Friday, October 28, 2016

Crying in their beer in Pa.

Before we raise a glass to the notion of being able to buy a six-pack of beer at our local beer distributor, maybe we should temper the celebration just a bit when you consider what else happened in Harrisburg this week.

Actually, that might be better phrased what did not happen.

So while we welcome the slow, drip-drip-drip of changing the Keystone State's archaic rules when it comes to sales of alcohol, we remain flummoxed as to how little else actually gets done in the state Capitol.

But first, a toast.

Gov. Tom Wolf says he will sign the bill currently sitting on his desk that marks another big change to the way beer is sold in the state. It will clear the way for beer distributors to sell six-packs. We know, if you happen to be visiting from another state you are wondering what all the fuss is about. Take our word for it. It's a big deal.

You can now buy a six-pack at your local beer distributor, where for decades they have been limited to selling beer only by the case. Back in the summer, the laws were relaxed to give them the same freedom that many supermarkets were enjoying in selling 12-packs. Now the same will apply for six-packs.

It's certainly worthy of a toast.

Less so is the stagnant, snail's pace of so much other critical work that was left undone in Harrisburg. It might be a good time to review just what we are getting for one of the biggest, most expensive legislative bodies in the nation. First and foremost is the critical funding that municipalities derive from their host agreements with those new, legal casinos the Legislature created.

The state Supreme Court knocked down those formulas, agreeing with one of the smaller, boutique-style casinos that they were in effect being taxed at an uneven rate.

That means big bucks here in Delaware County - to the tune of a cool $4.3 million for the county, and an even bigger chunk of change for the city of Chester, which derives $10 million, almost a quarter of its operating budget, from the deal with Harrah's on the city's waterfront.

After an early indication that Harrisburg was going to OK a temporary fix, that solution veered off the tracks in the usual back-and-forth horse trading that is the defining quality of how our state capital operates.

The Senate signed off on the deal, but the House then decided to toss in a move to usher in even more legal gaming, clearing the way for internet gambling and fantasy sports regulation. The Senate balked at those changes.

The Legislature did what it routinely does when an impasse brings progress to a standstill. They hit the road, leaving town to go home to campaign for the jobs they hold so dear. In the meantime, host communities such as Delaware County and Chester are looking at huge holes in their budgets. The timing could not be worse for the county, which is in the process of putting together their spending plan, due to be unveiled next week.

It now looks like the matter will not be addressed until the next session in January.

Not exactly what you would call a sense of urgency.

Then there is perhaps the state's biggest fiscal problem, the massive sea of red ink that is threatening to plunge the state, along with a slew of school districts into financial chaos. That would be the growing deficit in the state's two underfunded public employee pension plans.

For years many have believed that a critical first step would be to dump that bloated, expensive defined benefit plan for all future hires and instead put them in 401-k style plans utilized by most of private industry. Of course legislators instead said they were simply out of time this week and any action on pensions would have to wait until the new year.

That ticking sound you hear is what many experts believe is a ticking time bomb in the state's budget - a pension fund deficit that is now being counted in the billions.

The measure, really only a starting point in meaningful reform, would save the state and school districts $2.6 billion over 32 years. But it's not going to happen, at least not now.

And you will love this little nugget: Current legislators - yeah, the folks voting on this plan - would be exempt and instead would keep their much heftier benefits.

It's the Harrisburg way.

Speaking of inaction, you can sound "Taps" for House Bill 1947.

That is the historic legislation that would have ended the statute of limitations for criminal charges in cases of child sexual abuse, as well as extending the window of time for victims to bring civil suits to age 50.

But a lingering dispute over whether to make the language retroactive deep-sixed any action on the bill. The measure had been overwhelmingly approved 180-15 by the House last spring, but then changed in the Senate after a full-court press to block the retroactive language by the Catholic church and the insurance industry. The Senate took the retroactive language out, then passed the measure. That meant it got kicked back to the House, where it died this week.

House Bill 1947 never made even made it to the floor for a full House vote, which might not have been the worst news for legislators this week. Many of them had been under intense pressure from the church for their votes, and likely did not relish the idea of taking another stand a week before standing in front of voters asking for their votes.

So go ahead and raise a glass to one more baby step out of the dark ages when it comes to way this state sells booze. And then cry in your beer for the way this Legislature continues to avoid tackling the critical issues facing the state.

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