Archive: June, 2011
The Pennsylvania House is close to approving new voter ID requirements after a strong push by Pa. Republicans — doing their part in a nationwide push by the GOP to get states to enact such regulations.
It's an interesting cause celibre for a party that bills itself as being dedicated to preserving individuals' rights. One of our freedoms as Americans, of course, is the right not to carry state or national identification on our persons — and, indeed, no such standardized identification exists on a national level in the United States. Different states have different requirements, standards, and means for acquiring identification.
You'd think Pennsylvania's Republicans — who oppose regulations preventing fracking and other industries from polluting, who oppose even modest attempts at limiting access to semiautomatic assault weapons, and who so passionate argue against the government telling us what to do — would oppose Big Brother's making them bring some state-issued identification card to exercise their most fundamental of American rights: the vote.
Republicans, of course, have made the voter ID issue about election fraud — conflating fake or improperly filled-out voter registrations, of which there are countless in any voter registration drive, with actual voter fraud, of which there is virtually none, anywhere in America.
So as not to tax the minds of our GOP legislators any more than necessary, I'll spell it out.
Registration fraud: When someone uses false, bad, or improper information to fill out a voter registration application.
Voter Fraud: When someone votes twice or when they're not eligible.
Registration fraud is easy to commit, and happens all the time: any time people are paid to collect voter registrations, you're bound to have a few "Mickey G. Mouse" applications in the pile.
But Mickey G. Mouse doesn't exist — and getting him to vote is pretty difficult. Should someone not actually eligible to vote somehow get on the list as themselves, requiring an ID wouldn't make any difference in deterring that vote.
But could someone else pretend to be Mickey and vote twice? Maaaaaybe. But the fake Mickey would have to appear in person, have his real name checked off by a poll worker, leave the voting place, come back, and have his fake name checked, at the same polling place, without getting caught.
That's a lot of work: which might be why the state found four (4) cases of voter fraud in the approximately six million (6,000,000) votes in the 2008 presidential election.
But while voter fraud isn't remotely significant — especially in the statistical sense — what is significant is the number of people who will be deterred from voting by voter ID requirements. Guess who they tend to be? Poor people, old people, and minorities — people the GOP doesn't want to vote.
Voter ID requirements, whatever the noble goals of the GOP, will result in vote suppression, plain and simple. Republicans know this — otherwise they wouldn't waste time violating their own sacred principles of freedom pushing it.
From the Dept. of Actually Interesting Press Releases ... the Public Interest Law Center announced today that it will file a lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District in federal court.
The press release reads, "The lawsuit, naming the School Reform Commission and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, alleges that the District is violating the rights of children with autism through the continued implementation of a District-wide transfer policy that moves children who experience autism from school to school when children without disabilities are not required to change schools."
We'll post more as it comes.
Dept. of Dangerous Lifestyles: "Jackass" co-star Steven "Steve-O" Glover talked about the joys of sobriety in a recent interview
Media outlets are reporting today that "Jackass" co-star Ryan Dunn died in an auto accident, shortly after posting a picture of having been out drinking with friends.
I couldn't help but think about a a great, and rather moving, interview with Dunn's colleague, Steven "Steve-O" Glover, on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show last week.
In it, Glover talks about his new memoir and describes his journey from substance abuse and homelessness to his career on "Jackass," to his current (and still short-lived) sobriety.
On Thursday, as you hopefully know by know, City Council approved a small hike in property taxes and parking fees to help raise extra money for the Philadelphia School District, which faces a massive budget shortfall. The vote occurred after a marathon 12-day series of Council sessions, interrupted by hours-long recesses during which Council members negotiated behind closed doors.
The facts of what transpired behind those doors aren’t in much dispute, but their meaning is — kind of like the film classic Rashomon, in which various narrators tell the same story as they perceive it, making the “truth” difficult to pin down.
Here is the Rashomon-like story of what you missed.
The Big “?”
It’s hard to believe, but the truth was this: as hundreds of people — lobbyists, school kids and educators, union members, politicos, labor activists (and at least a dozen reporters) — poured into City Hall on Thursday, clogging the metal detectors outside City Council’s chambers, a plan was not yet in place.
