Archive: June, 2011
Mayor Nutter, as you've hopefully heard by now, has re-proposed a tax on sweetened beverages — the so-called "soda tax," — to raise money (somewhere between $60 and $80m annually) for the Philadelphia School District, which faces a GIGANTIC $629 million budget shortfall — a hole that undoubtedly represents an emergency for the District and Philadelphia children.
The emergency is real: but the evidence that the mayor's proposed tax will do much to solve it is less clear.
The beverage bill was introduced by the mayor as the solution to an announcement by School District superintendent Arlene Ackerman [Yes, I accidentally wrote 'Axeman' in a previous draft; that was a spell-check error, and not an intentional jibe at Dr. Ackerman] that she'd have to cut full-day kindergarten if the District couldn't get more money — like from, say, the city.
The problem is that the narrative — that this tax will pull the district from the brink of doom — isn't adding up very tidily. First, Ackerman restored kindergarten herself, overnight, without any additional funding.
But then, in budget hearins over the last two weeks, Ackerman also revealed that other serious cuts — notably a move to bring some 2,000 at-risk students in "accelerated" non-district schools into "in-house" programs — come while the District is expanding other programs, like so-called "Promise Academies," a key part of her Imagine 2014 plan for the District.
What's more, Ackerman's case for the extra funding from the city hasn't been particularly detailed: a number of about $50 million was being bandied about before the $100 million request materialized. During budget hearings, a little prodding by Council members (notably, Councilman Bill Green and Councilwoman Maria Quionones-Sanchez) revealed that a few accounting tricks solved much of the District's supposed $50 million transportation problem — a victory for the kids, but one which made some members of Council question how carefully Ackerman and her team had gone through their own budget before coming to the city for funding.
Take those doubts, add widespread criticism of Ackerman's leadership, and then add mix in a popular reception to the beverage tax that's been lukewarm at best (and, in many corners, reviled) and you don't exactly get the Beverage bonanza Nutter needs to pass this thing.
A highly controversial state bill that would regulate abortion clinics just got one step closer to becoming law.
Today, state Sen. Pat Vance's bill — which was written in the wake of West Philly abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell — passed, 38-12. Originally, pro-choice advocates generally supported Vance's bill, which would create a licensing system and allow people to make anonymous complaints about abortion providers.
But that changed last week, when the state Senate amended the bill, making it look much more like a controversial House bill penned by state Rep. Matt Baker. Both bills would require that most of the state's abortion clinics be regulated like outpatient surgery centers. Pro-choice advocates say that this would lead to unnecessary regulations and costs, which could force all state clinics to close down, and in turn force more women to go to illegal providers like Gosnell.
Essentially, they say, it's an anti-abortion bill in disguise.
But supporters of the bills argue that they are simply following the recommendations of the District Attorney's grand jurys report on Gosnell. (However, D.A. Seth Williams wrote in a letter to Baker that his bill "goes beyond the scope of the grand jury report.")
Sen. Bob Mensch, who penned the amendment to Vance's bill, says it is "necessary to cure the systemic deficiencies present in the current regulatory scheme," which led to Gosnell's clinic not being inspected for 17 years.
The ACLU's Andy Hoover argued, conversely, “The Arkansas legislature failed to pass a similar bill this session. Gosnell didn’t have a clinic in Arkansas. Why were they even considering a bill like this? The fact is that this initiative is right out of the playbook of those who believe that the government should make healthcare decisions for women.”
Vance's bill now must be approved by the state House. Likewise, Baker's bill, which passed in May, also must be approved by the state Senate. Though both bills would require that most abortion clinics be regulated like outpatient surgery centers, there are a few differences between them — leading some to speculate that neither will pass before summer recess.
Meanwhile, people who are closely watching the bills have this to look forward to: Yesterday, the state Senate voted to have an independent committee complete a study on how much the outpatient regulations would cost abortion clinics. The Women's Law Project estimates that it could cost each clinic up to $1 million, and raise the price of each abortion by as much as $1,000.
The study must be finished 90 days after the bill becomes law.
