January 16, 2017
John Baer, Daily News Columnist
Available Here

It isn’t often (OK, almost never) I write something nice about a politician, but that’s what I’m doing today.

On Tuesday, Joe Torsella, of Flourtown, gets sworn in as Pennsylvania state treasurer, an office with its share of shadowy history.

In the 1980s, Treasurer Budd Dwyer committed gun-in-the-mouth suicide during a news conference after being convicted of various crimes tied to a $300,000 bribe.

Barbara Hafer, who served as treasurer from 1997 to 2005, today faces charges related to post-incumbency consulting payments of $675,000 the feds say she got from a financial firm that received fat fees while she was in office.

A more recent treasurer, Rob McCord, elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012, pleaded guilty in 2015 to attempted extortion connected to fund-raising, and awaits sentencing.

So the bar for this office is fairly low. Torsella seeks to raise it. And the education level of the state. And he’s starting out with his swearing-in.

Unlike many Harrisburg oath-taking events, it won’t happen under the glorious Capitol dome or in the ornate 1,800-seat auditorium of the historic Forum Building nearby.

He’ll be sworn in in front of 600 kids, most ages 11 to 13, at Camp Curtain Academy, an inner-city Harrisburg majority-minority middle school. In the school auditorium. Just him, the kids, some invited guests.

“We’re thrilled,” says Kirsten Keys, school district spokeswoman. “He’s giving our students a live learning opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Why? Well, that’s really the reason I’m writing something nice about him.

“I wanted a place that would be meaningful,” Torsella says, “to remind me why I ran. I want to think of these kids when I go to work.”

The core of Torsella’s campaign for treasurer, which nobody paid any attention to, is a long-term effort to lift all kids.

He proposes automatic college or vocational-training savings accounts for every child born in Pennsylvania, roughly 150,000 annually.

These would be accounts into which the Treasury, using not tax but philanthropic dollars, deposits initial funds to get families started.

He says just four states – Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada – create automatic at- or near-birth accounts based on birth certificates or school enrollment. First deposits range from $50 in Nevada to $500 in Maine.

Every state, including Pennsylvania, already offers some sort of education savings plan with tax benefits, commonly called 529 plans (named for a section of the IRS code), but Torsella says those are used most by those who need them least.

For example, in Chester County – where median income for families with children under 18 is $115,500 – 14.4 percent of kids have accounts. In Philadelphia – where median income for families with children under 18 is $38,000 – just 2.5 percent of kids have accounts.

To expand percentages everywhere, Torsella seeks to provide bonus deposits for low-income families and for “milestone” events tied to education levels or grades.

“Even small deposits can have a huge impact,” he says, “and research shows kids with accounts are seven times more likely to go to college.”

Pennsylvania, according to the financial website 247wallst.com, has the second highest average college debt (after New Hampshire) and the third-highest state college tuition. So, clearly, need exists.

And Torsella’s goal, though ambitious and complex, reflects a mindset rare in politics: thinking beyond the next election.

In a state known for short-sighted, patched-together budgets, and famous for education inequity, increasing the odds of more kids getting post-secondary education is a notable, even noble, aspiration.

If Torsella – who was a Phi Beta Kappa Penn grad, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a Philly deputy mayor, CEO of the National Constitution Center, chairman of the state board of education, ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform – moves that number, maybe others will write something nice about him, too.