Blogs

Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story: Private School Bus Services in PA Cost More

A blog post by Stephen Herzenberg, originally published at Third and State.

The standard conservative narrative is that private delivery of services and goods trumps government delivery. In Harrisburg, for example, Governor Corbett’s Council on Privatization and Innovation often presents its goal as privatization, taking for granted that this will be more efficient and cost-effective.

In fact, the record on privatization shows that in many cases privatization fails to deliver promised savings and can undercut service quality. That’s part of why Cornell Professor Mildred Warner has found that local governments often bring work back in house.

The Future of Health and Human Services in PA

Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, was on WITF's Radio Smart Talk this week to discuss the state of health and human services in Pennsylvania. She squared off with Matt Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation.

She explained that it was important for the commonwealth to spend taxpayer money wisely, but that current policies were resulting in eligible Pennsylvanians, including thousands of children, losing their health care.

Rather than taking away health care from children or jeopardizing the nursing care of seniors, state policymakers should look at alternatives, including closing tax loopholes and ending corporate welfare.

You can listen to the show at WITF's web site. Let us know what you think in the comments section.

The Library in the City: a Panel Discussion

In conjunction with the release of a new report, Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative (of which I am a part) is hosting a panel discussion this Wednesday night on the role of the Free Library of Philadelphia and other big-city libraries in the 21st century. YPP favorite Irv Ackelsberg is among the featured guests.

In the face of increasing and changing demands brought on by the recession and the Internet, public libraries across the country are facing the same questions about their future: where should they focus energy and funds? How will they handle their evolving role as a key provider of social services and government resources? Will this changing role alter the way local officials, who provide a majority of library funding, view the library?

The panel discussion will explore these and other issues discussed in the report. Mayor Michael A. Nutter will give remarks, and WHYY’s Dave Davies will moderate. Panelists include the Honorable James R. Roebuck, Jr., member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for Environmental and Community Resources and special advisor to the mayor on the Free Library of Philadelphia; Irv Ackelsberg, president of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia; Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia; and Thomas Galante, president and CEO of the Queens Borough Public Library.

The event is Wednesday, March 14 at 6 p.m. at Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street. It is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is recommended.
Visit www.pewtrusts.org/libraryevent to register.
Read the report here.

Business Subsidies 101: Take The Money and Run

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

The Allentown Morning Call reports that a plant operated by International Battery in the Lehigh Valley has closed its doors. The facility opened in 2008 with $4 million in incentives from the commonwealth:

International Battery, which opened an Upper Macungie plant in 2008 that was expected to create hundreds of jobs, has abruptly closed without explanation, workers said, surprising local officials who worked for years to attract the company to the Valley...

Phone messages left with various company representatives were not immediately returned. A message left with Wexford Capital, a Greenwich, Conn., hedge fund that invested $35 million in International Battery in 2010, was not immediately returned.

International Battery, which makes rechargeable lithium-ion cells and batteries for the military and industrial uses, was seen as a recruiting win in 2008 when it decided to invest millions of dollars in the Lehigh Valley and create manufacturing jobs.

On that note, I will leave you with the Steve Miller Band.

The Governor's Math Requires Fewer Math Teachers

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

PA Job Growth Slowed in 2011Pennsylvania’s 2011-12 General Fund budget made deep cuts to education and health care while leaving unspent $620 million from a revenue surplus last year and other unused funds.

We have estimated the failure to spend that revenue will by itself translate into the loss of 17,714 jobs (including private jobs lost due to the ripple effects of public job cuts) over the course of the 2011-12 fiscal year.

So it is no surprise that Pennsylvania's job growth slowed in 2011 compared to 2010 and when compared to most other states.

On Wednesday, Governor Tom Corbett resumed his business tour to pitch his 2012-13 budget, which offers another round of budget cuts for the coming fiscal year.

We need transparency in criticism as well as budgeting

Some critics of Mayor Michael Nutter are calling him out for hiding a real estate tax in his new budget since the budget proposes that after the new market based system of setting property values is put in place, tax rates will be set so that the city takes in an additional $90 million in real estate tax receipts.

There is a just a little bit of truth in the criticism. But most of it is really just hogwash.

In an ideal world, as the city switched to the new system of setting property values that moved them up to reflect market values, the tax rate would simultaneously be adjusted downwards so that the total take from the real estate tax from one year to the next would be roughly the same. Since the new system is supposed to, and most likely will, give us fairer assessments, some people would pay more and other less. But the overall real estate taxes take in by the city would remain about the same.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Because the property assessment system has been totally broken, the values placed on property for the purposes of the real estate tax have not gone up as the actual market values of those properties have gone up. There has been no city wide reassessment since 2004 and in response to protests other upwards reassessments have been rolled back.