Despite the fact that School District’s enormous looming budget gap had been known to anyone paying attention for months, and despite the fact that a clear majority of City Council members favored helping provide more funds to the ailing district, and after weeks of hearings (mysteriously — or suspiciously — postponed until after the city’s primary election season) on the School District’s troubled budget — the city’s legislative body had yet to arrive on a decision about what it was going to do about it.
Mayor Nutter had offered two alternatives: a 10% hike in the city’s property tax, or a tax
on sweetened beverages — his favored piece of legislation, and which he had pushed hard for, and failed to get passed, last year. Either, the mayor said, would raise something just shy of $100 million for schools.
City Council had come up with a few of its own alternatives: a 3.5 mills (3.85 percent, according to city finance director Rob Dubow) property tax hike combined with higher parking fees and some money from the city’s reserve fund, proposed by Councilman Darrell Clarke, and a proposal by Councilman Bill Green to take the bulk of the money from the city’s reserve fund. These proposals would raise less money — somewhere in the ballpark of $50-60 million, about half of what the District had officially requested.
Mayor Nutter opposed both of Council’s plans — but especially that offered by Green, calling it fiscally irresponsible. The well-known personal anisaysmosity between the two, no doubt, didn’t improve the Mayor’s opinion.
Nine votes are needed to pass a bill out of City Council, but twelve votes are needed to override the mayor’s veto. On Thursday morning, the fate of any of those four options was uncertain: at least seven or eight votes (ten, according a source within the administration, but which CP was unable to confirm elsewhere) had been lined up for the mayor’s “soda tax,” but there was also a substantial number of votes for a property tax alternative to soda. Whatever heat Council members had taken over a property tax hike last year, they were taking plenty now from the powerful beverage lobby that had been raining money on Philadelphia since the mayor reintroduced the tax.
Despite reports all week that soda was “fizzling” among City Council members, the mayor’s tax could possibly have passed on Thursday, by all accounts. A 9 or 10-person majority had been lined up, and, as Council recessed in the early afternoon to allow last-minute negotiations, these 9 or 10 appeared ready to vote “yes” on soda — not at the two cents per oz rate proposed by the mayor, but at a compromise one cent per ounce, with the mayor kicking in about $10 million from the city’s reserve — a proposal which would have raised about $56 million according to the administration (a number disputed below).
But that majority quickly fell apart. The reasons aren’t entirely clear (or, at least, weren’t made entirely clear to this reporter). All sources point to heavy last-minute lobbying by Big Beverage and its union allies. Some sources inside City Council and within the administration cite last-minute horse trading among Council members themselves.
But another reason for the falling-apart of the soda plan appears that during discussions over the details of how to implement it, the idea of hiking real estate instead had re-emerged as a viable 9-vote alternative for the first time that day. The scales had suddenly tipped, and tipped quickly, thanks, according to several sources, to at least two less-likely votes: that of Republican Councilman Jack Kelly, who would cross party lines to vote for the bill; and that of Councilman Bill Greenlee, who admitted to City Paper that his vote had been extremely reluctant: “It took us a long time to agree to the property tax increase,” he acknowledges, saying school funding was ultimately “just too important.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, meanwhile, — one of the members of Council pushing the hardest for increased funding, especially to preserve “accelerated” schools for the most at-risk students and which were threatened to be cut in the district’s revised budget — had long favored a property tax hike over other alternatives, but had reluctantly agreed to be a ninth vote on soda if it was the only way to secure school funding. Now, it was not. Within twenty or thirty minutes, Council was ready to pass a property tax hike instead.
Mayor Nutter, by all accounts, was not happy: he wanted the soda tax, and began to lobby hard, calling upon Council members whose votes the administration had counted upon — including Council members Blondell Reynolds Brown, Curtis Jones, Wilson Goode, and Maria Quinones-Sanchez — to change their minds (again) and re-secure their colleagues’ votes.
When that didn’t happen, Mayor Nutter traveled in person to City Hall’s fourth floor to make another appeal for soda inside the office of Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., where had gathered a few Council members more favorably disposed to the mayor’s plan and who had helped lead the charge within Council to pass a tax for schools.
