Op-Ed – Two Years in Office

It is hard to believe that April 2nd marks two years since I was sworn into office representing the 28th State Senatorial District. Voters sent me to Harrisburg in a historic write-in election. The last two years have been eye-opening to say the least, and I know the next few years will continue to be – even as I become better versed in the ways of Harrisburg and our state government.

From the moment I committed to running for the seat vacated by Senator Mike Waugh, I knew there would be challenges, a lot to learn, and a whole lot of truth to be uncovered. I expected things in Harrisburg to be bad, but in fact, they are ten times worse.

My first year in office, major issues were not being brought to a vote in the Senate because of a leader that stood in the way of reforms, including the top issue I was sent to Harrisburg to address – property taxes. I lead an effort to replace the Senate Majority Leader with our current Majority Leader Jake Corman. Since then we have voted on property tax elimination proposals, and we’ve also passed another priority of mine – paycheck protection, which would prevent public sector unions from using taxpayer funded resources to collect dues through paycheck deductions. That legislation is now in the House awaiting a vote.

While the vote to eliminate property taxes fell short of passing, our state government has massive financial issues that must be resolved immediately if we are to ever get out from under the burden of property taxes and to put the Commonwealth on stable financial footing for the future.

Governor Wolf continues to demand tax increases to address a nearly $2 billion deficit, but he seems to forget the basic concept of managing – reduce frivolous spending if you do not have the money to cover essentials. There is so much waste that can be addressed, and Governor Wolf does not seem to want to acknowledge it and go down that road.

There are five areas of concern that I am focused on as I go forward, and these are areas you all need to be concerned about as taxpayers: pensions, lack of accountability in state agencies, exploding benefit costs, payouts for unused leave, and school employee contracts.

Our pension system currently has nearly $60 billion in unfunded liabilities, an unrealistic set rate of return of 7%, and employees who are using excessive amounts of overtime to increase their payout, which is based on a three year average before retirement.

The recent Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearings opened my eyes to just how out of control spending is by our state agencies. The Department of Corrections is a prime example of an agency that has grown out of control. Governor Wolf needs to hold people accountable and every state agency must be managed before he can claim we have to raise taxes to fill a budget deficit. Corrections has 16,000 employees. Last year Secretary Wetzel told the Senate Appropriations Committee that if officers worked some additional overtime there would not be a need for additional new hires. This year both overtime skyrocketed, and 400 new employees were hired – all while the prison population is being decreased.

Additionally, taxpayers are footing the bill for state employees’ benefit packages at a rate of 75% to 100% per $1.00 of payroll. For example, the Liquor Control Board has 3,104 salaried positions. Payroll totals close to $140 million while benefits are costing taxpayers an additional $125.8 million. That is just shy of 90% of payroll costs. What percentage to a dollar of payroll does your employer pay for your benefits – or better yet, how much do you pay?

An additional problem is that of unused sick and vacation days, which are then cashed out upon retirement. Last year two different Senate staffers received payouts for unused time – one receiving $112,657 and the other around $100,000. This was on top of a pension and severance. I will continue to dig into the total potential cost with the thousands of employees that most likely bank leave in order to take advantage of this. And of course, I plan to take action to prevent such costs to taxpayers in the future.

Finally, contract negotiations by our 500 volunteer school boards is another issue we need to address in order to control costs. These independent school boards are negotiating wage, benefit, and “step pay” increases with union representatives without Harrisburg having any input in the process. Harrisburg is simply expected to cover the costs – no questions asked.

As I head into my third year in office, I remain committed to implementing meaningful reforms, providing you a transparent look into how your government operates, and bringing accountability to the tax dollars you send to Harrisburg.