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PA Pols Divided Over ‘Build Back Better’ Vote

Friday’s vote to pass the House version of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” social spending bill sparked an immediate reaction from Pennsylvania’s elected officials and politicians. Democrats like U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan called it “the largest investment in the middle class in a generation,” while GOP U.S. Senator Pat Toomey denounced it as “radical stuff.”

Details on the tax-and-spend legislation are so unclear its exact price tag is still uncertain, with estimates ranging from $1.5 to $2 trillion in new spending over the next decade. And that’s on top of the $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed earlier this year. That brings the House’s one-year spending total to an additional $5.1 trillion

A might be expected, views of the House vote fell along party lines.

“I think that the Democrats in D.C. are tone deaf,” said state Sen. Pro Tempore Jake Corman, (R-Centre), a GOP candidate for governor.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Bartos, a Montgomery County businessman, called the bill the  ‘Build Back Broke’ spending package.

“Joe Biden and congressional Democrats’ ‘Build Back Broke’ legislation is devastating for America’s working families. Rather than dealing with their own self-created inflation and supply chain crises, Democrats in Washington choose to allocate more money to liberal pet projects at the expense of Pennsylvania taxpayers,” said Bartos. “This tax-and-spending legislation is not only unpaid for but will put the burden on our children and grandchildren to pay for this irresponsible governing.”

Democrats, on the other hand, were elated.

“President Biden recognizes that this plan, which includes many issues that I have prioritized throughout my administration, will make child care, home care, education, health care, and housing more affordable for hardworking families, as well as address the climate crisis,” said Gov. Tom Wolf. “It will build on the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by investing in the middle class, our economy, and our environment. It gives people the opportunities and resources they need to have a better quality of life.

“The president’s ongoing commitment to addressing climate change will benefit our environment, our economy, and even our utility bills,” Wolf added. In fact, the bill as passed by the House is likely to increase energy prices, many experts agree.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey tweeted his support. “Today, the House passed legislation to invest in American children, seniors, families, and workers. The #BuildBackBetter Act would lower costs for Americans, create jobs and strengthen our Nation’s economy.”

His GOP counterpart, Toomey, doesn’t agree.

“This is radical stuff. Let’s be honest. This is transformative by design,” Toomey said. “The Wharton School says this is $4.6 trillion of spending, and . . . it’s mostly about expanding the welfare state to the middle class. [Democrats have] got all kinds of new programs—some don’t even have any income limitation and on those that do, it is extremely high. This kind of total transformation of the relationship between middle-income Americans and the federal government is not what people were voting on in last election.”

Every Pennsylvania Democrat voted for the spending bill while every Republican — including DelVal’s U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick — voted against it.

“Regrettably, instead of coming to the table to negotiate on the social spending reconciliation package, House Democratic leadership decided to take the completely opposite approach when they hastily forced Build Back Better through the House on a totally partisan vote,” said Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks). The country would be better served by working on “skyrocketing inflation, workforce shortages, supply chain disruptions, and economic competitiveness with adversaries like Communist China,” he added.

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Chester Co.) was pleased by the outcome.

“At a time when so many Pennsylvanians are feeling the economic pressures of global inflation and rising prices, this bill helps to lower the costs of a household’s biggest expenditures: health care, housing, child care, and more,” Houlahan said in a statement. “The Build Back Better Act is fiscally disciplined while also addressing the most pressing issues of our time.

“For too long, too many hardworking families in Chester and Berks counties have been struggling to stay afloat – and the pandemic further exposed the systemic issues that are shrinking the middle class. But today, we took action to make our economy work for everyone.”

Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Delaware Co.) said the bill “makes the largest investment to combat the climate crisis in history. It will cut pollution, reduce energy costs, and create good-paying jobs through a transformational investment in clean energy.”

And U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean  (D-Montgomery) said, “This legislation will lower the cost of child care and family care, lower the cost of health care, and combat climate change. The passage of the Build Back Better Act follows President Biden’s signing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law on Monday. Together, the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill will transform our nation’s infrastructure and economy and support working families. The Build Back Better Act is fully paid for through taxes to big corporations and ultra-wealthy Americans.”

Democrats like Dean insist the bill as passed is “paid for,” echoing President Biden’s claim the spending won’t add to the deficit. However, the Congressional Budget Office and nearly every independent fiscal watchdog report the House bill would add at least $100 billion in new debt.

“Democrats have completely abandoned hardworking Pennsylvanians,” said Allie Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, “which is a huge tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and a slap in the face to Keystone staters who are already experiencing skyrocketing prices and economic hardships thanks to Biden. This reckless vote will cost Madeleine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan, Susan Wild, Matt Cartwright, and Conor Lamb their seats next November.”

