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A win for the little guy

Government’s role is to serve the people.  America is a people with a government, not a government with a people.  The people – their needs, their interests, their rights – come first in all things.  Our Constitution prohibits government behavior that is arbitrary, capricious, abusive, or uncompensated taking of private property, among others.

Any American who loses sight of these limitations has fallen into the easy trap of promoting government over the people.  People in both main political parties fall into this trap, because both main parties have largely lost touch with the US Constitution (and the Pennsylvania Constitution) and its daily meaning for American citizens.

Last night the Pennsylvania state senate passed HB 1565, which amended through law a procedural environmental rule issued in the last days of the former Governor Ed Rendell administration, in 2010. The rule created 150-foot buffers along streams designated High Quality and Exceptional Value, and removed that buffer land from nearly all uses.  No compensation to the landowner was provided.  Allowing the landowner to claim a charitable donation for public benefit was not allowed.  Higher building density on the balance of the property was not allowed. The buffer land was simply taken by government fiat, by administrative dictate, totally at odds with the way American government is supposed to work.

And the appeal process afforded to landowners under the rule was onerous, extremely expensive, and lengthy.  It was not real due process, but rather a series of high hurdles designed to chase away landowners from their property rights.  Everything about this rule was designed to make the government’s job as easy as possible, and the private property owner’s rights and abilities as watered down as possible.

The 150-foot buffer rule represented the worst sort of government, because it did not serve the people, it quite simply took from the people.  The 150-foot buffer rule was blunt force trauma in the name of environmental quality, which can easily be achieved to the same level myriad other ways.  The rule was the easy way out, and it represented a throwback to the old days of the environmental movement and environmental quality management when big government, top-down, command-and-control dictates were standard fare for arresting environmental degradation.

That approach made sense when polluted American rivers were catching fire, nearly fifty years ago.  Today, a scalpel and set of screwdrivers can achieve the environmental goal much better, and fairly.  Supporters of the rule claimed that voting for HB 1565 was voting against environmental quality, which made no sense.  Environmental quality along HQ and EV stream corridors could have easily been achieved with a similar, but innately fairer, 150-foot buffer rule.  It saddens me that my fellow Americans could not see that simple fact, and instead sought to stay with a deeply flawed government process until the bitter end.

I know the people who both created and then championed the rule.  Some of them are friends and acquaintances of mine.  Their motives and intentions were good.  I won’t say that they are bad people.  Yes, they are mostly Democrats, but there were also plenty of Republicans involved in designing it and defending it, including former high level Republican government appointees.

Rather, this rule was a prime example of how simply out of touch many government decision makers have become with what American government is supposed to be, and it adds fuel to my own quest to help reintroduce the US and Pennsylvania constitutions back into policy discussions and government decision making so that we don’t have more HB 1565 moments in the future.

 

An open letter to Patrick Henderson

Dear Patrick,

Years ago, you were a sweet kid from Western Pennsylvania, beginning your career in the state legislature.  Working for state senator Mary Jo White and the senate environmental resources committee gave you lots of opportunity and exposure to political issues, outside issue groups, and the overall political process, including the executive branch.  You were smart, interested, thoughtful, and principled, and although we occasionally disagreed I really enjoyed working with you….. way back then.

But something changed.  You changed.  You seem angry, hateful, even.  Even towards people who have done nothing to you, at least that they are aware of; although I write this for myself, I write knowing that many other individuals have experienced the same unfair, undeserved treatment from you.

Your role in the Governor’s Office the past few years seems to have been largely dedicated to using state government to settle old scores with real or imagined “enemies” of yours (they were not Tom Corbett’s enemies, that’s for sure, although after you alienated them they aren’t up for helping Tom now), or to create new vendettas as you demonstrate that you have influence over government functions.  For now.

At Governor Tom Corbett’s inaugural back in early 2011, you treated my wife Vivian rudely, to her face, despite her sweet nature and she having never met you before.  She did not deserve that.  Was it your way of getting at me, trying to  hurt me, one more time?  Whatever your purpose, it was petty behavior unbecoming someone in your senior, public role.

It is difficult to accept that you have become this way, but it has become a universal truth in Harrisburg that you are, in fact, angry at the world and determined to get even with everyone in it, whether they are guilty (of what?!) or innocent.