This failure to capture rising real estate market values, along with the recession’s effect on overall tax returns, is why the city had to enact two temporary increases in the property tax rate in the last two years.

My Journal Entry in the Chronicles of "Trying to Fix the Vacant Land Problem"

I'd hoped to write here earlier about my work on all of this, the "land bank bill" introduced by Councilwoman Sanchez and the new vacant land policy being proposed by Mayor Nutter, and respond to some of the recent online discussion. No way it doesn't sound like an excuse, but I've been busy.

As most of you know, I work as a lawyer and legislative assistant in Maria Quinones Sanchez's office. There are a lot of ways I could spend my time in this job, and use my expensive education to try to help the city. But so far, since my focus is housing and vacant land, by far most of my time is spent navigating our land acquisition and disposition systems. That's helping, or failing to help, constituents get abandoned private land and publicly-owned land - elderly Puerto Rican couples who have been growing food across the street from their house for 20 years; nonprofits looking for more secure space; churches trying to stabilize their blocks; urban farmers; artists creating galleries; activists desperate to keep drug dealing and all the associate violence from metastasizing in empty buildings and lots. Nothing moves, or nothing moves without a truly epic amount of unnecessary work. It's Sisphysian. It's endless. It's wasting my time and my tax-funded salary. (For the record, it's not that big of a salary.)

Yesterday our great architecture columnist Inga Saffron meditated on Twitter that the problem moving that vacant land out of public inventory is "politics." (And, mostly mystifyingly, that "city policies and politics encourage owners to use vacant lots for parking, billboards & other unproductive uses.") This is seeing the symptoms and misdiagnosing the disease.

As far as I see, glaring problem number 1 is our lack of modern and coherent computerized infrastructure to manage vacant land. Glaring problem number 2 is current policies for acquisition, disposition, and pricing that do not match the needs or market conditions of most neighborhoods in the city. Both of those keep land stuck for years, often decades. Our Council office tries to help these stuck wheels move for our constituents and developers, but sometimes we are an obstruction. That's because glaring problem number 3 is lack of affirmative land use planning that would give us some metrics to agree what uses should go where. For a given proposed transaction, we don't get meaningful information about who the applicant is, what they want to do, whether they can actually do it, and then we have figure out whether we think what they want to do makes any sense, because we get no meaningful planning or policy guidance as to whether, say, selling a residentially-zoned lot to someone who lives a block away for parking is a good idea. Which is all not to defend or condemn "councilmanic privilege." But that practice exists now in the vacuum created by a dysfunctional system, and in part fills its gaps. If we get to a future system that is computerized, more transparent, and has written policies, the Council role in land disposition - whatever it ends up being - is going to function a lot differently.

Which brings me back to my first link, Patrick Kerkstra's article from this week about where we are with all this. If and when the city launches its "front door" to coordinate land sales, several big steps will have been taken. The Redevelopment Authority commissioned and is implementing a new database system that will contain files that are now inaccessible, and allow oversight and tracking of application status. That door will be at least cracked for more accurate pricing methods, appeal of absurd appraisals, and reduced or nominal price for a greater range of uses - uses the city already subsidizes one way or another and tries to encourage left and right in neighborhoods that have, as Dan pointed out in that Twitter conversation, negative land value.

But we'll still need a land bank, which is just a way of saying 'a more efficient vehicle for handling vacant land.' Otherwise there are still different agencies, different incentives and motivations, fragmented title, duplication and overlap, and time and money lost internally coordinating all of that. We've had massive cuts of the federal and state dollars that we've been using to run our current housing and land agencies and programs, and the cuts are continuing to come. We can't afford to leave the existing "alphabet soup" in place. We need to look top to bottom, probably with outside help from a foundation or university, and think about how we need to restructure that system to avoid duplication and get the most out of those shrinking resources.

The land bank bill, as introduced, is not meant to create a new and separate entity. It starts with the premise that whatever agency manages acquisition and disposition of surplus vacant land should have that as its mission and specialized focus (and the Public Property Department should be free to concentrate on managing active public facilities, and not need to play real estate agent). It also acknowledges that the Redevelopment Authority (PRA) must exist in some measure, because only it has legal power from the state to condemn blighted land for redevelopment. The land bank would exist in relationship to the PRA (either the PRA as an arm of the land bank, or vice versa) - one staff, one office space, but distinct rules and governance structures based on existing legal requirements and what fits the city's needs.

