Monday, January 31, 2005

Stealth legislation update

Ed Goppelt over at demonstrates the pattern of behavior in Harrisburg lately, in which major legislation is sneaked into play as an amendment mere hours before the other legislation comes up for a vote, giving other legislators little or no time to find out what they're putting into law, let alone subject it to an open debate. We posted previously here about how changes in homeowner rights in zoning decisions got undermined as part of a bill on trash collection fines, but other examples include the protection of factory farms, legalization of slot machines (!), and handling of domestic partner benefits.
For example Senator Vincent J. Fumo authorized statewide gambling by amending a bill having to do with fingerprinting of racetrack employees. The original HB 2330 was just 2 pages long. After being amended the Bill ballooned to a 146 page blueprint for the creation of a new industry whose fees would fund property tax relief.
Looks like it's averaging almost one of these games per legislative year, and it's time for somebody to put the brakes on this and make sure that major issues get discussed before new regulations are passed.

(via PhillyFuture)

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Suggestions for SEPTA

Young Philly Politics has a good take on the City Paper's cover story about suggestions that would improve SEPTA service and/or improve its "coolness." Some are so simple you can't believe they haven't already instituted them; others are pipe dreams. All are thought-provokers about ways to increase ridership of public transit...

Friday, January 28, 2005

Flexing their muscles

A short-term fix for SEPTA from a local development agency:
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission yesterday gave SEPTA $9.8 million in highway "flex" funds to keep all trains and buses running until Feb. 27 with no fare hikes or service cuts.
. . .
DVRPC transferred $9.8 million from four local highway projects that were stalled or had surplus cash. Gov. Rendell found another $3.2 in a capital-bond program - bringing SEPTA's short term bailout to $13 million, so far.
Why not just eliminate all the highways and put full government support behind public transit? Just kidding...

Mayoral prospects II

Among those whose name has been bandied about in the Mayoral contenders pool is Representative Fattah. Apparently there are some who think that his motives are suspect, and the arguments give some insight into more local power brokering...
A simmering feud between two Philadelphia political titans has broken into the open, with Philadelphia NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire threatening to challenge U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah next year if Fattah doesn't butt out of the 2007 mayor's race.
. . .
Mondesire, who has been a behind-the-scenes political force for years, recently fought proxy wars with Fattah over an appointment to the Board of City Trusts and for the Democratic nomination for the state Senate seat vacated by Allyson Schwartz.

Mondesire's camp won those tussles, but Fattah notes he's had plenty of success with candidates he has supported, including Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown and others.
The complaint is that Fattah's name-recognition is distorting the field for other (more serious?) contenders, such as Councilman Nutter or other players. A bigger question to me: is a city executive more powerful than a national legislator? Or is there just benefit in working the big jobs sequentially? Maybe Fattah has long-term interest in Governor, or in returning to PA rather than staying in DC...

More rumored mayoral prospects

A full Who's Who of local politics showed up for an event at which City Controller Jonathan Saidel announced... that he wouldn't run for reelection. Heh.
Gov. Rendell, Mayor Street and U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) headlined the formidable collection of political power on the stage with Saidel at the Wyndham Philadelphia at Franklin Plaza.

Joining them were State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.); City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, a potential rival for mayor; City Council members Anna C. Verna, Jim Kenney, Juan F. Ramos and Frank DiCicco; several state representatives; and NAACP leader J. Whyatt Mondesire.

Even a fellow Democrat who is openly weighing a campaign for the city's top job, electricians' union leader John Dougherty, attended the event. "It's the proper thing to do, to pay respects," Dougherty said. "Whatever happens, I think it will be good for the city. We'll have an open exchange of ideas, and the people of Philadelphia will decide."
Saidel made clear that he's leaving this office in order to move up, not out of the limelight, but he can't officially declare his candidacy for Mayor without having to resign his position, so mums the word. But he certainly seems well qualified for the job, having worked with Rendell and Street during some financially difficult periods.
Analysts inside and outside city government have credited Saidel with being an activist controller, whose reports resulted in $500 million in cost savings or new revenue over the last 15 years. In recent years, Saidel has focused on the need to improve Philadelphia's business climate and reverse its population decline.
Will have to wait and see on this one, but there's certainly a lot of jockeying for position already in a race that won't be for another two years, at least.

Update: The Daily News has a much cattier take on this event.

