The state of our region
JAN 27, 2018 – Just ahead of the State of the Union speech President Donald Trump gives Tuesday, Post-Gazette reporters have gathered information on the state of Western Pennsylvania and what people involved in politics, government, business, religious life, health care and environmental issues see in the months ahead.
A year after the newly inaugurated president promised quick repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and despite efforts to replace Obamacare over the ensuing 12 months, the program is quite alive, with more than 8 million Americans signed up for 2018 plans including nearly 400,000 Pennsylvanians.
Locally, both UPMC Health Plan and Highmark say they remain committed to offering ACA plans locally, even as one expands and the other steps back. In 2017, UPMC offered ACA policies in all 29 Western Pennsylvania counties, including one of the lowest-cost Silver plans in the U.S., while Highmark withdrew from 17 of the 29 counties after suffering massive losses in the marketplace’s first years.
Still waiting for Congress to act, Pennsylvania community health centers begin cutbacks
For the current year, the Consumer Health Coalition on the North Side reports helping 1,248 people — including 784 who qualify for medical assistance — signed up for 2018 ACA plans, which “overshot our goals significantly,” said executive director Lou Ann Jeremko.
But attacks on the ACA nationally, such as eliminating the tax penalty in 2019 on those who do not obtain insurance, leaves the future stability of the marketplace still in question.
While corporations stand to reap the biggest windfall from the Republican tax overhaul, average workers here and across the country are likely to see a slight increase in pay due to an adjustment in the federal income tax withholding tables.
Higher income workers will benefit more than lower income workers when the tax savings are considered dollar for dollar, although it is difficult to say exactly how much more because different taxpayers have different exemptions that contribute to the bottom line.
But in general, a worker earning about $2,000 a month may see a pay increase of about $10, whereas a taxpayer earning $200,000 a year could see a benefit of a couple thousand dollars.
With the top tax rate for corporations slashed from 35 percent to 21 percent, many corporations see an opportunity to increase employee salaries, said Alex Kindler, a partner at H2R CPA in Green Tree. “We’ve had tax cuts before, but this is the first time I’ve had so many corporate clients say they will pass the savings on by increasing pay to workers.”
Advocates for the poor fear the president and congressional Republicans could enact major cuts to safety-net programs such as Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income and disabled people, or the food stamp program.
They also fear cuts to funds for affordable housing, money for heating assistance, legal help for the poor, or Supplemental Security Income, a program for people with disabilities.
“We are generally concerned that another year will go by without any real policies to address poverty and hunger,” said Emily Cleath, a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh anti-hunger advocacy group Just Harvest. “These should include passing HR 1276 so that SNAP [food stamps] benefit amounts better reflect the actual cost of a healthy diet, raising the federal minimum wage, mandating paid Family and Medical Leave, addressing the critical shortage of affordable housing, and funding universal high-quality childcare and preK. Imagine how great a nation we would be if we could provide those things. Instead, this administration and Republican leaders in Congress seem more interested in perpetuating the War on the Poor.”
White evangelical Protestants have been among Mr. Trump’s strongest supporters nationwide, though that figure was a less-stratospheric 61 percent in December than earlier in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.
And in Pennsylvania, more Protestants considered themselves Trump supporters than opponents, a recent Franklin and Marshall College Poll said.
Major evangelical figures such as Franklin Graham and Tony Perkins have defended Mr. Trump even amid reports of a 2016 payoff to a porn star with whom Mr. Trump allegedly had sex a decade ago while his wife cared for their newborn.
Evangelicals may play “even a bigger role” in the second year of the Trump administration, said Messiah College’s John Fea, an outspoken critic of “court evangelicals” who he said excuse anything Mr. Trump does.
“He’s giving them everything that they want,” from conservative, anti-abortion federal court appointees to recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, a state that many evangelicals support “because of their interpretation of prophecy” about Israel’s role in a future apocalypse.
“He needs that evangelical base,” said Mr. Fea, author of a forthcoming book entitled, “Believe Me,” on Trump’s evangelical backers. “In terms of raw politics, it’s a smart political calculation.”
Paul Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College, said many evangelicals supported Mr. Trump not out of enthusiasm but as the lesser of two evils on such issues as religious liberty, abortion, gay marriage and sexuality.
“But again and again, I hear the frequent complaints and pleas that Trump should stay off his Twitter account, watch his mouth, and try to act in a more civil, dignified manner (assuming that’s possible for him),” Mr. Kengor, author of multiple books on faith and the presidency, said via email.
Mr. Trump’s reported vulgarity toward countries such as Haiti has dismayed students who do mission work in Haiti, he said. “I’ve heard the refrain many times: ‘I wish President Trump would just shut up and do his job. He makes it really hard for us to defend and support him,’” he said.
Mr. Trump’s administration has already undone many environmental and climate regulations and safeguards, including abandoning the Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, permitting of the Keystone XL Pipeline, opening ocean drilling along much of the nation’s coastline, lifting a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land, reconsideration of clean car mileage standards, shrinking several federal monuments, and the waiving of multiple environmental rules to facilitate construction of the Mexican border wall.
Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker said that while rollbacks of Clean Power Plan and Methane Rule regulations could hurt the state Department of Environmental Protection, she doesn’t foresee any direct impact on the county’s air quality program.
But the president’s proposed budget cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency are more worrisome, she said.
