot if you were out of your municipality for the day, or had a medical reason. Voters can now vote via absentee ballot without an excuse.

Also, voters will now be able to submit absentee ballots up until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Prior to the changes, voters had to get absentee ballots in by Friday before Election Day.

Finally, Pennsylvanians can now register within 15 days on an election, up from 30 days.

All of these changes will go into effect for next year’s Presidential Primary Election in April. I am hopeful that these changes will make the problems experienced by voters in the General Election in 2019 in York County the exception, and not the rule.

In addition to providing funding for counties to pay for new voting machines and additional scanners, I am working this week to include commonsense solutions to address problems we witnessed during the 2019 General Election to require the Department of State to provide guidance on assuring privacy for voters when submitting ballots into the scanning equipment. This bill will also remove outdated sections of our state’s law to ensure ballots are easily scanned and do not result in jams or other issues.

While these changes will help York Countians next year, not all problems can be addressed at the state level. This needs to be a team effort with all levels of government working together to regain the trust of the voters.

The majority of York Countians will not have the opportunity to vote until April 28, but several York Countians who live in Conewago Township, East Manchester Township, Goldsboro, Lewisberry, Manchester, Mount Wolf, Newberry Township, Springettsbury Township and York Haven will decide the next state senator for the 48th District in a special election in less than two months.

Time is not on our side and solutions must be identified immediately. That is why I have invited the current County Commissioners Byrnes, Reilly and Hoke and Commissioners-Elect Wheeler and Smith to attend a meeting in less than two weeks with Secretary Kathy Boockvar, who leads the Pennsylvania Department of State, and her team responsible for managing our elections.

We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to resolve the issues York County witnessed on November 5. Our next trial run will be on January 14 for the Special Election for the 48th Senatorial District.

The right to vote is sacred for all Pennsylvanians, and it is the responsibility of their government – state and county – to make it as easy, safe, private and secure as possible.

Restore PA repeats mistakes of old

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

This past summer, the top officials for state agencies were dispatched to all corners of our commonwealth, including here in York County, to sell the Governor’s plan to bond $4.5 billion to pay for a lengthy wish list of projects.

Long-term borrowing would provide a short-term cash infusion for infrastructure improvements including but not limited to blight remediation and improved flood controls, parks and trails, and expanded access to high-speed internet.

On the surface, some may say this sounds reasonable and responsible. As the Chair of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee, I have spent my summer conducting a series of public hearings on the issue of expanding access to high-speed broadband internet for more Pennsylvanians. This is an important issue to many residents throughout York County, where internet may be slow to non-existent.

However, as the lead proponent for this issue in the Senate, I believe it is important that we have clearly defined the size, scope and magnitude of the problem, identified the steps necessary to address the problem, and have a reasonable cost estimate to resolve it. None of which has been verified by the administration.

Early on in this endeavor, as I looked at how we could close our state’s digital divide, the initial estimates from the Federal Communications Commission indicated we had around 800,000 Pennsylvanians lacking access to high-speed internet. A recent Penn State study shows that number is closer to 11 million.

Now the governor wants to borrow money to address this problem. Yet again, the problem has not been fully defined nor quantified.

Think about it this way: you go to the bank to take out a loan to buy a car. You do not know if you are going to buy a used Ford Focus or a brand new Chevy Corvette. Both good cars, but very different price tags. You would not do that with your own borrowing, but this is exactly what Restore PA pledges to do.

And Restore PA is not an isolated issue. We have found ourselves in this mess before because a problem was not thoroughly vetted or defined.

During Governor Tom Ridge’s administration, the state entered into a contract to deploy a telecommunications network to be used by the State Police, other law enforcement agencies and first responders. The goal was to build out a statewide infrastructure that would provide reliable and stable communications, especially during times of emergency.

To date, the state plowed over $800 million— more than four times the original estimated cost—into this program and it still does not work.

Ever since taking office, Governor Wolf has pursued new taxes on the natural gas industry. While York County has no active drilling, it has been a beneficiary of revenue the state collects from drilling. In fact, York County has received over $3.1 million in impact fee revenues since 2011 and more than $485,000 last year alone.

