Speaking softly without a stick

by pkerkstra on May 28, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 25, 2012.

Relax, Philadelphia! Gov. Corbett’s got this.

Sure, those dire headlines and the protests in the street might lead you to think city schools are careering down a seemingly endless fiscal mine shaft. But thanks to an update this week on Corbett’s Twitter feed, we now know otherwise: “the number one priority in the #pabudget is education.”

The most remarkable thing about this statement is that, technically, it’s true. Corbett’s otherwise parsimonious budget does include a minuscule increase in K-12 funding (higher ed, not so much). Even Philadelphia schools get more state money in Corbett’s budget than they did last year: 2.47 percent more.

Still, it’s the worst sort of sophistry to contend that the state is prioritizing education. Hardly a dime of the added money set aside for Philadelphia will reach the classroom, as almost all of the cash is allocated for nonnegotiable pension payments. And, of course, the trickle of money doesn’t make up for the nearly 10 percent slashing Corbett imposed on city schools last year as part of an involuntary post-stimulus budget cleansing.

Even so, in Philadelphia at least, Corbett and the statehouse are largely getting a pass on their role in this fiasco. The School Reform Commission members aren’t (publicly) lobbying for more state money: Rather, they’re warning about the greater catastrophe to come if City Council doesn’t do as Mayor Nutter has asked and make Philadelphia property owners pay $94 million more to save the schools.

“What the hell is up with that?” as Councilman Dennis O’Brien eloquently put it at a recent hearing.

A better question might be: What other realistic options are there? Sure, Nutter and the SRC could howl at Harrisburg. They could cast Corbett as the villain and try to embarrass the state lawmakers holding the purse strings.

And maybe that would make Philadelphians feel better. But it wouldn’t get the schools any more money. The sad fact is the city’s influence in Harrisburg is at its lowest ebb in a long, long while.

Ed Rendell is hawking a book. Dwight Evans lost his powerful position atop the Appropriations Committee and is in the minority. Vincent Fumo is 32 months into his 61-month federal prison sentence, and John Perzel is just beginning his. The city has effectively lost its most powerful state players just when their backroom skills are needed most.

“Philadelphia has no voice, and it’s a real problem,” political consultant Larry Ceisler said. “Who in Philadelphia can go to Tom Corbett and make the city’s case? What are the city’s leverage points?”

Asked whether the mayor wasn’t publicly pressuring Corbett because Philadelphia’s star in Harrisburg is so dim, Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald wrote: “The facts on the ground are what they are: Republicans hold the General Assembly and the governor’s office.”

Instead of “throwing political punches for a headline,” Nutter “chooses to search for common ground regarding complex and often divisive issues,” McDonald said.

Believe me, if Nutter thought throwing a punch at Corbett would make a difference, he’d unload. He’s punched Council silly over AVI.

That’s the much-discussed Actual Value Initiative, which is shaping up as another case study of the city’s impotence in Harrisburg.

Some background: The initiative started out as a citywide property reassessment, but now, because of the school-funding crisis, it’s doing double duty as a $94 million bake sale, with property owners picking up the tab.

The city has known for years AVI requires state legislation before it can move forward, and it should have lobbied hard to get that legislation passed long ago. But it didn’t.

Now, amazingly, the enabling state statutes might not get a vote in time for AVI to be enacted this year. That’s partly because Philadelphia representatives in Harrisburg are as spooked by AVI as is City Council. But the real risk isn’t opposition. It’s indifference.

Lawmakers from the rest of the state likely would vote for the AVI-enabling legislation if given the chance: The only taxpayers affected would be Philadelphians, and it’s certainly in the state’s interest for city residents to pick up a bigger share of the local school tab.

Unfortunately for Nutter and the School Reform Commission (not to mention the district’s 146,000 students), state lawmakers really enjoy their summer vacations. The GOP leadership wants to pass the state budget by June 15 – 21 days from today – and then split for a long recess.

Will they do Philadelphia a favor and squeeze AVI in before they break? Perhaps. But what does a Republican-dominated Harrisburg have to fear from the city if state representatives and senators skip town before taking care of that bit of business? Nothing.

Previous post:

Next post: