Morning Must Reads: Unemployment Benefits Extended, Prevailing Wage Change Stalls and Running Government Like a Business

What a difference an election year makes. Last year was full of pointless brinksmanship over federal policy issues that will take several decades to solve. Those battles at times looked like they threatened the near term health of the economy. 

The New Year is shaping up to be very different. The New York Times reports this morning that a deal has been struck to extend the payroll tax reduction and extended unemployment benefits through the end of the year. Tentatively, it looks as if efforts to weaken the unemployment insurance system have been blocked. Both the payroll tax reduction and extended unemployment benefits were set to expire at the end of February, and the failure to extend them was on most economists' lists of things that could weaken the economy in 2012.

The Allentown Morning Call reports that an effort to weaken Pennsylvania's prevailing wage law appears to have stalled. There is little evidence that the presence or absence of prevailing wage laws raise public construction costs. There is, however, abundant evidence that repeal of these laws lowers the wages of construction workers. Read more here.

So why the effort to weaken the law? It is about catering to owners and executives of contractors who pad their pockets by paying workers’ poorly.

Governor Tom Corbett, meanwhile, is touring the state to promote his 2012-13 budget. 

Corbett insisted to reporters during his tour of the high-tech Siemens Medical Solutions plant that his 2012-13 plan for a steep new cuts in state aid to higher education — including 30 percent less money to state-backed schools such as Pennsylvania State and Temple Universities — could be dealt with by reducing campus operating costs, not by raising tuition...

"A lot of people are upset at spending at that level, but that's all the money that we have," he said, reiterating his vow not to raise taxes...

He argued that the state had to be run more like a private business — like Siemens, in fact — to create more jobs and cut costs.

"We can't continue to raise our prices," he said, referring to college costs. "If Siemens kept increasing prices, they would make themselves uncompetitive."

Speaking of "all the money that we have" and running the government like a "private business" that gives away its services for free even when it has no idea whether the benefits of that policy exceed the costs ... Governor Corbett has signed into law an extension of Keystone Opportunity Zones.

Gov. Tom Corbett on Monday signed a bill extending for 13 years the Keystone Opportunity Zones program that exempts businesses from paying many state and local taxes.

Exemptions run for up to 10 years, but the bill lets companies enroll through the end of 2015 so the program now will run through 2025...

While KOZs started in 1999 to promote the use of distressed lands and run-down properties, lawmakers and observers noted instances in the early years of the program where companies enjoyed the tax benefits without investing in properties or creating jobs.

Finally this morning, we have lots of news on the impact of economic austerity around the state. For starters, school districts in Cumberland County are moving to balance their budgets by raising fees, and the Lancaster School District faces a budget shortfall.

The Philadelphia City Controller has issued a grim warning about the Philadelphia School District's financial future.

As expected, City Controller Alan Butkovitz included a warning Tuesday about the Philadelphia School District's finances in a report that could result in higher borrowing costs for the district.

The comprehensive annual report, sent to bond-rating agencies and bondholders, includes a paragraph expressing reservations about the district's financial viability.

The school district, the controller's office said, "has experienced continued operating funds losses, is projecting significant budget shortfalls for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, and is uncertain about its ability to achieve cost savings and obtain additional funding to overcome these budget shortfalls. These conditions raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern."

And social service agencies in Northeastern Pennsylvania are bracing for cuts.

The week that area social services agencies have had to chew on the cuts in Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 2012-13 budget has not made them any easier to swallow.

Amid still-unanswered questions over how a 20 percent smaller pool of funding within a revamped Human Services Development Fund will be distributed at the local level, critics say the one certainty is children and people with disabilities will be among those bearing the brunt of the cuts.

"It's going to take through the year to find out who really are going to be the victims here," Michael Hanley, executive director of United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, said Tuesday. "Certainly, what we do know is it is going to be the most vulnerable. That is a given."

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