Intern With Keystone Politics! Young Muckrakers Needed to Help Flip the State Senate

Do you like writing on the Internet? Are you maybe a little evil, or at least interested in learning how to think like an evil person? Do you want to help Keystone Politics knock a big chunk off the Republican majority in Harrisburg this fall?

There are a whole lot of fun state-level races happening in addition to the contest for Governor this fall, and we need help from aspiring progressive political journalists and operatives to cover them all during the fall semester.

Our regular writers are going to be busy covering the Governor race and Congressional races this summer and fall, but with just a few seats to flip to turn the state Senate blue, we want to make sure that every state Senate Republican has a buddy!

Send an email to with a paragraph or two about your work background, your issue interests, and why you care about politics, along with three or four writing samples, and if we like what we see we’ll get in touch.

Posted in Elections, State Senate

The Single Biggest Problem With the Harrisburg Draft Zoning Plan

There is a lot to like about the city of Harrisburg’s new draft zoning plan. Raised height limits, lowered parking requirements, ease of administration, and the expansion of the downtown.

There is one problem though which overshadows all of the rest

-The Riverfront District 

Probably Harrisburg’s greatest asset is its extensive riverfront property. Not only is it graced with excellent vistas, but it also has easy access to a valuable bike/pedestrian route that traverses the city’s employer dense, eastside, north/south axis. 

The added value of that asset to the land adjacent to it will not be realized though. In an effort to preserve existing character the draft plan puts almost all of the riverfront’s adjacent property entirely within what is called the Riverfront District. This district requires 50 foot setbacks and 45 foot height caps even though the development of this land to its highest and best use would be higher density, vertical growth. 

To many in Harrisburg this is sacrilege. The city’s first zoning code was introduced in 1950 and all of the properties built well before that date were subject to a gentleman’s agreement of perfect height and setback alignment that was clearly, strictly adhered to. 

It’s is well past time break that agreement. Not to go all “People’s History” but The Lives of the Rich and the Famous, Front Street, always meant that fewer, wealthier individuals got to enjoy the excellent views, cooling breezes, and park-side access. 

Instead of satisfying what would be an obvious market demand, by setting the rules of the real estate market in this way, many properties actually loose value and are harder to fill with tenants or owners. Jeb Stuart at Todaysthedayhbg captures this in his most recent column (but draws all the wrong conclusions).

Even more at hand is the recently disclosed plans of River Plaza to demolish the next door Italianate-styled Christian Brinser Mansion completed in 1913 at 2301 N. Front Street for surface parking, the first time in many decades that a Front Street home would be lost. While it has been known that pressures could be waged upon the homes on the west side of N. Second Street for Front Street accessory parking,

Some old mansions make great offices, others don’t, and as historic properties, they can be difficult to augment and pricey to restore.None of this property should be allowed to be made into surface parking, but that is what our current restrictions turn into a viable choice. In many instances those large setbacks to make for pastoral lawns, have just been turned into parking lots too.

My ideal district here would designate those deserving of preservation, to avoid potential raising by zealous owners, but also allow greater density and height. Parking mandates should be lowered and the setbacks should be lessened as well so that lot parking can be required to be in the rear. If there is a desire for stricter aesthetics requirements too, so be it. 

Being so close to multi-modal transportation options would lower, if not fully eliminate the parking requirements too. Last year’s Origin/Destination Study by TCRPC revealed that by a large margin the number one trip destination was Harrisburg city. 

By allowing more of those commuters to live on affordable, desirable real estate, and potentially take their cars off the road at peak hours, you are shortening everyone’s commute and putting money back in everyone’s pockets.

Neighbors will complain about the added vehicles to street parking. They did when Mary K. tried to build her excellent multi-unit project on the riverfront and those NIMBYs eventually won. The spaces they use don’t belong to them though. They are public, and defeats like that show why it is too hard to do good development in the city.

Any worries about parking or density would be overshadowed by the net positive benefit that having a greater number of residents potentially out of their cars and walking/biking around town would bring.


Posted in Economic Development, Harrisburg / South Central, Land Use, Transportation

Loosening Street Food Regulations Helps Poor People

Food trucks have acquired something of a yuppie brand in recent years, because yuppies like to buy the food, but on the business owner side mobile food vending is anything but a yuppie pursuit. It’s really hard work!