She predicted it would increase inflation, taxes, and contrary to what Biden said, is not paid for.

“The CBO found that the plan would increase the deficit by $367 billion over a ten-year period. And the Penn-Wharton Budget Model found that the plan would shrink the economy by nearly 3 percent by 2050 if made permanent,” Carroll said.

The legislation now goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Toomey says he hopes the process will help Americans learn more about what the bill actually does.

“The American people are not on board on this, so we are continuing to drive the message about how damaging this would be, how much this would cost, how much it would add to inflation, to our deficits, the tax increase. And, this is part of the political process: Have this debate,” Toomey said.

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Democratic Lawmakers Tout Passage of Infrastructure Bill

Delaware Valley U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) called the newly-passed infrastructure bill “an economic engine” during a Democratic Zoom press conference touting the legislation.

Several Pennsylvania Democratic members of Congress joined the call Wednesday to take a victory lap over the passage of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Biden administration says it will bring more than $15 billion to Pennsylvania over five years.

Asked whether the bill, coupled with the pending $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act, will add to what is already a 31-year high level of inflation—up 6.2 percent in the last year–the Democratic lawmakers insisted it would not.

Congresswoman Susan Wild (D-Lehigh/Northampton) said “responsible journalists” would not suggest these massive spending bills would “directly affect the current state of inflation.”

Dean agreed.

“I think a lot of what we’re doing here is actually going to curb inflation over the next few months…We’re going to see getting people back to work, getting our supply chains working…I hope nobody is going to tie the passage of these two bills to the current inflation rates because there is simply no relationship.”

President Joe Biden was careful to look at where the resources are coming from to pay for these bills, she said.

“I am mindful, and I want to acknowledge, my constituents asked me about their concerns about inflation, cost of goods, cost of gas, so that is real. But these two bills are not the problem. The problem is multi-faceted and it’s certainly deeply connected to COVID and an economic closure and then once you reopen an economy, how you rebound from that closure. These two bills are going to be extraordinary economic engines for our future.”

Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Wayne/Pike/Lackawanna) said the last time there was a similar investment in American infrastructure was under President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, when the interstate highway system was built. And he added “top economists” note that when companies produce more it will bring the prices down and this bill will “grease the skids” to allow them to do that.

“These inflationary pressures that we’re seeing, they all have to do with reopening our economy after COVID,” he said. “Obviously, the demand has outstripped the supply.” He also noted that Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has tools “at his disposal” to put the brakes on it.

“We’re not particularly worried about inflation getting out of hand. We can control that,” said Cartwright.

In her remarks on the bill, Dean said her district is “an older ring suburb of Philadelphia which is crying out for this type of investment.”

The bill will bring $11 billion to roads and bridges to Pennsylvania: $100 million to broadband, 2.8 billion for public transportation, $355 million for airports, $240 million for weatherizing, and $1.4 billion for safe drinking water.

Congressman Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia) said the bill will bring money for improvements to public transportation and add more jobs.

“It is very beneficial,” said Evans. “SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) just settled a contract because of the American Rescue Act. And now the infrastructure…When you talk about SEPTA and what it means to the entire region…And all of us who are on this phone today all played key roles in making this happen, working with the president and vice president.”

“This is building on what we did before at the state level,” said Evans.

“It’s something everybody Democratic and Republican can be proud of,” said Dean.

Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks), who was one of 13 Republicans who voted for the bill, was not on the Democrats’ virtual press conference. However, he released this statement: “This is a victory for not only the people of Pennsylvania but for the entire country. The federal government has created the crisis of deteriorating roads, defunct bridges, and vulnerable dams and levees through its inaction. These types of arteries are the lifeblood of American commerce and must be improved. America’s infrastructure has reached a breaking point, and this is a challenge we can no longer ignore.

“From the start, I have insisted on the passage of a hard infrastructure bill, delinked from any other partisan, social spending package. This bipartisan, physical infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate in August with strong Republican support, is entirely separate from the partisan reconciliation bill, which I oppose.

“The bipartisan infrastructure package is completely paid for, primarily by unspent COVID-19 relief funds, and will create a dedicated funding stream for our nation’s infrastructure network. I look forward to the President signing this landmark physical infrastructure legislation into law so that we can bring America’s infrastructure network into the 21st century, create jobs, and improve the health and safety of the American people,” Fitzpatrick said.


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Controller Candidates Debate: How Much is Too Much for Delco Consultants?