Managing Director and other mysteries

America's Hometown has a post about a change of faces at the post of Philadelphia Managing Director, which he likens to the city CEO, overseeing day-to-day operations in a number of city departments. I am willing to accept his assessment, but am also amazed that I've never even heard of this position before (maybe because it's part of the appointed infrastructure rather than elected officialdom?). The longer article is here and includes discussion of Street's appointments from a demographic point of view (specifically Latinos and gays in prominant positions). It's also worth noting the classic Philly legacy structure visible, in that Pedro Ramos, being promoted from City Solicitor to Managing Director, is the brother of Juan Ramos, City Councilman.
(Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A local voice in gaming

It seems obvious that Philadelphia should have some say in the choice/placement of future gaming (slots) sites within its borders. However, apparently it doesn't:
The Gaming Control Board will award licenses and determine the placement and design of two slot parlors in Philadelphia, irrespective of existing zoning, building and design codes. The city can only offer its advice.
Wacky. Anyway, to make sure that we have some intelligent advice, Mayor Street has created a task-force to develop and present some plans for the two parlors that are to be located here.
Street said he wanted the city task force to recommend where the slots might go and to review the potential effect on parking and traffic. The task force also is expected to consider neighborhood impact and how the slot-parlor designs would affect city streets.
I don't recognize any of the three names listed to be chairs of the group (which will total 30), but they sound like the right people for the job based on the descriptions given...

The whole thing reminds me a bit of city zoning decisions, in which the neighborhood civic associations can make a recommendation (and the developers make sure to make persuasive presentations to win their endorsement as well as to win over the neighbors) but the city will make the final decisions about permits and variances. The local folks have a much better idea of the specific impact of the plans, but the city may want to allow development to a greater degree than the individuals worried about their views. Nobody gets exactly what they want, but it's the only way to try for a decent balance. If we have to have gambling here (and I'm not an enthusiast), then let's at least do it in a way that gives the city maximum benefit and minimum disaster.

Who's watching whom?

PA has launched its website of sexual offenders, in response to pressure from Bob Casey and others, and it has attracted a lot of visitors, both the worried and the curious. I admit to nontrivial ambivalance about these community notification efforts -- they don't limit themselves to pedophiles and sexual predators, but pretty much out anybody who's been convicted of a sexual offense. This could include consensual homosexual encounters (when sodomy laws apply or outdoor trysts are involved), statutory rapes (think about an 18-year old and the outraged parents of his 16-year old girlfriend), and many others who are extremely unlikely to pose a threat to neighborhood Megans.

There has been vigilante action in New Jersey and some other places with databases like this. Do we really want to become our neighbors' keepers??

Update: some further information about problems with the database in this Phila Daily News article.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Can't tell the players without a SCORECARD!

Ah, the proud debut of my project from the last couple of weeks:

The Scorecard

It's intended to be a primer on local politics (where "local" means Eastern PA) by way of the big names, current and historical. I can tell you that I learned a ton by doing the research for this -- read lots of speculation, waded into controversies where I couldn't sort out who was on which side, got some impressions about the connections between the players -- but also that it's just a start, and I hope to add more big dogs as they emerge and/or I become better attuned. Apologies for the Philly-centrism, but I can only see through the news outlets and lenses that I have, and thus the disproportionate visibility of a few recurring names. I intend to expand my awareness outward from the city and inward from the nation and pick up a bit more of Pennsylvania along the way.

Meantime, perhaps I can educate a few of you on some of the names and history you might have missed. Feel free to suggest any players that I might have looked. It's possible that I'll add a zone at some point for the issues that come up over and over again, but for now, the players are the landmarks.

Also, my thanks to the Philadephia Independent, for this wry summary of the local scene:
In Philadelphia, to be somebody in the Democratic Party you've got to first meet every Democrat in the 400 houses surrounding yours and unseat your committeeman, throw at least a grand into each of the oft-dueling spheres of influence commanded by Mayor John Street, State Senator Vince Fumo and Congressman Bob Brady, and show up to every fifty-dollar-a-plate fundraiser the insipid John Dougherty of the Electricians' Union hosts. Not only is this an incredible investment of effort and money, it involves spending hours upon hours with union leaders, with their knockoff Timberlands and their shamelessly studied use of terms like "youse," and their misinformed disdain of any BYOB that opened after the Rizzo era, the preposterous Vatican-like secrecy with which they shroud all events leading up to the filming of the Real World, and the general conspiratorial tones they adopt when discussing things as pathetically insignificant as whether Frank DiCicco will win back his ward leader position, and their terrible jukebox selections.
Yes, hints of more players to be added later, as well as the feel of the whole thing... tee hee.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Philly in the snow

Have been holding off on links to photos and other nonpolitical local fun, but I just can't resist this pair of photo postings over at Fables of the Reconstruction, which are beautiful as photographs and also really capture the feeling of the city that I love.

two shots of Independence Park with falling snow

sites and people from all around town (I especially like the first and last)
Thanks for sharing, Mithras!

Update: for those who can't get enough area photos, there's a huge compilation of links over at Philly Future...

Stay alert -- spring election

There will be some special elections in PA this spring to replace folks who moved up to other jobs -- most notably former state Senator (and now US Representative) Allyson Schwartz. The date has now been set as May 17 for that one, and other spring dates for other parts of the state.

Update: According to Young Philly Politics, the annointed Schwartz successor appears to be Leanna Washington, currently a state Rep from the same district.