I suspect a lot of this negative change is a result of your cocoon-like experience inside the Republican Party, where you have been sheltered from the real world for your entire career.  Like all of the other professional staff on the Hill, in both parties, you merely must meet a technical standard, not a performance standard.

Meeting a technical standard means that you, and other professional party people paid by the taxpayers, must merely show up for work and stay out of trouble with your elected boss.  If you were held to a performance standard, then you’d be in a world of trouble.  Other than using your public position to hammer away at “enemies,” what performance for the public have you achieved on the taxpayer’s dime these past three and a half years?

Taking risks, making sacrifices, meeting real deadlines, making personally uncomfortable decisions — none of these are part of the professional life on the Hill, although I am confident that you or others in those roles (even friends of mine) would disagree.  We taxpayers who underwrite your salary see it differently.

As a public servant, Patrick, you are subject to writing like this.  You may hire an attorney to try to get this off the web, and I sarcastically wish you good luck with that.  I stand behind everything written here, as you well know, and if I am pushed to do so, I can certainly provide any necessary evidence to support it.

Good luck with your career, Patrick.  Unless you are recycled back into the Republican Party, and God knows I really hope you are not, because I think you are a huge liability to our party, you are destined to work in the private sector.  Here is some valuable advice: Don’t treat people in the private sector the way you treated them when you were in the public sector.  You won’t last five minutes.  Other than that, I hope you enjoy your family and show humble appreciation for all of the good things that God has bestowed upon you.

–Josh

Am I off the radar screen? Pardon me while I follow the migrations

Across the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the eastern US interior, fish and animals are migrating, or following mating instincts as they prepare to mate or compete for mating rights.

Those of us who are hunter-gatherer-naturalists are following these natural pulses of animal life, as this is the best time of year to intersect with our prey.  These movements and motions of our prey naturally lead us out into the ocean, onto river banks, hunkered down on field edges, along the beaches, or into the woods with a bow and arrow.

Striped bass, blue fish, deer, doves, and geese are all moving.  Their calls may often be distant, or mostly silent, but they pull me nonetheless.  If given the choice between writing about politics and culture, or hunting and fishing (and running a business and family), the blog always comes in last.

So please forgive me if I am off the Internet radar screen right now, as I follow these magical migrations happening all around us.  Our ancestors did the same thing for tens of thousands of years, too.  I will return…

Life’s natural rhythms

Hunting and gathering have provided 95% of the sustenance for humans on Planet Earth, for most of our time as modern humans. These activities are a natural, seasonal rhythm outside of the equatorial region.

Usually more gathering is done during the summer months in temperate climates, when fruits, vegetables, and nuts would be ripening.  Hunting typically occurs all year ’round, but picks up in the Fall and Winter.

Our garden produced a constant supply of non-sprayed, healthy, fresh, naturally ripened food this summer.  As usual, some plants did really well, while others eventually failed long before their time.  Nevertheless, the garden produced more than we could keep up with, and is now coming to a close.  It was a pleasurable way to eat – walk into the back yard, pick some fresh vegetables, make a salad or sandwich inside, and then taste the sunlight.

Now, hunting and trapping seasons are upon us, and it’s as if a hidden switch was flicked ON in my body.  I suppose a hundred thousand years of hunting and gathering cannot be easily scrubbed from our DNA and body’s natural inclinations, although some people pretend they can (and should).

In a country awash in cheap, easily accessible food, growing a successful garden and harvesting wild meat for the table may seem silly, but the truth is these are skills being honed.  Anyone who thinks the food, electricity, water, and heat which define American life will always be easily available is fooling themselves.  Anything could happen to disrupt those supplies.  Could be something small, or something big, or something cataclysmic.  Either way, oscillating with nature’s natural rhythms is both, well, natural, and also healthy.  Ignoring those natural rhythms is like double-dog-daring something bad to happen to you, and it will, because in human history, change is the constant.

Enjoy the colorful Central Pennsylvania Fall, and Go Lions!

Muslims 4, Infidels 0

British aid worker Alan Henning is the latest innocent beheading victim.