Policymakers need to understand the mobile vending phenomenon as a bridge between establishing some cooking skills at home and establishing a full-service restaurant. The food truck or cart or bike entails less overhead than a traditional restaurant, so it’s easier for a person with a good family recipe and some hustle to get a business off the ground with less capital than would be required to start a traditional storefront restaurant.

As such, designing your city regulations to promote mobile vending helps the people in your community who don’t have great access to traditional sources of capital start businesses. Many local officials with otherwise progressive views on state and national issues sometimes get it in their heads that the progressive thing to do is block or dull competition between street food vendors and traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, in response to whining from those traditional businesses, but there’s nothing progressive about that. Food trucks and carts are just as clean as, if not cleaner than, traditional restaurants and don’t need the superfluous health regulations that incumbent restaurant owners often recommend for them.

Here’s a cool Monkey Cage post from Alisha Holland summarizing a forthcoming article on street vending politics in Latin America showing that Latin American politicians and voters have a better understanding of the distributional issues than their counterparts in the US:

Lastly, if non-enforcement functions as a type of informal welfare system, then politicians and citizens should think of it as they do other social welfare programs. I interviewed dozens of local politicians and found that more than two-thirds avoid enforcement due to its “social costs.” They also worry about appearing insensitive to the poor’s needs. Chilean politicians, for example, feared that enforcement would make them “worse than Pinochet.”

Politicians’ concerns are real. As a part of an ongoing book project on informal welfare policies, I ran a public opinion survey and found that candidates who propose to enforce against street vendors are seen as unlikely to favor the poor’s interests in office. Poor voters also say that they are less likely to support politicians who enforce than those who let vendors work unchecked. The takeaway is that enforcement has political costs. Not all politicians are willing to take this hit.

Posted in Economic Development, Issues

#PABudget: Can Corbett Even Deliver GOP Votes for Cigs-for-Pensions Hostage Trade?

One under-explored wrinkle in the unfolding Philly school funding hostage negotiations is whether Tom Corbett can even credibly promise to deliver the Republican votes to release the hostage – the local option cigarette tax.

“I would encourage the delegation, the Democrat delegation, from the city of Philadelphia … to give the votes to get a pension bill done so they can get a cigarette tax done so they can get additional funding for the school district of Philadelphia,” Corbett told reporters during a briefing in his Capitol offices. “It’s in their hands.”

It’s not like this is just a simple matter of adding the Philadelphia Democratic delegation’s votes to the Republican votes for pension cuts. Once the cigarette tax is in the mix, Corbett is guaranteed to lose a bunch of right wing votes for the deal. How many? Who knows!

I won’t claim to know what the vote count looks like at this point, but just looking at how these kinds of negotiations have gone down during other Corbett-era budget fights, it would be highly imprudent to assume Corbett actually controls any GOP votes, that he knows how many votes he controls, or that his administration has even engaged with Republican leadership in the legislature before making public statements teasing this deal.

Also, pro tip: if you want Democratic politicians to listen, maybe don’t use the “Democrat” formulation Republicans like to use to casually taunt the party.

Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, Issues, State House, State Senate

The “On-Time Budget” Metric: Who Actually Gives a Crap?

Why is this a thing anybody is interested in?

What matters is what’s in the budget, not when it gets voted on.

I don’t get it. Is it that this is an “objective” metric that journalists feel comfortable using to evaluate who “won” the budget season? As opposed to more qualitative stuff like “are schoolchildren going to be ok?”

Posted in Budget, Issues

How Can Democrats “Sabotage” the #PABudget Talks When They Don’t Control Anything?

This talking point makes no sense:

But in recent days, Corbett, the state Republican Party and other Republicans have accused Democrats of trying to sabotage budget talks to help Corbett’s opponent, Democrat Tom Wolf, win the Nov. 4 election.

There are three groups negotiating over the budget in Harrisburg right now:

1. The Republican-controlled Corbett administration
2. House Republicans in the Republican-controlled General Assembly
3. Senate Republicans in the Republican-controlled Senate

If the Republicans can’t find a majority of votes within their party for the big Republican priorities in this budget – stiffing the pension fund to backfill in the huge hole created by their unpaid-for corporate tax cuts, and doing…something to the state liquor stores – even though they control all three branches of government, then that’s clearly a Republican problem.