Following May's primary election, rumors swirled that the city's Republican party leaders might endorse all the GOP candidates who won, as a peace offering to the insurgents who want to overthrow them.
Prior to the election, the party failed to endorse three candidates who ended up winning in big races: Al Schmidt, Dennis O'Brien and Michael Untermeyer. Schmidt has been an especially vocal part of the Republican insurgency.
But at last Tuesday's meeting Republican City Committee, party leaders Michael Meehan and Vito Canuso did not endorse anyone, nor did they hold a vote to do so — at least not formally.
In an email to City Paper, Canuso said that there's simply no need to: "Endorsements are made for candidates seeking a party's nomination at a primary election. Once a candidate is successful, and wins the party's nomination, that person is the candidate of the party and there is no further need for an endorsement."
According to Republicans at the meeting, however, Councilperson at-large and City Commissioner candidates in attendance were allowed to give a brief speech.
[Editor's note: Yes, we're a little late to the draw on this, but it's kind of ... cool — a term we do not often throw out in reference to SEPTA announcements.]
Smart Cards — excuse us, New Payment Technology — may be years away, but SEPTA announced last week two new techy services that might make make waiting for the bus or trolley in the heat a little more bearable.
TransitView allows customers to track the progress of their bus or trolley through in close-to-real-time GPS updates. The location, posted on a GoogleMaps interface, is updated every three minutes.
Those without a smart phone however, can track trains, bus and trolleys with a new SMS Schedules program.Customers (with the exception of Sprint and T-Mobile users) can find out the next four scheduled stops of their route by texting a unique “Stop ID” code to the number 41411.
One catch: You still need a smart phone or to get online ahead of time to know what the station codes are — but SEPTA says it plans to introduce signs with “Stop ID” codes to all of its 15,000 bus stops across the city.
Notebook writer Helen Gym points out on Young Philly Politics that the Districts budget sets aside $8M in contracts that don't need School Reform Commission approval — a scenario that, she argues, gives Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman non-transparent powers over school funds, despite the recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the District and the city administration.
It’s pretty stunning to me that the District continues unchallenged with this type of behavior and rhetoric. No one wants to micromanage, but $8 million is an amount equal to the base salaries of more than 100 teachers. In a week where thousands of District employees lost their jobs, it's hard to imagine the District would have the decency to ask for an $8 million set aside without any sort of review.
One would think that the crippling deficit, a federal IRS investigation and outcries from city and state officials about the District’s poor financial management would put a stop to such shenanigans. But apparently not.
That's just the beginning of her critique, which goes on to list several resolutions on the docket for Monday that involve unspecified and vague contracting expenses.
Yesterday, the state Senate passed an amendment to an abortion bill that women's advocates and pro-choice activists say would lead to nothing less than a public health "catastrophe" if it became law. But supporters of the amendment say that it would protect women seeking abortions.
It would require that most abortion clinics be regulated as outpatient surgery centers. The author of the amendment, Sen. Bob Mensch (R), says that this is "necessary to cure the systemic deficiencies present in the current regulatory scheme."
But pro-choice advocates say that this amendment is an anti-abortion Trojan horse, which could close every abortion clinic in the state because of its supposedly unnecessary — and unnecessarily costly — regulations. They would require, among other things, that operating rooms be at least 400 square feet, and that a nurse always be on duty, even when abortions aren't taking place.
Mensch's amendment is to a bill authored by state Sen. Pat Vance, which would regulate abortion clinics. But why is abortion legislation being introduced in the first place?
The story of this amendment — and the intense controversy that surrounds it, which City Paper has covered extensively — begins with the West Philly abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.
In early 2011, the District Attorney charged him with the murder of seven babies and one woman, and news spread quickly about his allegedly squalid clinic. Almost immediately, state legislators scrambled to make legislation that would prevent another Gosnell. After all, the D.A.'s grand jury report laid much blame on the state's health department, because it hadn't inspected Gosnell's clinic for 17 years — or any other Pennsylvania clinic for that matter, apparently due to "political reasons."