Reports are in that British drones know where the ISIS captives are held, and where serial sadist and chief beheader “Jihad John” is located in Raqqa, Syria.

But Obama is dedicated to half-hearted efforts, symbols, really, of opposition to ISIS. His aerial bombing raids have killed more camels and civilians than Islamic bad guys.  A serious rescue mission could work, but it would require “boots on the ground,” which Obama opposes.

So far, sweet, generous Westerners are losing and the Muslims are winning. Radical Muslims want to cut off your head, and “moderate” Muslims want the radicals to cut off your head. There’s really no other way to confront this than to fight to win.

Two private property rights bills before PA legislature

Pennsylvania private property rights are under the gun right now.

HB1565 would provide a small fix to a patently unconstitutional regulation issued by PA DEP four years ago. That regulation takes 150 feet of buffer land from property owners adjoining Exceptional Value and High Quality streams.  Pretty much nothing can be done inside that buffer.  No compensation is paid, no tax write-offs are allowed, no charitable contributions are allowed or facilitated under this horrendous rule.

Smart Growth tools have long called for rewarding land owners who give up usage of private land for environmental purposes. Increased building density on the non-buffer land is a big reward and an incentive for landowners to contribute protected land to the greater good.

But the current regulation is not focused on working with landowners. Rather, it treats landowners like a piggy bank, which can be robbed whenever needed.

Protecting the environment is easy to do. Old fashioned top-down, command and control, big government, one size fits all regulations like the 150-foot buffer rule don’t protect the environment any better than carefully tailored rules. It’s not like this is a choice between environmental protection or none at all.

So encourage your state senator to vote for HB1565.

The other issue is SB76, which will provide relief to property owners who are being taxed out of their homes by teachers unions. Government school taxes account for about 80% of the annual property taxes paid, so dealing with government pensions and government unions bargaining positions should help alleviate the pressure on home owners and farmers.

Encourage your state representative to support SB76, which will lower private property taxes and reshape the way taxes are allocated.

Private property is supposed to be sacrosanct. I’d suggest anyone supporting the 150-foot buffer rule simply give up their front lawn to the neighborhood as a public play area. Put your money where your mouth is, or quit demanding that other people’s money get spent in ways you think are superior than the owner would spend it.

Obama’s Ebola gift to the nation

Obama’s administration has actively opened the borders and suppressed efforts to curb illegal aliens.

His administration has released hundreds of violent criminals into American communities, because they were illegal aliens.

His administration has allowed illegal aliens to bring typhus and other dangerous diseases into America, and now his gift to us is Ebola, the kill-you-now disease from Africa.

This list of Obama’s malfeasance reads like the list of indictments of King George in our Declaration of Independence, but it may be worse.

Obama’s War On America is designed to create as many new welfare voters as possible.  Legal immigrants are not what he wants, but rather people who have no stake in America, no contributions to America, and no commitment to America, other than what they can get for free from our taxpayers and then demand more.

But many voters are awakening to what this really means.  When Ebola arrived from illegal aliens and from foreign travelers who should have never been allowed into America, more and more Americans now recognize that Grievance Politics is dangerous.  It’s not just vote dilution.  Now it is public health threats on a massive scale, and Obama is purposefully introducing a toxic cocktail of diseases that threatens everyone.  He hates America that much.

Let us hope that our collective love for our nation is stronger than his executive-action hate.

PA Senator Mike Folmer on our pension crisis

Pennsylvania’s Pension Crises

by Mike Folmer, PA State Senator

August 21, 2014

President Kennedy said: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”

Pennsylvania’s failure to address its public pension problems recently resulted in another downgrade of its bond rating: from Aa2 to Aa3. According to the rating agency Moody’s, “. . . the expectation that large and growing pension liabilities coupled with modest economic growth will limit Pennsylvania’s ability to regain structural balance in the near term.”

Consider where Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) was prior to 2001 changes enhancing benefits: $9.5 Billion surplus and a 123.8% funded ratio (100% is an appropriate ratio). Using the most recent actuarial valuations, the funded ratio for the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and PSERS (using an optimistic 7.5% annual asset return assumption) was 59.2% and 63.8% respectively. Further declines are expected.