Some of the improvements mandated by the bill: a computerized, accessible inventory of public and privately owned vacant land; a system for getting ongoing notice of the status of vacant parcels; a strong role for community plans and the coming Comprehensive Plan; written policies that are updated biannually through a public process (a huge change!); requirement for ethics and conflict of interest policies, developed in the same public way; annual reporting.

But there's still a lot to figure out, including the best way to structure and improve Council's role in the process. Cleveland has a sign-off sheet, where all agencies, including the legislature, okay each transaction. We could have hearings, which have the advantage of being public but the disadvantage of taking time and resources. There's no magic answer, but the land bank is essentially a blank canvas to structure a system that actually makes sense, and the discussion is still active and open as to what that should look like - please continue to comment and give feedback, and please advocate loud and hard for change. The day I can permanently delete my Excel spreadsheets tracking hundreds of uncompleted property transfers seriously can not come soon enough.

As Economy Picks Up, PA Revenues Take Turn for the Better

A blog post by Michael Wood, originally published at Third and State.

After months of falling short of targets, Pennsylvania's General Fund tax collections edged past the monthly estimate in February by $16 million, or about 1%. The good showing was driven largely by higher-than-expected personal income tax collections. Corporate tax collections continued to trail estimates.

The improving revenue picture for both January and February may signal that tax collections (other than corporate levies) have taken a turn for the better. There have been many signs of a growing economic recovery, including a decrease in the unemployment rate, which bodes well for many state tax streams in the second half of the 2011-12 fiscal year.

February collections trimmed the revenue shortfall for the fiscal year to $482 million, or 3%. Tax collections for the fiscal year trail estimates by $449 million.

Compared to the prior fiscal year, total tax collections are up $507 million, or 3%, as of February — another sign that the economy is improving.

Fiscal Year to Date Tax Collections Trail Estimates, Still Growing Over Prior Year

Before we break out the champagne, the continuing — and largely self-inflicted — shortfall in corporate tax collections is a cause for concern.

Corporate taxes fell 13% short of estimate in February, bringing the shortfall for the year to just under $300 million, or 18%. Much of the corporate tax shortfall can be laid at the feet of the Corbett administration's February 2011 decision to adopt the federal "bonus depreciation" — something Pennsylvania previously had not done.

Should Judges be Elected? PA House Judiciary Public Hearing on Merit Selection

On March 1, I attended the PA House Judiciary Public Hearing on merit selection on behalf of the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus. This is something I would never have squeezed into my schedule if I were not retired. Merit selection (an appointive system of choosing judges) is not one of those hot button issues that grab the attention of the public. I probably would not have taken any interest in this issue were it not for my almost three decades as a Democratic committeeperson—a job I enjoy EXCEPT for the task of recommending judicial candidates to my neighbors. It is extraordinarily difficult to get reliable information about judicial candidates and I’m uncomfortable making endorsements when I don’t feel I can personally vouch for these candidates.

Last January, Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus Chair Gloria Gilman organized a meeting of a group of civic/advocacy organizations with representatives of the Philadelphia Bar Association to express our dismay at their recommendation of recently elected Common Pleas Judge Thomas Nocella, who has a well-documented history of ethics violations and other dubious practices. The officers of the Bar assured us they were making changes to their process which should prevent another such occurrence. But given the serious problems with our system of electing judges, an improvement in the Bar Association’s internal process for recommending judicial candidates is not enough.

'Cutting Training for Jobs the Economy Needs Most'

A blog post by Michael Wood, originally published at Third and State.

When you have a moment, check out this New York Times article on the impact of state cuts to public higher education across the country — and the impact they are having on our economy. These types of short-sighted cuts, like the 20% reduction in higher education funding proposed by Governor Corbett this year, put us in a worse position today and down the road.

The article highlights some of the "efficiencies" we could see if the cuts keep coming:

As state funding has dwindled, public colleges have raised tuition and are now resorting to even more desperate measures — cutting training for jobs the economy needs most.

Technical, engineering and health care expertise are among the few skills in huge demand even in today’s lackluster job market. They are also, unfortunately, some of the most expensive subjects to teach.

Pennsylvania has a long history of shortchanging higher education funding, coming in 45th (as a share of personal income) or 46th (per capita) in the the amount of state support for higher education in FY 2011, according to annual Grapevine survey.