Pennsylvania’s impact fee raised more money than West Virginia, Ohio, Arkansas and Colorado combined, despite these four states combining to produce more natural gas than the Commonwealth.

To tack on additional energy taxes in Pennsylvania to throw funding toward an undefined problem is irresponsible and repeats the same mistakes of old.

As someone who is working through the issue of getting more Pennsylvanians connected to the internet, we need to go through the process methodically and systematically. Like any state issue, you can throw all of the money in the world at a problem and it will still never be enough.

We need to be efficient, good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

In the Senate, I have had two resolutions receive the support of the entire state Senate that lay out our game plan on addressing this long-standing issue.

First, my Senate Resolution 47 requires a special legislative commission to be formed made up of key stakeholders – from both the private sector and public sector – to look at the delivery of high-speed broadband services to unserved and underserved areas of the state.

My Senate Resolution 48 requires an investigation and audit into taxes you and I paid back in the late 1990s and early 2000s through our phone bills that were dedicated to the deployment of high-speed internet. It will ensure those taxes we paid did what we were told they would do – connect more people to the internet.

We have seen the failures of throwing hard-earned tax dollars at a problem without a real strategy. We cannot repeat the mistakes of old and expect a different result.

Taxpayers may be on hook with Gov. Wolf’s latest veto of bill to pay for his own unfunded mandate

In April of 2018, Governor Wolf said his administration would move to decertify all existing voting machines following the 2019 election and force counties to purchase new machines in advance of the 2020 Presidential Election.

The cost? An estimated $125 million. In York County alone, that price tag would be over $1.5 million.

When I came to Harrisburg as a state legislator in 2015, one of my biggest frustrations was the unfunded mandates passed from state to local governments and school districts. I saw the financial impact of these decisions all too often as a school board director. While legislation passed at the state level may be well-intentioned, we also have to consider the overall costs incurred by the taxpayer. It may not be a state expense, but at the end of the day, the taxpayer picks up the tab.

I have made it a priority to identify and eliminate excessive state regulations that separate taxpayers from their hard-earned dollars, and I oppose unfunded mandates that will ultimately result in you – the taxpayer – paying more.

When the governor announced that his administration could decertify all voting machines following this fall’s election, counties like ours moved to purchase new equipment. They did so with the understanding that state government would help with the cost. That is now a promise Governor Wolf is close to breaking.

Governor Wolf said he would work with the legislature to provide funding from the state level to cover most of the cost for the new voting machines, with additional assistance from the federal government. His budget proposal included a meager $15 million – a mere 12 percent of the overall estimated cost.

I find it baffling that he vetoed a bill with bipartisan support on Friday that would have set aside up to $90 million from the state to cover the new voting machines.

The legislation included not only funding for new voting machines but several elections reforms aimed at curbing costs and improving efficiencies at the ballot box. For instance, the bill would cut down the arbitrary number of paper ballots needed at the polling place – right now, a polling place must have a book of 50 ballots of each party for every 45 registered voters. This proposal would have cut the total number of paper ballots to 10 percent more than the total turnout of the three prior elections.

The proposal would have also streamlined the emergency absentee ballot process in the state, making it easier for those who may need to vote through an emergency absentee ballot.

However, the real issue comes down to an election reform provision in the bill that drew the ire of national Democrat political groups and leaders who called on the governor to veto the entire election reform package.

As the Vice Chair of the Senate State Government Committee, I proudly supported Senate Bill 421, sponsored by Senator Lisa Boscola, a Democrat from the Lehigh Valley. Her bill would have eliminated the straight-party option on the ballot and require voters to select each candidate he or she supports. In fact, this bill moved along with a host of bills to address election-related issues and passed with bipartisan support in the Senate. The provisions of this bill were included in the election reform measure that the governor vetoed.

Pennsylvania is one of eight states that have straight party voting as an option. Texas was the latest state to eliminate the provision in 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

After national Democrat political leaders called to oppose the measure, all of the Democrats who initially supported the election reform bill in committee switched their vote to oppose it on final passage in the Senate.