“It was soda, soda, soda in there” affirms Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, a staunch advocate for increased school funding and who had been a solid yes-vote on the soda proposal.
Some members of Council resented the hard lobby. For one thing, by some accounts, the mayor seemed to be lobbying for less, and not more money for schools — the soda tax would have brought in $60 million in the first year, at 2 cents per ounce, according to the administration; half of that would be $30 million, $7 million less than the projected property tax hike revenues.
Administration officials, on the other hand, hotly dispute this, citing a report suggesting a lower soda tax rate would have deterred less sales and brought in an extra $10 million. It was Council, they insist, that was arguing for the lower revenue.
Others accuse the mayor of fighting primarily for a personal, legacy win — and undermining the hard effort it took to secure 9 votes for anything. The mayor, they say, failed to credit on-the-fence Council members for being willing to raise a tax at all.
In any case, the Mayor left Jones’ office disappointed: the soda tax, he was told, was off the table.
Nutter next proceeded to the office of Council president Anna Verna where, after calling a recess in Council, Verna and about half the members of City Council had gathered. The scene inside was not, according to various sources, a very pleasant one. With soda dead, the mayor was now arguing for a 5% raise in the property take instead of the 3.5 mills proposed by Councilman Darrell Clarke. When several council members balked, the mayor was not happy.
According administration sources, Nutter’s beef wasn’t just the amount of revenue but a perceived flaw in the details of Clarke’s plan, which would have been a city, versus School District, tax (in the end, Council would amend the mayor’s property tax plan with Clarke’s rates and not vice versa). What’s more, the difference between 3.5% and a 5% hike — or something in between — was not great and might make the difference between being able to save certain school services or not.
But others say the anger was personal. Clarke and Councilman Bill Green are political rivals of the mayor. Clarke is widely expected to run for Council president against Councilwoman Marian Tasco, Nutter’s favorite. The possibility that Council would vote on Clarke’s, and not the mayor’s property tax bill was, some sources speculated, not exactly perceived as an olive branch. The animosity between Green and Nutter, meanwhile, is well-known — and a possible veto-proof majority in favor of Green’s proposal to take more from the city’s reserves had, at one point at least, loomed over discussions.
It was a classic Rashomon moment: Some sources describe Nutter as bitter about losing soda and unwilling to compromise or cajole Council members into accepting a (slightly) higher tax hike. Others describe the mayor as having done the right thing by walking up to the fourth floor, and describe Councilman Bill Green, not the mayor, as being a wet blanket during negotiations. A few sources seem to describe both at once.
After a short interval, Nutter walked out: exactly in what context isn’t clear, but unhappy — angry, say several sources.
The Eleventh Hour
Between about 5 and 8 p.m., the mayor had little communication with Council.
Instead, Council recessed for the duration, grabbed munchies, and hammered out the details of a school funding package and, around 8 P.M., presented it to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and School Reform Commissioner Robert Archie, along with a list of “priorities,” — conditions, might be another word — for how it should be spent including transportation, maintaining class size reduction, and accelerated school funding.
School officials were “very receptive,” according to Councilwoman Reynolds Brown, and the list was circulated to Mayor Nutter at around 8 P.M — at which point several Council members, preparing to go vote, received a call, via speakerphone from the mayor, who said they’d left an $11 million hole in their plan.
The basis for the call, explains Finance Director Rob Dubow, was that Council hadn’t included in their list of priorities $11 million in various costs for city services the District had planned to transfer to the city. According to the administration’s math, the school district could not deliver on all the “promises” set out in the agreement if it had, as set forth in a memorandum of understanding between the city and the district, to add the $11 million back to its budget. The services Council wanted to keep might have to be cut.
It was another Roshomon moment: some Council members saw the call as a veiled threat or a last-minute attempt to undermine the Council’s vote. Administration officials, on the other hand, say the mayor was just doing his job — “I don’t really think he was saying, so go back and redo your bill,” explains Dubow, “I think he just wanted to make sure what they just discussed the district, that their expectations weren’t too high.”