If we want a well-educated workforce to fill the jobs of tomorrow, we have to invest in educating them today.

adultBasic: A Year of Struggle for Many Working Pennsylvanians

A blog post by Chris Lilienthal, originally published at Third and State.

One year after Pennsylvania’s adultBasic program came to an end, many working Pennsylvanians are still struggling with the lose of this critical lifeline. Anxiety and financial pressures are common, and many are allowing chronic health conditions to go untreated.

That was the message delivered by health care providers, advocates and former adultBasic enrollees during a media conference call hosted by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) Wednesday.

adultBasic was created more than a decade ago to provide affordable health coverage to low-income working Pennsylvanians who either lacked job-based coverage or were denied outright because of pre-existing health conditions.

But when a funding agreement between the commonwealth and Pennsylvania’s four Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans expired, Governor Corbett opted to end the program rather than renegotiate the agreement. The adultBasic program shut down one year ago today.

Rick Mossinghoff, a part-time worker from Robinson Township, Allegheny County, was one of the Pennsylvanians who suddenly found himself without health coverage. He opted to enroll in Special Care – a plan for low-income people offered by the Blues and touted by the Corbett administration as an alternative. His new premiums were five times the cost of adultBasic.

“When I had adultBasic, I was able to have physical therapy to combat the arthritic degeneration in my hip,” Mossinghoff said during the conference call. “That all ended, when I lost my coverage – because Special Care doesn’t cover any rehabilitative or physical therapy care.”

Must Read: The Inequality Governor Strikes Again

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

One of the factors driving the increase in inequality prior to 2000 was the growing gap between the wages of colleges graduates and everyone else.

Therefore, a straightforward policy to limit the rise in inequality would open the door to college attendance for the children of low-income adults. However, as the figure to the right illustrates, gifted but low-income children are much less likely to complete college compared to similarly gifted but high-income children. In fact, these gifted, low-income children are as likely to complete college as the least academically gifted, high-income children.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports this morning that proposed budget cuts by the Corbett administration are likely to lead to fewer courses offered at satellite locations of the State System of Higher Education. Satellite locations are more likely to serve students from low-income families.

What Works in Pennsylvania

The Campaign for What Works has a great video illustrating the interconnectedness of the investments our state makes in a variety of areas from early childhood education to public transportation to workforce training. These investments not only improve the quality of life of Pennsylvanians but create jobs and build a stronger economy.

As the campaign says on its home page: "Pennsylvania works when our state budget supports what works."

Take a minute to watch the video and pass it on.

Committee of Seventy - Please Monitor the Land Bank

For residents here in Kensington and in many other City neighborhoods, the issue of land banking is an often misunderstood but terribly important issue. Neighborhood residents have not been receiving clear and concise information about it, and many are also not aware with what a great degree the land bank process will impact the visual environment surrounding their properties.

As noted in the City's rider on top of the current Land Bank bill prepared in Harrisburg, the new quasi-governmental body that administrates the new land bank will replace the property custody functions of six city agencies who separately own baskets of properties throughout Philadelphia.

Added to the City's proposed bill for the land bank entity is a special provision for Councilmanic veto, which is City Hall preserving the unwritten mantra of Councilmanic Privilege which takes place with any particular issue about a parcel or basket of parcels that passes across the desks of Room 400.

Most community members and neighborhood residents have been given scant information other than the efficiency of the new process: that a portfolio of City property now in six different hands reverts to one set of hands, and that property transactions will no longer necessarily need to be executed through a Council bill, which historically consumed a lot of time during City Council sessions in conjunction with all the politicking that goes on prior to the bills being introduced by their respective Council members.

Pennsylvania families can't afford this budget

Earlier today, Governor Corbett's office released the following glowing statement about his budget:

"A Welcome Change."

That is how one commentator recently described Governor Corbett's 2012-13 proposed budget.

From all over Pennsylvania, people and organizations are voicing support for the Governor's budget. The Sun Gazette described Pennsylvania as "being boxed into a fiscal corner," forcing the Governor to make tough decisions. The Patriot News called the Governor's plan to reform foster care a "win-win situation." The Reading Eagle praised the budget for its continued phase out of The Capital Stock and Foreign Franchise Tax.

The budget has been described by job creators and business leaders as close to perfect. The Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association called the budget a "commitment to fiscal discipline, pro-growth policy." The National Federation of Independent Business called it a "solid fiscal blueprint for Pennsylvania." At Penn State University's College of Agricultural Science, the budget was greeted as "excellent news."

Here's how I would have written it:

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