"What's black and white and read all over?"

Thursday, May 04, 2006
Posted 10:37 PM by

No news is good news this week

Even some of the poorest elderly folks in Pennsylvania would still get less than a $1,000 worth of property tax relief out of the $1 billion the state would get from slot machine parlors under a plan the state House tabled Wednesday - to the dismay of Gov. Ed Rendell.While a lot of stuff is going on in Pennsylvania and New Jersey this week, not a heck of a lot is actually being accomplished.

And that may just be the best news of all.

In Pennsylvania, the Legislature tried to ramrod into law what Democrats called a property tax "reform" proposal, tied in part to an expected $1 billion windfall from legalizing slot machine parlors, in time for the May 16 primary election.

In reality, the measure did little to cap school expenses - the primary source of higher property taxes - but forced school districts to put a referendum on next year's primary ballot. It would ask voters if they would be willing to switch 25 percent of their school property taxes onto an income tax.

A "Yes" majority vote then would effectively lessen the tax burden on property owners and increase it on working people who rent.

The state Senate passed the measure Tuesday 40-9, with eight Republicans and one Democrat dissenting. But to the surprise of many in Harrisburg, the House tabled the bill (H.B.39) and adjourned for a month.

"The majority of members feel we can do more and do it better," House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, told reporters afterward.

That lead House Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver, to angrily declare, "The idea that you can't pass this bill and start tomorrow on a bill that would go further is ridiculous and absurd."

House Minority Whip Mike Veon, who championed both the slots law and last year's legislative pay hike, now faces a primary challenge without the political benefit from either bill - other than campaign funds from gambling interests.Veon led the fight for the slot machine law and property tax reform was supposed to be its public benefit. He also championed last year's now-repealed legislative pay raise and as a result, now faces a primary challenger.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who campaigned four years ago on the promise of a 30 percent cut in property taxes, said he liked the House-Senate compromise which formed the bill and was "absolutely stunned" lawmakers didn't send it to him to sign.

Even Gov. Ed Rendell's bully pulpit couldn't stop the state House from tabling a tax reform proposal he has long supported.Rendell said he thought Democrats had a House majority in favor of the measure, noting his staff counted 88 Democrats and more than 20 Republicans who supported it out of 203 state representatives.

"In what world is zero dollars of tax relief better than $1 billion? It boggles the mind," Rendell said today.

More boggling is the fact this fiery debate is so heated now, even though it may be months before the first of 14 slots parlor licenses are issued and up to a year before the first quarters roll into a machine.

Or even longer, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board chairman Tad Decker warned today. He said the licensing of slot-machine parlors could be delayed because police background checks on the slots suppliers are taking longer than anticipated.

Decker expressed his concern at a public meeting less than five months after police commanders and the Gaming Control Board seemingly resolved a yearlong dispute over who should perform tens of thousands of background investigations. Police have promised the completed checks by the end of May, a month behind the board's schedule.

Tad Decker, chairman of the Pennsylvania's Gaming Control Board, warned Thursday that the board is a month behind schedule on issuing slots parlor licenses.His comments also came two weeks after Michael Ray Rosenberry, an agent in the board's investigations and enforcement bureau, was arrested after officials learned his college degree came from an online diploma mill

Rosenberry, 41, of Harrisburg, was charged by state police on April 21 with two counts of false swearing and three counts of unsworn falsification, all misdemeanors.

Over in New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine is having nearly as bad a week as Rendell.

Amid soaring oil prices last week, Corzine proposed allowing gas stations to offer self-service pumping, which he estimated could save consumers up to six cents per gallon. New Jersey and Oregon are the only two states that require full-service.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's idea to allow self-service gas pumping as a means of lowering prices went up in flames this week.But the proposal drew an outcry from angry citizens who flooded the governor's office with 1,400 phone calls and e-mails. On Tuesday, Corzine admitted defeat and dropped the idea, saying, "It doesn't seem like it's been overwhelmingly embraced."

On top of that humiliation, Corzine and state lawmakers learned today that the state will likely collect fewer tax dollars this year than originally projected.

Corzine has already drawn heat for some budget cuts he's proposed, including curtailing spending in the state's poorest schools and a new tax on each hospital bed in the state.

While New Jersey Gov. Jon Cozine is catching heat for some of his proposed spending cut amid a projected $5 billion budget deficit next year, he will probably be praised for killing lawmakers' Walking-Around-Money grant program today.However, this year's shortfall could push next year's anticipated budget deficit to $5 billion, state Treasurer Bradley Abelow said.

This in a state that has had casino gambling in Atlantic City since 1978.

Abelow said that in light of his new projections, he could not rule out moves such as cutting property tax rebates and slashing a proposed $1.3 billion contribution to the public employee pension system.

One cut Corzine can be proud of, though, is the freeze he placed in March on the $25 million left in a political slush fund state assemblymen handed outs as grants before he took office.

That's all that's left of the $128 million which once filled the Property Tax Assistance and Community Development Block Grant program lawmakers set up two years ago. The program is identical to the Community Revitalization Program grants or WAMs (Walking-Around-Money) Pennsylvania legislators have been using for decades on their pet projects and then touting as political capital.

In New Jersey, more than 80 percent of the groups that received the $100 million in grants over the past two years were from legislative districts controlled by Democrats, the Associated Press reported today.

State lawmakers blew more than $100 million on pet projects over the last two years in mostly Democratic districts, the AP reported today."It was the ultimate example of self-serving politicians using the state's coffers as their personal piggy bank," said David Robinson, an attorney from Cranford who filed a lawsuit to stop the grant program before Corzine froze its funds.

Corzine told Abelow today to stop further handouts and to deposit the remaining money into the state's treasury.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's WAM program continues unabated.


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