Shhhhh! More paid ‘progress’ (& other notes of note)

Shhhhh! More paid ‘progress’ (& other notes of note)

Sound public policy demands robust debate and total transparency. The Allegheny County Airport Authority has more than a thing or two to learn about each.

 

You might recall the authority’s announcement last month that, beginning this month, it had secured twice-weekly cargo flights by Qatar Airways Cargo to points overseas, including Doha in Qatar and Luxembourg.

 

In typical fashion, the authority touted it as “a huge benefit to the region’s business community” and, by extension, the public, opening up the local export market to Europe and Asia.

 

Past is prologue, however; the authority yet again is paying a premium for the increased business. There’s a one-year “incentive” described as “significant,” to be paid monthly to Qatar Airways, based, in part, on shipped tonnage.

 

But the Airport Authority steadfastly refuses to specify just how much it’s paying. To the Post-Gazette, which filed a Right-to-Know request, the authority argued such information is proprietary under the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act of 2004

 

And as authority spokesman Bob Kerlik told the P-G, “This is competitive information and its release would help our numerous competitors that are seeking the same service.

 

“This service is a win for our region and other airports can’t be allowed to access our competitive process,” Kerlik said.

 

That might be the case if the Airport Authority were a private company. But it is a public entity. As is, all of its financial dealings are public information. Despite what Airport Authority officials think, they cannot act with such impunity. If the public can’t access such information, how can it judge if such corporate wealthfare “is a win for our region”?

 

Perversely, the authority’s position sets up a situation in which the public might never know how much money was given to a private entity, even if this exercise in government command economics fails.

 

And talk about a perversion of market economics. Qatar Airways appears to have entered the Pittsburgh market because a public agency primed its pump, so to speak. What happens when the primer runs out and the pump runs dry? The region’s history with such “deals” is most instructive.

 

The public has every right to know what its government representatives, elected and appointed, are doing with public money.

 

It never – never – is in the public interest for a public authority to attempt to eclipse its dealing from the public whence it derives its authority to operate.

 

As one legal analysis of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act concluded, in part, the act “preserves the notion that a trade secret must be unknown to and not readily ascertainable by others.”

 

But by the very nature of what the Allegheny County Airport Authority is – a public authority – any and all expenditures are public information and must be readily ascertainable by others.

 

A public authority that attempts to hide its dealings in the name of better serving the public is not serving the public at all. In fact, it represents an arrogance that has no place in the public policy sphere.

 

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board could spend more than half-a-million dollars to make sure all its “I’s” are dotted and its “T’s” crossed as it pursues a deal to “securitize/monetize” – that is, borrow — $1.25 billion from its coffers to help close a $2.2 billion hole in this year’s state General Budget.

 

That’s according to Pennlive.com. It reports that required “financial advisory services” and “legal expertise” related to the deal will be capped at $300,000 each.

 

Feel better? That, of course, does not include borrowing costs over two decades. Neither does it factor in the cost of a deal that effectively will serve as a poison pill to prevent privatization of the LCB over the next 20 years.

 

Such additional costs to taxpayers could have been avoided had the administration — and state legislators in other tax and spend schemes — worked to cut spending to close the budget gap instead of putting the commonwealth into a deeper hole by borrowing more and kicking a cost-efficiency to the curb.

 

The Marcellus shale industry has been none too happy with legislative efforts to impose a severance, or extraction, tax on top of the existing impact fee. And with good reason — the more you tax something, the less you get of it. But the latest proposal has insiders particularly riled.

 

House Bill 1401 was reported out the House Finance Committee on Oct. 18. Full House consideration would be next.

 

Chief sponsor Gene DiGirolamo, a Bensalem Republican, told the Courier-Times of Bucks County that he’s “very excited” because it’s the first time such a proposal has advanced.

 

There are lots of things one can say about raising taxes. But being “excited” about it typically isn’t one of them for most people.

 

The measure would, as written, impose a tax of about 3 percent on extracted natural gas, earmarked for the General Fund.

 

How much the tax actually would produce, however, remains in dispute. While DiGirolamo contends it would raise between $200 million and $250 million annually, industry insiders cite a long history of inflated revenue projections from such tax proposals and say the more likely amount is about $108 million.

 

Here’s to the Independent Fiscal Office scoring this legislation to settle the matter once and for all. Better yet, here’s to yet another onerous proposed severance tax dying on the vine.

 

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).