Pennsylvania’s private sector has predictable and affordable pension costs while providing employees with competitive retirement benefit packages. Over 70% of these firms have defined contribution plans for new hires with average employer costs ranging from 4% to 7% of payroll. (All private sector defined benefit plans must eliminate any deficits over time – often as short as seven years).

Ignoring such facts has resulted in unsustainable plans in states from New Jersey to California. Cities like Chicago and Detroit face bankruptcy because of public pension costs.

Courts have said public pension benefits once earned are protected by Pennsylvania’s Constitution: Article I, Section 17, “Impairment of Contracts.”

I’m not part of the legislative pension system as I believe Article II, Section 8 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution doesn’t provide for elected officials’ pensions: “The members of the General Assembly shall receive such salary and mileage for regular and special sessions as shall be fixed by law, and no other compensation whatever, whether for service upon committee or otherwise.”

This same provision is why I also return my legislative cost of living adjustment: “No member of either House shall during the term for which he may have been elected, receive any increase of salary, or mileage, under any law passed during such term.”

Nonetheless, I’m regularly asked why Pennsylvania underfunds its public pension plans. Taxpayers fear proper funding policies will result in districts increasing property taxes to pay pension contributions. Schools say the alternative is cutting programs or increasing class sizes.

Failure to contribute at least the actuarially recommended contribution transfers ever-mounting debt to future generations. The combined liabilities of SERS and the PSERS are over $50 Billion – and growing. These costs are the fastest growing state budget line item.

Separate from proper plan funding are new GASB (Government Accounting Standards Board) accounting and reporting standards to assess current and future pension obligations. Unfunded liabilities will now be reflected on school districts’ balance sheets and the underfunding issue will be further highlighted. Increasing numbers of municipal and school audits will be flagged due to GASB 67 (“Financial Reporting for Pension Plans”) and GASB 68 (“Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pensions”) standards.

In 2009, legislation (which I opposed) was enacted attempting to address Philadelphia’s public pension problems: a temporary 1% Sales and Use Tax increase. This “temporary” tax was subsequently extended. Purchases in Philadelphia include an 8% Sales Tax. However, Philadelphia’s pension liabilities have continued to grow. Like Pennsylvania’s infamous “temporary” 1936 Johnstown Flood Tax, this tax continues to exist and continues to grow. Ironically, Philadelphia is being flooded with pension liabilities.

In 2010, another law was passed to address Pennsylvania’s pension issues. Act 120 made some benefit changes for new employees, including: raising the vesting period to 10 years from five, reducing the multiplier to calculate retirement benefits (to 2.0% from 2.5%), increasing the retirement age for new employees to age 65, eliminating lump sum payouts of employees’ contributions and interest upon retirement, and limiting maximum retirement benefits to 100% of final actual salary.

But, Act 120 also continued the practice of underfunding, which further deferred state and local pension contributions to future years through “collars:” below recommended actuarial levels, which reduce public pension funding by about $1 Billion to $2 Billion annually. Such sustained underfunding has resulted in numerous credit downgrades. This is why I also opposed this measure.

Supporters of the status quo urge the General Assembly to allow Act 120 “time to work.” However, since passage of Act 120, pension liabilities have grown to $50 Billion from $41 Billion; the original assumptions of Act 120 have shown Act 120 has failed to attain its goals.

This $50 Billion deficit is growing by over $10 Million a day – over $3 Billion a year. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth, municipalities, and schools are allowed by law to underfund these plans by about $1 Billion to $2 Billion a year. Every 0.5% reduction in SERS and PSERS assumed investment returns adds approximately $7 Billion to their combined unfunded liabilities. If PSERS would compute its unfunded liability using market value of assets, this change alone would immediately add about $8 Billion to the deficit.

Failure to both properly fund these plans or move new hires to a defined contribution plan will only make matters worse (the claims of unaffordable transition costs are vastly overstated). Taxpayers should fear higher taxes to continue to fund public pensions. Public employees should fear their continued solvency.

There is a cost for inaction.

Fifty years of designated wilderness

Two weeks ago marked the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act.

It applies to federal designation of remote areas, not to states. States can create their own wild areas, and some do. States closest to human populations and land development seem to also be most assertive about setting aside large areas for people and animals to enjoy.