Two bills advanced: one penned by state Rep. Matt Baker and the aforementioned one by Vance. Baker's bill, which has passed in the House, would require that most abortion clinics be regulated like outpatient surgical centers, just like Mensch's amendment.
Baker, an anti-abortion Republican, insists that the bill is not a Trojan horse, telling CP earlier this year, "Many strict pro-life people believe we should shut all the clinics down. That's not what this bill does."
Pro-choice advocates called Vance's bill, which would create a new licensing system and allow for anonymous complaints about abortion clinics, "way better" than Baker's — until Mensch's amendment passed yesterday, that is. They argue that the amendment's "unnecessary" regulations would drive up the cost of abortions and possibly close down all state clinics, thus pushing more women to go to illegal providers like Gosnell.
“If you wanted to invent the perfect plan for driving more women to seek out cheap, illegal, unsafe practitioners, the Mensch amendment would be that plan,” said Sue Frietsche of the Women's Law Project in a statement.
Interestingly, Mensch's amendment received bipartisan support with a 31-18 vote — and bipartisan opposition. Now, Vance's amended bill must go before the full Senate for a vote.
Since both Baker's and Vance's bills still haven't went before the opposite chamber for a vote, it's possible that this battle won't be over before the state legislature's summer recess. Frietsche says she wouldn't mind if legislators had more time to ponder the bills: "The more carefully they're studied," she says, "the more the flaws become obvious."
This afternoon, John Featherman conceded in the GOP mayoral race against party favorite Karen Brown. He is one of the local Republicans who staged an insurgent campaign this season.
In a statement, he wrote, "We lost the mayoral primary by a mere 64 votes on 16,674 votes cast. Thanks to so many supporters — but most notably the Tea Party movement — our insurgent campaign put the Republican City Committee on notice: The voters matter more than the party leaders. We are now becoming a true opposition party and will make Pennsylvania a battleground in next year’s presidential election."
The short answer: Maybe.
This morning, CP writer and editor Isaiah Thompson, we are told, left Philly for the Pine Barrens: whence, why, and to what end we can't say.
Check Twitter for updates: none are guaranteed.
Just after 4:30 p.m. today, the Streets and Services Committee held a bill proposing that City Council ordinances be required before any future bike lanes are created.
Councilman William Greenlee, who introduced the bill a week ago, requested that the bill be held for amendment or possible introduction of a different bill. The meeting included testimony from Deputy Mayor of Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler and significant discussion between Cutler and the committee.
Possible changes to the current bill were suggested including the notification of affected community members before bike lanes are painted and a more regulated process of bike lane development.
“Before things are changed or made to be different, I believe people who will be impacted by it deserved to be heard,” said Councilman Frank DiCicco.
Cutler explained the current process the Streets Department takes to install bike lanes includes extensive studies of traffic flow and safety. It is ultimately up to “engineering judgment” to determine if a bike lane is possible on proposed streets.
Committee members Greenlee and Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez emphasized their support of cyclists in Philadelphia.
“This bill is not intended to be anti-bike lane,” said Greenlee. “It is not directed at specific area or bike lane. It’s about being consistent. “
The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia opposed this bill, and many members attended today’s meeting. Two coalition members spoke against the bill, but only after the committee had officially held it.
In today's paper, Ralph Cipriano writes about a previously unreported aspect of the city's mess of a program called DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan): the fact that city employees can effectively pre-register for the program. Those employees therefore would be able to lock in to DROP's current structure of benefits, even if the program gets reformed by City Council in the future. In the story, Cipriano reports that the city provided a list of 510 employees who had signed up for DROP since Feb. 1, 2010, and 32 who used the "pre-register" option -- numbers the city admitted were incomplete. The city Pension Board late Wednesday released an "inclusive" list of all city employees who in the past 15 months have signed up and been accepted for DROP. The new list includes 1,520 employees who will earn future DROP bonuses from 2014 and 2021 of $267 million, or an average of $162,000 each. The new inclusive list also includes more than 90 employees who have pre-registered for DROP.
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