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Outside mailers show political side of Pennsylvania budget time

By   /   June 11, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. – As much as the June budget scramble is about the nitty-gritty of governing, it’s a time ripe for politicking (just check out this calendar of fundraising events as proof).

At least a handful of Republican state lawmakers recently received a reminder of that reality, as a nonprofit tied to the Democratic Governors Association targeted them after last week’s House vote on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s tax plan.

Glossy mailers began landing in mailboxes over the weekend. They included an accusation that GOP representatives were “putting oil & gas companies over kids” when they voted against legislation that includes a severance tax on the natural gas industry to help fund education.

Postcard photo

POLITICAL POSTCARD: Several Republican lawmakers have been the target of mailers critical of their opposition to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s tax plan.

It was a quick turnaround for such an expansive and coordinated mail blitz, considering the vote happened just five days earlier. Districts targeted includes those of state Reps. Daryl Metcalfe, Warren Kampf, Dan Truitt, Bernie O’Neill, Kate Harper and Bill Adolph, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Representative Bill Adolph voted against vital funding to local schools. He also voted against meaningful property tax relief for area residents, all while continuing to give the gas drillers a free pass,” read one mailer obtained by PA Independent.

America Works USA sent the mailers, which included an address that traces back to a UPS Store about a five-minute walk from the Democratic Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

In 2013, the Center for Public Integrity outlined how the Democratic Governors Association used America Works USA to influence policy debates and political races, including buying ads in the West Virginia and Missouri gubernatorial races. The Republican Governors Association uses the same tactic, which allows donors to remain anonymous, the center reported.

IRS documents for America Works USA obtained by the Center of Public Integrity  list Benjamin Metcalf, the chief operating officer of the DGA, as the principal officer of the nonprofit. He could not immediately be reached, and a DGA spokesman did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

Though the mailers don’t mention Wolf, they insinuate support for his budget policies. The DGA website, coincidentally, featured a photo of Wolf celebrating on its homepage Wednesday.

Screenshot from democraticgovernors.org

BUDGET POLITICS: Gov. Tom Wolf, shown on this screenshot from the Democratic Governors Association website, has been lobbying for a severance tax to increase education funding.

Approached while walking up the steps of the Capitol around lunchtime, Wolf said he didn’t know about the mailers, and asked a reporter about their content.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’d like to see it.”

The mailers cite two votes, with one being a vote on a tax shift to reduce property taxes and the other the June 1 vote on Wolf’s overall tax plan, which included a severance tax, cuts to the corporate net income tax and changes to the personal income tax structure.

Republican lawmakers set up the latter vote after Democrats lobbied for a vote on Wolf’s spending plan, which includes all the feel-good policies but not the decidedly less warm-and-fuzzy tax mechanisms to fund them.

The GOP had warned Democrats they’d have to vote on the tax plan, too, making it somewhat of a head-scratcher that Democrats pushed the issue.

Wolf’s plan was defeated unanimously, as Republicans rejected it and Democrats withheld their votes amid cries of dirty political stunts — a criticism Wolf repeated later in the day.

Yet, as bad as it looked for lawmakers on the left, they quickly had an ally, America Works USA, trying to make political hay of the vote with the mailers.

To be fair, the budget politicking isn’t a partisan issue.

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity has also tried to exert influence on the budget process by taking out billboards on highways around Harrisburg starting this week.

The ads say “Governor Wolf wants birth to death taxation,” a reference to Wolf’s property tax relief plan that hikes the sales tax and applies it to more goods, such as diapers and caskets.

“Our billboards are pretty clever, but there’s nothing smart about the Governor’s plan to substantially increase the tax burden on Pennsylvanians from birth to death,” Beth Anne Mumford, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement. “Our billboards will remind Governor Wolf, lawmakers, and everyone passing through Harrisburg that the Governor’s budget means smaller paychecks and higher prices for everyday goods.”

Those billboards, of course, don’t have room for nuance — like the fact plenty of Republicans have supported the same type of tax shift to reduce property taxes. But when budgeting merges with politicking, that’s probably to be expected.


Andrew formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.