The governor had a choice: veto a bill that drew the opposition of national Democrat party bosses, or support a bill that would provide the bulk of funding for a mandate he called on to address potential election meddling in the future.

In the end, he sided with national Democrats – and against county governments and taxpayers – by vetoing the bill to pay for his own unfunded mandate.

On Tuesday, the governor acted without legislative approval and on questionable legal grounds to borrow $90 million to pay for his mandate. This will still leave county officials, who have to make the difficult decision, with great unease and no assuredness that this unilateral bonding is legal.

Counties and taxpayers are now in limbo because of the governor’s refusal to work with the General Assembly in a bipartisan manner to secure funding, ensure the integrity of our elections process and put Pennsylvania in line with most other states.

State’s regulations limiting our economic success

Despite record low unemployment and rising wages, three-quarters of Pennsylvania counties have lost residents to other counties and states. Why? Pennsylvania has a poor business climate.

The solution – regulatory reform. By cutting the red tape we can empower employees, improve government accountability, and expand Pennsylvania’s economy.

Pennsylvania has so many regulations on the books, even the experts have lost count. A group from George Mason University in Washington, D.C. compiled the total number of regulations based on keyword searches of our state’s laws and found that we have more than 153,000 regulations on the books. Even that estimate could be low.

You only need to look as far as your own garage to find examples of government run amok. Even the stepladder we keep tucked away to change a lightbulb or clean the gutters was created in spite of more than 200 regulations governing its design and use.

A few weeks ago, I stood with fellow legislators, local and state business leaders and employee advocates to push for a series of regulatory reforms that will truly help provide the platform for our commonwealth’s economic growth, retain workers, attract new talent and provide a brighter future to all Pennsylvanians.

The location of the event was fitting – in front of the former York Narrow Fabrics Company, which now serves as the site of the Kinsley Engineering Center at York College. York Narrow Fabrics was the site where the actual “red tape” was produced to package federal regulations in Washington, D.C. It is a stark reminder of the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt our Commonwealth to this day.

One of the bills in the package that I am sponsoring would compile the number of regulations that exist in Pennsylvania and require two regulations to be removed for each new regulation that is added over the next five years. A similar law in British Columbia was so successful at cleaning up outdated laws – like telling bar owners the size of televisions they could use, or how many par 4 holes must be included on golf courses – they went from a one-in, two-out model to a one-in, five-out model.

Many employers also express their dissatisfaction with the state’s inconsistent permitting process. The entire process lacks any sense of transparency or accountability with little to no feedback offered until a permit is either approved or rejected.

If you purchase an item online, you can watch the shipping process from start to finish – from the warehouse to your front door. Permitting could and should use a similar process that is transparent and easy to follow. The House of Representatives recently approved legislation I am sponsoring in the Senate that would create this much-needed layer of transparency to the permitting process.

Another part of the regulatory reform package would provide greater oversight of regulations that cost taxpayers a large sum of money. The bill would require any regulation with an economic impact of more than $1 million to earn the approval of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Legislation is also included to require each state agency to appoint a regulatory compliance officer, or someone who can answer questions and work with taxpayers to ensure compliance of existing state regulation.

Too often, small businesses are blindsided by state bureaucrats because of non-compliance with a certain regulation laced in the intricate web of state government. It is far past time for that complicated web to be unraveled so we can start treating small businesses like partners and less like criminals.

At the federal level, we have seen the dramatic success of cleaning out our nation’s federal regulations. Our federal unemployment rate is at 3.6 percent – the lowest in almost half a century – and the economy is booming. Due to the reduction of regulations at the federal level, federal agencies saved over $23 billion in 2018 alone.

At the end of the day, this legislative package starts treating taxpayers like consumers. Consumers who invest in this commonwealth. Consumers who work in this commonwealth. Consumers who pay the bills of this commonwealth.

The time is right to reform our state’s regulatory system. I look forward to working in the months ahead to ensure more accountability, rein in archaic and unnecessary regulations, and provide better customer service to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers.