The Littlest Leadership Crisis Befells Pretend Government

The top two officials of a 1300-person borough passed away within two weeks of one another, and now the borough is now in the throes of the cutest littlest leadership crisis you ever did see.

1300 people is much smaller than the territory covered by my neighborhood organization in Philly. Most of Pennsylvania’s governments are just glorified neighborhood organizations with essentially part-time security guards (who get military-grade weapons from the feds), volunteer firefighters, and thousands of teensy little pension funds that are investing in ???

This is like the Tea Party’s ultimate end-game for governance in America. I don’t understand why the state lets them play pretend government.

Posted in Miscellany

Existing Jobs Vs. Different Jobs

Via WESA, Pew says Pennsylvania is a leader in clean energy:

The commonwealth ranked fourth in energy- and environment-related employment in 2011 with 136,000 jobs.

“That’s a pretty impressive number, especially when you recognize that it’s comparable to other energy industries in the state,” Lubetsky said. “So it’s an important sector for sure.”

She said Pennsylvania’s policies have helped encourage growth in the clean energy industry.

The implication is that strengthening our clean energy and environmental policies wouldn’t really be a job killer on net, because one of the main beneficiaries would be other Pennsylvania companies.

The idea that climate hawk policies are bad for the state’s economy overall, in a macro sense, is stupid. The clean energy fight here isn’t really about whether climate hawk policies would be a job killer – on net, they probably wouldn’t be. The issue is about jobs for whom, and where they’re located.

Posted in Economy, Energy, Environment, Issues

#PHL2015: What is the Nature of Michael Nutter’s Unpopularity?

The most straightforward explanation for Michael Nutter’s unpopularity is that by the last year of a second term, pretty much every incumbent Mayor is unpopular, especially if they’ve done a lot.

People often don’t remember how unpopular many of America’s favorite ex-Mayors were the way out of office, but whose reputations repaired with the passage of time.

I’ve always liked Michael Bloomberg’s idea (maybe not original, but I heard it from him first) that high approval ratings mean you’re not doing your job.

He says that if he leaves office with high approval numbers “then I wasted my last years in office.” To him, high approval rating “means you’re skiing the baby slope, for goodness’ sakes. Go to a steeper slope.”

As noted in that article, Bloomberg’s approval ratings were high at the time he said this.

So one possible interpretation of Nutter’s unpopular lame duck status is that people don’t like the actual stuff he didn. And there is some of that – library closings, youth curfews, homeless feeding changes, property tax increases and support for charter schools are some things some people are still really mad about.

Another thread is that Nutter succeeded in making a lot of reforms, and now there are a lot of people mad at him who liked things the old way.

Most of the obvious reform issues in Philly politics aren’t really about solving complex problems so much as complicated politics: we know what to do, but somebody powerful is benefitting from the status quo, and politicians don’t see enough upside in ruffling feathers.

I know from my little area of politics and policy that one of Nutter’s big initiatives was to modernize the planning, zoning, and redevelopment-related departments. It seems like he made some big gains in those places, but again, the flip side of modernizing is that there are always going to be some people, maybe powerful people, who prefer the old ways and they’re going to get mad at you if you change things.

Another variation of this explanation is that Nutter simply focused on process issues too much to really excite voters – zoning, AVI, land bank, reforming different departments and hiring good personnel, being personally free of scandals.

When I think about the really big Nutter policy wins, it’s mostly that type of stuff. These kinds of issues are popular with politics and policy junkies, but they’re all about long term gains, and some, like AVI, require some short term pain.

Maybe Nutter’s focus on this stuff was a function of his personal values, or his campaign themes, or maybe that’s just the stuff that really needed to get done first before he could tackle some other issues of interest. From Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s big Philly Mag piece on Nutter:

In the broad-strokes department, Philadelphia’s executive branch has evolved from a pay-to-play pigpen to an exemplar of high ethics (the courts and the row offices are another story), while the city at large has morphed into a creative-class Eden, replete with all the requisite New Urbanist attributes, from accessible waterfronts to bike-able corridors to well-executed sustainability plans. The area in which the city has struggled most — public education — is the one Nutter has had the least control over. “A lot of what this administration is about,” says Nutter’s old friend and adviser, Saul Ewing lobbyist Dick Hayden, “is embracing the notion of what a modern city in the United States should look like.”

