#PABudget: House Pension Bill Looking Pretty Dead

Nick Field is reporting that Gene DiGirolamo is about to put this thing out of its misery.

The State House voted to send the main pension reform bill to the House Human Services Committee where it is expected to wither and die. The committee is chaired by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), one of 15 Republicans who voted with the 92-member Democratic caucus to punt the bill away.

Now the House has two choices – allow Philadelphia to tax cigarettes more to raise more local money for schools that the House has not provided from the state level. Or, screw the Philadelphia schools for no good reason.

Posted in Budget, Issues

Corbett Says He Supports the Cigarette Tax, But Is Holding Philly Schools Hostage Anyway

We’ll have more details when all the different parts of the “on time Republican budget” are passed, but I was glad to see it passed on a party-line vote:

The Senate voted 26-24, with one Republican, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, breaking ranks. The House was still debating the budget as this column was filed. Around 10:30 p.m., the House voted 108-95 to approve the spending plan.

There was an air of disappointment over what didn’t get done: Namely, pension reform (which sort of happened in the Senate) and some kind of liquor reform (which is probably never going to happen).

Corbett, in a statement, hammered that disappointment home, saying he was withholding his signature because lawmakers failed to send him a pension reform bill.

In the meantime, here’s a disturbing line from Angela Couloumbis’s report. Corbett supports the cigarette tax, but he’s still holding it hostage anyway to shake down Democrats for an unrelated policy ask:

Corbett said that while he backs a cigarette tax to support Philadelphia schools, he still wants to see votes on a pension plan.

“While this action addresses the immediate needs of the Philadelphia School District, let me be clear: I continue to fight for meaningful pension reform for Philadelphia schools and all schools across the commonwealth, which will provide a long-term solution for them,” Corbett said.

How negotiations work is that you give something you don’t support to get something somebody else doesn’t support. If Corbett supports the cigarette tax, and Democrats support the cigarette tax, then there’s nothing to negotiate about. You both agree, so pass the cigarette tax.

If Corbett’s holding back something he agrees with just to get an unrelated concession, then that’s a pretty straightforward hostage-taking.

(via John Micek)


Posted in Budget, Elections, Governor, Issues

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 jgeeting@gmail.com 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