There’s no way for Democrats to sabotage the negotiations: they don’t control anything! They haven’t been included in the negotiations, and they don’t support the Republicans’ budget priorities, so naturally they’re not going to vote for them.

But that’s fine, because there are more Republicans than Democrats in the state legislature, so they should be able to pass a Republican budget that reflects the values they want to run on this fall.

Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, Issues, State House, State Senate

Shorter Charles Zogby: Soak the Pensions or the Kid Gets It

It’s worth taking a step back to unpack what’s happened here.

PA Republicans scrapped the Rendell funding formula that would have given about $360 million more to Philadelphia schools each year if we were still using it, and topped up state aid to other districts across the state serving distressed communities.

The point of the formula was that we wouldn’t be distributing money based on politicking anymore – it’d be based on actual statistics and the actual needs of students.

Not only have the Republicans dispensed with the funding formula approach and gone back to distributing the money based on political connections, they’ve taken it a full step further.

Meet the new threat-based budgeting; where lawmakers who won’t support irresponsible pension underfunding ideas are threatened with funding cuts for the children in their districts.

“If Philadelphia Democrats aren’t going to be there for what needs to be done, then nobody’s going to be there for them,” said state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby. “And they can go home and tell their constituents why they couldn’t get money for the School District.”

I understand why some feel Philly Dems should “play ball” and get a little money (maybe!) but I have a big problem with just accepting this as a new political norm. These are horrible people!

First they went off formula, denying Philly $360M a year, and now they’re trying to hold our kids hostage in exchange for Democratic votes for some seriously bad ideas. This is not how education money should be distributed!

Posted in Budget, Issues

We’re Probably Getting Another Nasty All-Cuts #PABudget

The latest on the budget is that House Democrats voted unanimously against the House Republicans’ budget, which is full of gimmicks and one-time revenues, and now it’s the Senate’s turn.

As I’ve been pointing out, Republicans are relying on Democrats to supply a goodly chunk of the votes for new taxes. Tom Corbett has said he’ll look at a severance tax and cigarette tax hikes if two conditions are satisfied (and really, probably just one of the two things) – a pension bill and/or a liquor privatization bill.

The House version included revenues from a liquor privatization plan (which I’m specifically non-endorsing here, because it’s a stinker) and the Senate Republicans are balking at that, so it’s probably not happening. A pension bill is mayyybe getting a vote today (there was a hearing this morning) which is likely to fail, but for some reason Corbett wants to get everybody on the record on the issue, which is super weird. If Corbett thinks this is a voting issue for anyone, he’s listening to his friends at Commonwealth Foundation and Brabender too closely and not reading the polls with his own two eyes.

Without liquor or pensions, neither of Corbett’s conditions have been satisfied and now it looks like we’re getting the all-cuts budget I predicted.

The new plan, as of Thursday night, is to try to land a 2014-15 budget of somewhere around $29 billion that is on time and balances without the help of any new taxes or increases in existing tax rates.

This could change Friday, if either chamber can lash together enough votes to pass a pension reform plan, for example.

But as of Thursday night the prognosis for that wasn’t good, despite a call for an up-or-down vote earlier in the day from Corbett.

Democrats would be foolish to vote for this in an election year, obviously.

But Republicans are relying on really tone-deaf threats against Philly schoolchildren as a strategy to sucker Philly Democrats into voting for their budget, rather than, you know, actually including Democrats in the negotiations to get a bloc of votes. Don’t give in! The election is months away, and the Republicans are about to release another nasty all-cuts budget. Philly schools aren’t going to get that much no matter what, so it’s better to loudly shame the Republicans for playing games with kids’ education, while getting in line for a party-line vote against their budget. No Democratic fingerprints should be on this thing.

(via Charles Thompson)

Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, Issues, State House, State Senate

What Are We Getting For All This? PA Has Higher Alcohol-Related Death Rates Than NY, NJ, and MD.

If Pennsylvania’s anti-competitive regulations are any good at preventing alcohol abuse, how come states with more competitive retailing like New Jersey, New York, and Maryland all have lower rates of alcohol-attributable deaths?

Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 10.39.39 AM

The answer, of course, is that anti-competitive regulations are optimized to prevent competition between retailers. They are not optimized to reduce public health harms. These approaches are not substitutable. They don’t do the the same thing at all.