I think what some of the Nutter staffers want people to appreciate more is how far off we were from having a modern city government when they started, and how much political capital its required to get the house in order.

There are a lot of popular things that fall into the category of things Nutter could take credit for, but isn’t getting any credit for.

Bike share will be popular and will be identified with Nutter and the city. Sister Cities and Cafe Cret on the Parkway too. Other parks have strong branding associated with other organizations. Dilworth Park is heavily identified with Center City District’s brand, and The Porch with University City District’s. The Delaware Waterfront Corporation has done amazing and popular work, but people probably think about that as independent from Nutter too. What about all the Schuylkill River improvements?

And then you have the long term accomplishments like zoning and planning reforms that take decades to really change the physical landscape. Maybe those process wins were too boring for mass consumption, even if they were important to do. But still, unfairly or not, many voters are probably left without a tangible sense of what Nutter’s really done.

The trouble for the still-pretty-pro-Nutter rump in Philly politics continues to be that the Nutter electoral path to victory is narrow, and can’t reliably produce citywide wins yet. Nutter hasn’t focused enough, in my opinion, on trying to get kindred spirits elected to City Council.

That’s still the main problem: Nutter brought the nerds into the executive branch, but the nerds still aren’t on City Council.

Posted in Elections, Philadelphia 2015

Education Funding Inequality: Who to Take the Money From and How To Take It

Marcy Levy at the AP reported Sunday that what KP readers probably suspected was happening was indeed happening, and the funding gap between rich schools and poor schools doubled during Corbett’s four years in office.

Infuriatingly, Corbett ends the article asking “so who do I take it away from” – a smirking dare to liberals to spell out an unpopular re-redistribution plan.

To my knowledge, none of our elected Democrats in Harrisburg have really offered a satisfying answer to this question yet, so I’ll bite. Here’s who I would take it away from, and how.

Reading Levy’s analysis, there are two main reasons the gap widened. One reason is that, duh, poor school districts had to cut their local funding when Corbett and the majority Republicans started cutting funding from them disproportionately.

The other thing that happened was that Corbett and the Republicans also started giving more state money to already-rich districts. And not only did those already-rich districts have extra state money to increase their spending on their kids, but they also had deeper property tax and income tax bases to draw on to top up their spending even more.

So two things need to happen.

One is that we need a state funding formula that pays out more money to students in poorer and lower middle class districts, and less money to students in rich districts who already have all the advantages.

The “costing out” formula we started using under Ed Rendell took into account the higher needs and unique challenges kids in lower-income districts face, and recognized that they need more funding. Corbett threw that formula in the trash can right in his first budget, with no explanation.

The other problem that falls out of this analysis is that it’s really hard to redistribute the education money when it’s trapped in 500 different (extremely segregated) school tax bases.

The state can’t seize local property tax or income tax revenue from Lower Merion Township’s bank account and deposit it in the Philadelphia School District bank account. But we gotta get that money y’all.

So here’s what we do: We shift the funding ratio from 34% state funding/76% local funding to 50% state funding/50% local funding in Tom Wolf’s first term, and then we push for 100% state funding after that.

100% state funding puts the education money all in one pot, where we can actually have a big democratic fight over who should get it, rather than 500 little pots where we can’t. People in rich regions can afford to contribute more to the education of people in poor regions. The real money is in the rich regions’ property tax and income tax bases, and that’s where we need to take the money from to equalize school funding per pupil.

Posted in Budget, Education, Issues

Poll: PA is Loving Life Under Gay Marriage

The gay marriage ban ended, nothing bad happened, and now six in 10 people support same-sex marriage.

LGBT civil rights activists will still be gainfully employed in this state for the foreseeable future, but they will increasingly have the wind at their backs.

Posted in Civil Rights, Issues

#PAGov: Wolf Disagrees with Cuomo’s Fracking Ban

The moratorium supporters failed to move any Democratic candidates for Governor into their column during the primary, so this isn’t surprising. Wolf continues to support a moratorium on gas drilling on public land, so I’m expecting a high profile reversal of Tom Corbett’s recent moves approving drilling on state lands when Wolf gets into office in January.