I enjoy wilderness a lot. Hunting, camping, hiking, fishing, and exploring are all activities I do in designated wilderness.

Every year I hunt Upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains, in a large designated wilderness area. Pitching a tent miles in from the trail head, the only person I see is a hunting partner. Serenity like that is tough to find unless you already live in northern Vermont, Maine, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming or Alaska. It’s a valuable thing, that tranquility.

This summer my young son sat in my lap late at night, watching shooting stars against an already unbelievably starry sky. Loons cried out all around us. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves on the birch trees above us and caused the lake to lap against our rocky shore.

Only by driving a long way north, and then canoeing on a designated wilderness lake, and camping on a designated wilderness island in that lake, were we able to find such peace and quiet. No one else was anywhere around us. We were totally alone, with our camp fires, firewood chores, fishing rods, and deep sleeps in the cold tent.

These are memories likely to make my son smile even as he ages and grapples with responsibilities and challenges of adulthood. We couldn’t do it without wilderness.

Wilderness is a touchstone for a frontier nation like America. Wilderness equals freedom of movement, freedom of action. The same sort of freedoms that instigated insurrection against the British monarchy. American frontiersmen became accustomed to individual liberty unlike anything seen in Western Civilization. They enshrined those liberties in our Constitution.

Sure, there are some frustrations associated with managing wilderness.

Out West, wilderness designation has become a politicized fight over access to valuable minerals under the ground. Access usually involves roads, and roads are the antithesis of a wild experience.

Given the large amount of publicly owned land in the West, I cannot help but wonder if there isn’t some bartering that could go on to resolve these fights. Take multiple use public land and designate it as wilderness, so other areas can responsibly yield their valuable minerals. Plenty of present day public land was once heavily logged, farmed, ranched, and mined, but those scars are long gone.

You can hike all day in a Gold Mine Creek basin and find one tiny miner’s shack from 1902. All other signs have washed away, been covered up by new layers of soil, etc. So there is precedent for taking once-used land and letting it heal to the point where we visitors would swear it is pristine.

Out East, where we have large hardwood forests, occasionally, huge valuable timber falls over in wilderness areas, and the financially hard-pressed locals could surely use the income from retrieving, milling, and selling lumber from those trees. But wilderness rules usually require such behemoths to stay where they lay, symbols of an old forest rarely seen anywhere today. They can be seen as profligate waste, I understand that. I also understand that some now-rare salamanders might only make their homes under these rotting giant logs, and nowhere else.

Seeing the yellow-on-black body of the salamander makes me think of the starry night sky filled with shooting stars. A rare thing of beauty in a world full of bustle, noise, voices, and concrete. For me, I’ll take the salamander.

And yet another Muslim beheads yet another innocent victim

Oklahoma may be our heartland, full of normal, hard working Americans, but it is also home to a mosque. And home to a Muslim guy named Alton Nolen from that mosque.

Shouting Muslim battle cries and Islamic supremacy slogans, Nolen cut the head off a nice, innocent lady named Colleen Hufford, who worked with him. Maybe she was one of his co-workers who resisted his efforts to convert them to Islam.

Nolen was stopped in his attempt to behead a second woman only because an employee there had a concealed gun, and shot Nolen. Yet another lesson here, for those wishing to learn from it.

Finding photos of Nolen is easy. Finding photos of Hufford has been impossible. There may be a race issue here, which the mainstream media would naturally suppress if it runs counter to their false narrative a la Ferguson, MO.

Fascinating to see Oklahoma churches issue a statement that this act was not representative of Islam, on the same day an official press event was held at which dozens of local Muslims reportedly read from the Koran, shouted out Islamic supremacist slogans, and laughed. A photo of that event shows a throng of people, many wearing Muslim pajamas, circling the event participants.  A couple of tweets reportedly from the event are the basis of this description.

Fascinating to see some law enforcement officials say this beheading has nothing to do with Muslim terrorism. As if it could be associated with anything else, right?

Plenty of news out there on this, no need to re-hash it all here, but definitely a need to be a voice for sanity and honesty on this subject.

Islam, you’ve got a problem. Please fix it.