If we really cared about this problem, we would have very different public policies, like minimum drink pricing, advertising bans, and a statewide “Do Not Serve” list for people who have multiple alcohol-related arrests. Advertising remains the most important issue for problem drinkers, but our state regulator is inexplicably in the advertising business. Why does a monopoly advertise, anyway?

Posted in Health, Issues

Harrisburg’s Draft Zoning Plan’s Best Changes

There is a renewed push in city hall to pass a significant zoning code overhaul and I am really happy to hear it. The current code, after being amended 31 times between it’s adoption in 1950 and now, was explained to be, by city planner Geoffrey Knight, appearing capricious and spot zoned. He’s completely right. Currently there are 27 different zones and four overlay districts.

Take a look at what the current and draft map looks like.


Aside from the massive improvement in administrative ease (I am understating as to how important that is) here is what I like about the changes thus far. I will comment on what I don’t like in a separate posting.

-Increased height caps

The draft code eliminates height maximums in the Downtown Center designation and Industrial zones. The existing code actually had no limits on height in Business General, BG Outlying zones, and Industrial zones, but some of what would be considered downtown was capped at 100 feet under the Planned Business Zone 1 designation.

Outside of the uncapped downtown and Industrial zones, Commercial Neighborhood, Commercial General, and Institutional zones see a significant increase in height caps as well. 75, 100, and 100 feet respectively. These zones are comparable to the existing business zones which are currently capped lower at 50, and 60 feet for Community Commercial General and Business Local zones.

The ability to build up in more districts allows means that even in a hot city property market, which we cannot say there is now, there is greater ability to add supply, helping to cool it down. It also pairs well with the city’s already split rate tax structure, that puts some of the city’s tax burden on land as opposed to entirely on property, and in turn incentivizes vertical development over outward expansion. I am hoping this will help neighborhoods that have been struggling to turn over the vibrancy engine, like Midtown’s 3rd street, to transform into stronger market for goods and services.

-Lowered off-street and accessory parking requirements

The draft code completely eliminates the need for any off-street parking in not only the Downtown Center zone but also the Commercial Neighborhood zone. This is great because land for parking is an expensive, ugly waste of space. The current code requires a special exception to waive parking minimums.

Every additional dollar spent on parking in development is money and land not capable of being put into useful property, which drives up construction costs. A lack of guaranteed parking will lead drivers to utilize garages, which will help pay down the city’s debts, or hopefully will continue to increase the share of commuters who do so via transit, walking, or cycling.

-Extension of Downtown to Rt. 230

A major change in the draft plan that has gotten a lot of attention was a decision to include the section of Market Street between Rt. 230 (Cameron Street) and the rail road tracks in the Downtown Center zone. It currently has a small section within Business General zone, but is mostly within the Light Industry zone. The major change is that the new designation brings with it the ability to build without parking and restricts industrial use’s. The current owner of 815 Market, site of the former post office, is whining about the possible change in TheBurg.

NONE of the various uses that we have put into place at 815 Market St. over the past several years are listed as Permitted Uses under the proposed changes and, furthermore, the clear industrial bones of our property were not taken into account in pushing this new ordinance ahead. . .

Our property is also the location of a thriving, 700-space parking business ( that is largely populated by (1) City, State and Federal workers and other downtown employees looking for affordable monthly parking and (2) customers of the Harrisburg Transportation Center.

The owners are right that under the new plan 815 Market will have to continue as a pre-existing non-conforming. Under current and new rules though, that means that they can continue the previous usage of the property until they sell it or it is abandoned.

By extending the downtown designation it also serves to create a stronger connection between South Allison Hill, the city’s poorest neighborhood, and the city’s business center. Any development that improves ease of walking or cycling, or reduces commute times for the poor lends a proximity bonus to wages and property values. If the plan does take off and convert this largely barren industrial zone over to a more natural extension of the downtown, the political economy will dictate improvements for the Hill as well.

Concerns about parking are pretty much always overblown, as they are here. The city’s planning commission has made the proper determination in assessing that there is significant available garage parking and transit to accommodate all who need to access this area.

Posted in Economic Development, Economy, Harrisburg / South Central, Land Use, Miscellany