The mayor’s warnings didn't seem to slow proceedings down: While he was still on the phone, some Council members were already trickling out of the room and into City Council chambers to vote.
As they did vote, a strange thing happened — Council was suddenly being heckled by school kids and advocates, the very constituency they were now voting to help out, as they saw it.
Several sources suggest that the cause of the sudden booing was word, circulated by administration officials, that school programs — notably, accelerated schools — would not be fully funded by the vote. Mayor spokesman Mark McDonald was not aware of any such message put out by the administration. In any case, some Council members spent time after the vote reassuring the school advocates. One advocate, contacted later, declined to comment on the episode.
Over the course of the next week, the city, Council, and the School District will have to iron out whether and how much of that $11 million needs to be replaced. Whether the mayor's late objections were punitive — or whether Council had, as it did when it passed a 9.9% and not 12.1% property tax needed to fill the budget last year — is a question of perspective.
The press quickly characterized the ultimate vote as a political defeat for the mayor. He had gone to the matt for his soda tax and, very publicly, failed to get it.
Not surprisingly, the administration has offered another take: that the highest goal of school funding was accomplished in partnership with City Council.
Some Council members have risen to defend not only their vote but the mayor’s role in the process: “He rolled up his sleeves, came to the 4th floor, met with Council members, and ultimately got [the property tax hike],”
Councilwoman Reynolds Brown. “I think that’s really worth something.”
“What we saw transpire over the past couple of weeks was a real attempt by my colleagues to give the mayor additional resources so that he can go to Harrisburg and secure more for the schools,” says Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, adding: “This is a victory. I think [Mayor Nutter] just has to learn to claim it that way.”
To be sure, the mayor and his staff have publicly done so. Spokesman Mark McDonald emphasizes that “We’ve come a long way, and we’ve achieved raising millions of dollars for the School District.”
Are all the good feelings professed after such a heated day just spin? Maybe — but, ultimately, that depends on how Council members and the mayor chose to see it themselves going forward. The next hurdle — and it may be a high one indeed — is to secure state funding for the district, for which the city will need to present a unified front, however unified it is or isn’t. And truth, sometimes, is in the eye of the beholder.
If you were hoping for a proverbial dustup at today's SugarHouse hearing — between pro- and anti-casino advocates, between arguments for "economic development" and against "predatory gambling" — then you were sorely disappointed. Of the more than 20 people who signed up to testify, only one person spoke out against the renewal of the casino's license.
Local and state officials, business owners and community members came out in strong support for SugarHouse. Maggie O'Brien, president of the pro-casino community group Fishtown Action, said the casino "sparkles" and that the land it sits on "was once an eyesore ... [and] has been transformed." Capt. Michael Cram of the 26th Police District said crime at SugarHouse is "not even an issue." Planning Commission chairman Alan Greenberger said the city is in "full support" of both the casino's license renewal as well as its planned expansion.
Paul Boni, a board member of Stop Predatory Gambling, provided the sole anti-casino voice at the hearing: He opposed the renewal of the casino's license because, among other things, he said SugarHouse profits from gambling addicts and takes money away from local businesses. He also noted, in regards to the beefed-up police presence at the casino, "That is a significant law enforcement investment that the taxpayers are shouldering. No one has asked the question, so I’ll ask it: What is that costing?"
So ... where were all the anti-casino folks at today's SugarHouse hearing?
Casino-Free Philadelphia's Dan Hajdo, who City Paper reached by phone, says, "We didn't attend because as the grand jury report confirmed, the [Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board] is really just there to support the industry. So any kind of action on our part is really a waste of time."
Hajdo bluntly adds: "The only reason they would deny anyone a license is because they don't have the right political connections."
Gaming Control Board spokesman Richard McGarvey says that the agency has not denied any license renewal applications in its history. He said that five renewals, including SugarHouse's, are currently being sought.
Mayor Nutter's making a list and checking it twice ... thrice ... a fourth time ... a couple more times ... — trying, apparently, to woo one or two more votes for his proposed tax on sweetened beverages before an imminent vote by City Council today.
The vote was put off about fifteen minutes ago while Council members take a recess — another one, that is — to, apparently, negotiate what's going to happen.