“… EPA cuts could impact our Air Quality Program,” Dr. Hacker said. “This would make it more difficult to carry out our responsibilities in a timely manner. For example, fewer staff could impact our inspection ability or prolong permit development.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said, “The President’s environmental positions — or a lack thereof — are putting Pittsburgh and the world in a disadvantaged position. Cuts to the EPA will hinder our efforts to improve water quality and stormwater management, and 21st century energy and manufacturing are getting hit by unfair tariffs and uncertainty in the tax code.”
Neil Shader, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said federal budget cuts could have a significant impact on environmental programs and protections in the state.
The president’s past budget proposals would have had “severe impacts” on air quality monitoring, allowing leaking storage tanks to pollute groundwater, DEP’s Safe Drinking Water inspection capacity, and protections for Pennsylvania residents from radon gas, something that affects 40 percent of state residences. They would have also hamstrung DEP’s efforts to meet the goals to clean up streams and rivers feeding into the Chesapeake Bay through collaborative work with Pennsylvania farmers.
Pittsburgh city hall had an open relationship with President Barack Obama’s White House, including regular communication with the government affairs staff there. But “that has not been the case” under Mr. Trump, said Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto.
In practical terms, the switch means city officials aren’t going to the White House for meetings and announcements — or hosting and meeting the president when he comes to the Pittsburgh area, Mr. McNulty said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s damaging necessarily. We would love to have a relationship with this White House. If there were initiatives we could support each other on, we’d be happy to do so,” he said.
But like other cities, Mr. McNulty said, “we sometimes feel like we’re being targeted by this administration.” He said that’s especially acute on two subjects important to Mr. Peduto — battling climate change and fostering a welcoming environment for immigrants.
“The administration is making it challenging for all immigrants to come to Pittsburgh or any other city. We want to make it very clear that anyone — whether they’re Ph.D. candidates or refugees — that they’re welcome to make a home in Pittsburgh. President Trump clearly does not share that view.”
Going into Mr. Trump’s second year, Mr. McNulty said, the city sees a continuing need for increased infrastructure spending, including for bridge repair and road upkeep in the Pittsburgh area. Although there’s bipartisan agreement that such investment is necessary, he said, there’s no optimism in city hall that 2018 will bring that extra federal spending.
“We haven’t seen any movement over the past year,” but the city is willing to partner with federal entities on the issue, Mr. McNulty said.
He said the city continues to collaborate with federal agencies on issues such as housing tax credits.
Even before Mr. Trump was elected, the state Legislature was skewing more conservative. A large wave of conservatives was elected in 2010, meaning that when the session began in 2011, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. It’s remained that way since then, and in recent years, both chambers have passed socially and fiscally conservative legislation.
Many in political circles will be watching to see if frustration with Mr. Trump leads to the election of more Democrats or moderate Republicans.
Several legislators in the southeastern part of the state, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs, have already announced that they don’t plan to run for re-election. Among them were state Sens.s Stewart Greenleaf and Chuck McIlhinney and Reps. Robert Godshall and Kathy Watson. State Rep. Scott Petri recently left to head the Philadelphia Parking Authority. All of them are Republicans.
Political observers are monitoring the number of women running for spots in the Legislature to see whether there will be an increase. While campaigning has begun in many races — including high-profile ones for governor and lieutenant governor — candidates don’t have to file key paperwork to formalize their runs for several weeks, so it’s not yet clear whether there will be an increase in women candidates.
On the policy side, some anticipate that tax reform at the federal level could put extra momentum behind efforts to change the tax system at the state level. The topic comes up semi-regularly and generally becomes more heated around the time of budget talks.
A spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf said: “Pennsylvanians are fortunate that the President and Republicans were unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something much worse. Republicans in Congress and the White House tried to make massive cuts to Medicaid, including ending Governor Wolf’s Medicaid expansion, which has helped more than 720,000 Pennsylvanians get access to care. Governor Wolf worked with bipartisan governors to rally support against plans that could have left millions of Pennsylvanians without health insurance or protections for pre-existing conditions and against lifetime caps. We are still waiting for Washington to take up bipartisan reforms that would preserve access and lower the cost of care.”
U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., and Mike Kelly, R-Butler, expect more of the same from Mr. Trump this year. For Mr. Kelly, that’s a great thing. For Mr. Doyle, not so much.
“I haven’t really seen anything come out of this administration that’s been a big benefit to our city,” Mr. Doyle said. “He’s talked a lot about bringing back coal and steel, but another mine just closed in Greene County, and I don’t see where he’s brought any steel mills back online.”
Mr. Kelly said the president – by cuts to both taxes and regulations – has set the stage for job creation in Pittsburgh. The stock market is up, unemployment is down, manufacturing is rebounding, and that’s just the beginning, the way Mr. Kelly sees it.
“The economy is just taking off. It’s just starting to roar. Nobody can argue that things aren’t looking up,” he said. “You can’t force a market, but you can build toward creating a market,” for coal and steel, and that’s what Mr. Trump is doing.
“You need to produce the need, and when we get the economy really moving there’s going be a great need” for steel, he said.
That need will be driven by infrastructure projects that he expects the president and Congress to approve in order to build and fortify roads, bridges, rails, runways and waterways.
That’s something Democrats want to see, too.
“I’d like to see the president start to work with us,” Mr. Doyle said. “We could have a real infrastructure. That would be a good thing for Pittsburgh, and I would be willing to work with him on a real infrastructure bill. I would hope that would be a focus for him in the next year.”
First Published January 27, 2018