A Polarizing Pattern?

The Keystone Research Center’s recent back-and-forth with the Marcellus Shale Coalition over industry job growth brought to mind the other two contexts in which I have interacted with Coalition president and executive director, Kathryn Klaber.

I met Ms. Klaber in 2002, when we participated in the “PA 21” business-labor tax project initiated by the Pennsylvania Business Roundtable and the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. The Keystone Research Center, the Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL) and Ernst & Young made up the “technical team.” Ms. Klaber worked at the time for the PEL office in Pittsburgh. The project goal was a consensus tax package lowering taxes for business while respecting the labor goals of adequate revenue and greater tax equity.

For my money, the flexibility and creativity showed by both sides, and the quality of the final report, underscored the value of this type of research-backed exchange between stakeholders with different interests. Dr. R. Michael Cortez of Sheetz, a member of Governor Ed Rendell’s Business Tax Reform Commission, called the "PA 21" report “the most comprehensive, easy-to-understand, if that's possible, discussion of Pennsylvania taxes I've seen. It's extremely useful."

In 2008, the Keystone Research Center began working on another collaborative project with PEL aimed at reinventing Pennsylvania’s economic development policy. After 18 months, PEL dropped out of the project because its Southwest office, then headed by Ms. Klaber, objected to the policy and advocacy work of our tax and budget project, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. We did not see why disagreements in one policy area should impede a search for common ground in a second.

We understand that there are structural reasons that we want to cooperate more than Ms. Klaber. There are limits on what we and other advocates for the middle class and low-income families can achieve on our own.

But we are not the only losers: a more fact-based, inclusive, and civil dialogue will generate better solutions — on policy related to the Marcellus industry as well as on tax policy generally (the subject of PA21), economic development, and a host of other issues. Based on 15 years of research, we think a more prosperous and equitable Pennsylvania is there for the taking — if our politics and policy process were less broken.

Behind the decay of our political process is money. If folks with the most money have enough ability to influence the process through contributions, through lobbying, and through their communications and advocacy, then why should they negotiate with the rest of us? Why not just squash like a bug anyone who has the temerity to take a different policy position, or even to question their numbers? There’s a name for this kind of political system. And it’s not democracy.

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