But expect the banning pen to get put away shortly after that. Wolf is counting on substantial new revenues from a 5+% severance tax on natural gas production to fulfill his promise to restore education funding and to fix the giant deficit mess that the “fiscally responsible” Republican Party left in a flaming bag on his doorstep.

In my opinion, getting the money is best, as long as Wolf follows through on his pledge to regulate methane leakage through DEP, and does some other things to ensure that only well-capitalized players can play this game the environmentally-responsible way: hiking bonding requirements, passing stricter wastewater management rules, and generally making it harder for small operators who can’t clean up their own messes without public assistance to get in on the action.

Posted in Elections, Energy, Environment, Governor

#PA6: Obvious Thing Happens

The job little Jiminy Gerlach has been trying out for this whole time is finally his. In Congress, he fought against health insurance expansion and for unaffordable corporate tax breaks. And now he’ll get paid a whole lot more to do the same job outside of government. Nice how that works.

Posted in Elections, US House

Sorry, a 5% Severance Tax Won’t “Cripple” PA’s Economy

Only 0.5% of the PA workforce is employed by the natural gas sector. Yes, there are some other auxiliary industries that benefit from natural gas activity that aren’t counted in that. Yes, low gas prices support some additional economic activity than under a high gas prices scenario.

But you’d have to be smoking crack to believe that a 5% severance tax on gas drilling will “cripple” PA’s economy. It’s just not that significant a part of our economy.

Posted in Economy, Energy, Environment

Most of PA Policed by Militias

That’s what you call a 5 or 10-person “police department” of mostly part-time officers right?

Did you know that two-thirds of the state’s police officers are part-time, and 15% of the departments are part-time? And that the federal government is giving these lil’ militias terrifying weapons of war to play with in the course of their township policing duties.

Also, a little less than half of PA’s municipalities fall into the category where they are too small, have too little governing capacity, or are too tax-allergic/exurban, that they mooch off the state police for coverage at a cost of about $500 million to state taxpayers. Police department consolidation is the second place Tom Wolf should go looking to close the Republican budget deficit, after canceling tax subsidies for fossil fuels.

Posted in Budget, Issues, Social Services

#PHL2015 Candidates Have a “Duty to Respond” on Stuff They Can’t Do Anything About

This op-ed by James Lytle is Exhibit A in the case for not spending too much time talking about education in the 2015 Philly Mayoral race, even though that’s the issue most people seem to want to debate next year.

Titled “Education issues to consider in the mayoral race,” the op-ed proceeds with a list of very important, but overwhelmingly state education issues that were already considered in the 2014 Governor’s race, or need to be considered in the 2016 state legislative elections.

Then at the end there’s a list of stuff that city policy touches on somewhat, but most of which would still need to be signed off on by the state-controlled School Reform Commission – to which the Mayor gets two of the five appointees.

How can services to special needs students, recent immigrants, and English language learners be improved? Is it possible to have more school closings or employee givebacks to reduce budget problems without reducing educational quality? What can be done to satisfy middle-class families with young children who threaten to abandon District schools? How should schools be held to account? Is high school completion more important than test scores? Should charter schools be required to publish detailed annual budgets and audit reports? How can the city’s extraordinary higher education, medical, cultural and community resources contribute to educating school-aged children?

Of course the Mayoral candidates should say what they think should happen with all of these important issues, but if you really want to hold elected officials accountable for this stuff, you need to ask Tom Wolf and the relevant state legislative leaders what they want to do, because that’s whose opinions are ultimately going to carry the day here.

The sad fact is that the Mayoral candidates just don’t have very much in the way of real control over education policy, and it would be totally nuts to spend the campaign season having essentially a symbolic debate about what the direction of state policy should be. Hearing all the candidates talk about this stuff so far, to a person, the pitch is basically “I’ll be the best education lobbyist to the state for Philly, because x, y, z.

That’s crazy. If we want a lobbyist, let’s hire a lobbyist. If we want more effective political communicators for the message local education activists want delivered to Harrisburg, then let’s elect some more state lawmakers with decent political communication skills – currently a small minority of the Philly delegation.

But let’s hire a Mayor to do the things that the Mayor actually controls and manages on a day to day basis like transportation and planning, police and fire safety, economic development, and so on.

Posted in Elections, Philadelphia 2015