According to sources, the vote has been remarkably fluid all day — it's looked like a proposed property tax hike was the favored measure by Council; then the "soda tax" seemed to be making a comeback.
Even within those choices are more options. It's possible Council would pass a smaller tax on beverages than proposed by the mayor in addition to a smaller property tax hike. It's possible Council will pass neither, and instead focus on finding a way (or leaving it to the Mayor to find a way) to provide funding to the schools some other way.
Council could also choose not to provide extra funding to the schools at all — but such a decision could have serious consequences. If the city is seen as failing to pony up for its own schools, officials in Harrisburg are even less likely to help out.
Follow me on Twitter for updates.
At today's hearing on the renewal of SugarHouse's license, Kenneth Trujillo, a Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board member, called the casino's relative lack of diversity among its employees and suppliers "very disappointing."
Only 7.8 percent of SugarHouse's budget spent on suppliers went to minority- or women-owned businesses in the first quarter of 2011. Out of SugarHouse's 1,008 jobs, 36 percent are held by women and 33 percent by minorities. Trujillo wonered how this could be in a city that is mostly comprised of minorities, not whites, and which also has more women than men.
The minority and women representation "seems like it's off," Trujillo said.
When Trujillo asked Planning Commission chairman Alan Greenberger if the city was doing anything to make SugarHouse more diverse, he said, "We're aware of these lower numbers" and suggested that they could improve in the future.
Joe Martin, SugarHouse's director of procurement and supplier diversity, said SugarHouse has reached out to groups like the African American Chamber of Commerce and Women's Business Enterprise National Council, and will continue to do so. He added that improving diversity is "pretty much a passion of mine."
SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said, "Our statistics are much more favorable than any company I've worked for." She added that of SugarHouse's eight vice presidents, six were women and one was a minority.
Trujillo also asked for data on the percentage of minority- and women-owned businesses that provide professional services to SugarHouse, like consulting or legal services, as well the percentage of the casino's upper-level positions that are filled by women and minorities. Whitaker said she would provide that data to the Gaming Control Board at a later time.
News editor Isaiah Thompson is live-tweeting today's City Council hearings on the proposed sweetened beverages tax, school funding and paid sick leave. Follow him @isaiah_thompson or look for the tag #phillycouncil.
Let me make this very clear: There is no unofficial confirmation — and certainly no official confirmation — of what is, essentially, nothing more than speculation. However, it's speculation shared by virtually — heck, maybe literally — every source CP's spoken with for weeks now. That, we think, makes it news.
When the schools open back up this September, say these sources, they expect that Superintendent Arelene Ackerman will be long gone.
Even as the District prepares to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, and even as the city is poised to vote tomorrow on funding that may set the stage for other, bigger political decisions about the schools — amidst all this, no one in the know seems to believe Ackerman will stick around.
If she were to leave, it would mean that she wouldn't herself oversee the implementation, or potential consequences, of hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the District's budget — cuts she's nonetheless apportioning now, and which, at least to some extent, seem aimed at preserving some of her own initiatives.
Prior to taking over Philadelphia's schools, Ackerman spent three years as the superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s schools, and six years in charge of San Francisco's school district. She left that post amid controversy over her leadership, with the Board of Education approving the invocation of a "compatibility clause," — she and the Board were incompatible, in other words — which allowed her to walk away with an additional $375,000.
One of the arguments being put forth in favor of the Mayor Nutter's proposed sweetened beverage is that we already tax beverages — the ones with booze in them.
The "Liquor By the Drink" tax takes 10% of every alcoholic beverage and hands it over to the School District, generating more than $42 million last year alone, according to this fine blog post by the Daily News' Chris Brennan.
We tax alcoholic drinks, which are unnecessary to human health and well-being — so why not sugary drinks, which share that quality? It's an argument that's been making the rounds in the last couple of days, as the beverage industry, unions, and, of course, regular folks have voiced opposition to the mayor's proposed tax.
On the other hand, the liquor tax only applies to drinks consumed at restaurants and bars — not to take-out or grocery items, as doe the proposed sweetened beverage tax.
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