A county controller’s job is to make sure local government accounts for every penny of taxpayer money it spends. And over the past 18 months, a lot of those pennies in Delaware County have been going to outside contractors to do work that critics say should be done by the employees already on the county clock.

So, how much is too much for Delco to spend on outside consultants?

The question goes back to the county council’s decision in August to hire Marianne Jackson to serve as Interim Director of Elections for $20,000 per month, part of a $2 million spending package on the 2020 election some saw as wasteful and excessive.

“Twenty thousand dollars a month, $20,000 a month for an employee,” Republican James J. Byrne, Jr. said at the time. “I defy you to find any other county employee that’s being paid $20,000 a month.”

Since then, the county council approved paying consultant Christina Perrone $100,000 for five months of work related to the May primary election. Her contract also included reviewing the medical examiner facilities and operations, the establishment of the new county health department, and other initiatives. It had previously paid her $50,000 to coordinate moving the Election Bureau and the Voter Registration Department from the Government Center in Media to the Wharf at Rivertown in Chester.

Perrone isn’t the only person getting paid on contracts related to the creation of the county’s new stand-alone health department. In May 2020, the council hired Gorenflo Consulting Inc. for up to $44,978 to create a strategic plan for launching the health department.

Over the summer, the council added consultant Cebele Rodriguez for up to $125,000 for project management services to integrate staff and facility needs. That included developing and designing contracts related to the launch of the county health department and the redevelopment of the county medical examiner’s office, while also providing support regarding the scanning of mail for contraband at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility.

And then there’s money to contractors hired to get county government more money.

In June, the council approved the $95,000 seven-month hiring of law firm Holland & Knight to lobby the federal government on the county’s behalf. That came one year after hiring the Witt O’Brien firm to maximize federal and state grant reimbursements related to costs associated with COVID-19. Officials expect Witt O’Brien’s $150,000 fee to be reimbursed by such grants.

Delaware County Controller Joanne Phillips, seeking a second term in this November’s election, has previously expressed her concerns regarding spending on consultants, especially the optics it sends to county employees. However, Phillips told DVJournal this week the county’s use of project managers and outside advisors is “appropriate in certain circumstances.”

“Given the initiatives council wanted to move forward on in 2020, the issues inherited by county council when they began in 2020 and then the almost immediate onset of the pandemic, outside help and project managers were needed,” Phillips says. “These arrangements are best used when the scope of a project is limited or there is a need for special expertise. Typically, that has been the case.”

Phillips cited building the new health department, handling vaccination efforts, managing the emergency rental assistance program, and bringing the prison back to county control as examples of properly utilizing outside help. (The council approved hiring CGL Companies for $385,000 to oversee the prison’s transition.)

“I do feel strongly that when the job entails a critical county function, a county employee should handle the job,” Phillips said. “I’ve been a strong proponent for limiting the use of consultants to address needed permanent management positions. However, owing a great deal to the pandemic, the labor market has been very tight and there are jobs that are needed only for a short time, so use of temporary staff has helped address those situations.”

Sherry Smyth, Phillips’ Republican challenger in the controller race, doesn’t agree.

“I don’t understand why there aren’t any qualified people in Delaware County to take these jobs,” Smyth says. “If elected, I will do audits and review policies and procedures to determine the duration of these contracts.”

Smyth, a certified public accountant, has served as a Newtown Township supervisor and elected auditor. She’s also vice-chair of the Newtown Square Business Association and serves on the board of Family Support Line. At the end of March, she retired after 16 years as CEO of Dunwoody Village.

The Delco Republican Party has repeatedly criticized the Democrat-controlled county government for passing over local workers and hiring consultants instead. In March, Delaware County GOP Committee Chair Tom McGarrigle complained about the hiring of James Allen as Delaware County’s Election Services Director. Allen, who previously spent 14 years as director of communications and strategic planning for the Chicago Board of Elections, was brought in for an agreed-upon salary cap of $145,000 plus benefits.

When the county hired Jackson for the elections job, McGarrigle told DV Journal: “We have 560,000 people living in Delaware County. Why not select someone from here?”

The controller serves as a fiscal watchdog, tasked with overseeing the expenditures of county funds. The office handles the county’s payroll, internal audits, retirement, accounts payable, and the accounting system. Phillips came to the role as a partner in the law firm of Ballard Spahr LLP. She also served as director of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Real Estate in the department of general services, where she oversaw leased facilities and property.

“With careful recruiting and good hiring practices, the county will be able to hire qualified people and we can build the county workforce to the right size with county residents in those jobs,” Phillips says.

Pennsylvania’s general election takes place Nov. 2.