The buck stops somewhere

Apparently, use of food stamps is up more than 20% in the last four years, with Pennsylvania reflecting a nationwide trend.
Besides more Pennsylvanians possibly hitting hard times from the economic downturn, state and federal officials point to changes in welfare-to-work rules that restored eligibility to people who lost food stamps as part of welfare reforms begun in 1996.
I can't really tell from this whether people are worse off or are just being better looked after in their poverty. Either way, all that Welfare Reform hasn't gotten a lot of people to a better level of existance.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The rumbling of slot machines in the distance

Further momentum comes in the form of a move by Caesar's Casino to snap up some land along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, hoping to get a future license for slots there. Yuck.

(via America's Hometown)

Can we stop the brain-drain?

The majority of people that I know who live in downtown Philadelphia love it. Yet, if they are young, they presume that it's just a matter of time before concerns about school options will drive them out into the suburbs. The city is finally facing up to this problem and working to keep these prime workers (in age and education) in the city by improving both the school system and the marketing of it. This seems like a good start; if we can keep in the system the families who are most likely to be motivated to work with the schools and force improvements, everybody wins.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

New high-tech developments in West Philly?

Apparently the University City Science Center, which was designed to bring together small businesses and thinkers related to science and technology (and possibly incubate the commercialization of technology) is apparently starting a new push to expand its activities.
The strategy includes creation of a $10 million investment fund that Banerjee hoped would draw nearly $100 million more from government agencies and private investment groups. A large, new laboratory would be built to support the research of life-sciences companies. The Science Center also would provide management help to the companies.
. . .
He said the goal of the Science Center's new strategy is to help create at least 40 companies with a market value of $1 billion by 2010 and to increase their value to $3 billion by 2015.
Reading a bit further in the article, it sounds like they hope to revitalize the area in a number of ways:
He said a hotel and new office space would be part of a "master plan" being fashioned by the Philadelphia architecture firm Kling, the real estate firm Binswanger, and Bay Area Economics, a California consulting firm specializing in research parks.
I am perhaps an unbiased observer, working as I do for a scientific publisher in UCSC facilities, but this all sounds promising. Jobs and new businesses are good for Philadelphia, and may help bring the embattled West Philly back to some of its former glory...

(via staff researcher RSM)

An insurance windfall

Apparently the bloated car-insurance rates in PA and particularly in Philadelphia are due for some downward adjustment after an audit of the system.
The study by the Department of Insurance "will translate into at least $120 million in auto insurance premium savings for Pennsylvania consumers over the next few months," Rendell said at a news conference in Harrisburg.

State regulators said a disproportionate chunk of the savings will go to drivers in Philadelphia, where, according to Deputy City Solicitor Andrew Ross, rates had remained excessive even though insurance payouts had fallen.
This is a bit of a coup for Rendell, who pushed for a review of insurance rates while he was still Philly Mayor. Also, they intend to push it a bit further, especially with regard to the excessive disparity between city and suburban rates.
In a related development yesterday, Rendell announced that the insurance department had created a Consumer Liaison Office, and introduced Cindy Fillman, 38, as its first head.

Fillman said her new role was "to take it up a notch" in fighting for Pennsylvania insurance consumers.

Philadelphia's five-year campaign for lower rates "took too long," she said.
All sounds good to me!

(via staff researcher RSM)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Qualifications by the numbers

Inquirer headline: Businessman runs for mayor with millions.
"I'm a businessman, not a political person. I like to run the show," said [Tom] Knox, chief executive officer of United Healthcare of Pennsylvania... His contract as chief executive officer expires in 2007.
Um, I'm with America's Hometown in thinking there might be more important qualities that Philly could use just now...
Knox, who lives in the Rittenhouse Square area, is a longtime financial supporter of Gov. Rendell's and served in Rendell's mayoral administration as a deputy mayor, with a paycheck of $1 a year. In that job, he oversaw an office charged with trimming government fat.
And how did he do?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Onward with federalism

Well, since the national Congress is loath to set minimum wages high enough, states are taking things into their own hands. Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus Chairman, Mark Cohen, will introduce legislation to raise the state minimum wage, immediately by $1 and over two years by another $1.
"Pennsylvanians that work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at the current minimum wage only make $10,712, which is only 68.4 percent of what the 2004 federal poverty guideline is for a family of three," Cohen said.
Apparently, PA is behind its labor competitors in New Jersey and Deleware, both of which already have higher minimum wages and/or plans to raise them further.

New player at major local foundation

The William Penn Foundation, a big supporter of regional nonprofits, has a new head, Feather O'Connor Houstoun (pardon me, but Feather??). The newcomer has an impressive (and intriguing) resume:
Prior to joining AmeriChoice, Houstoun was a senior visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. She served as Pennsylvania's secretary of public welfare under former Gov. Tom Ridge, New Jersey treasurer under former Gov. Tom Kean, chief financial officer of SEPTA, and in a number of senior positions with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Certainly a heavy-hitter! Good broad experience for an organization that supports eduction, environmental, and arts organizations . . .

Nothing to see over there, folks...

This opinion piece explores the possible (or even seeming) conflicts of interest facing new PA Attorney General Tom Corbett (whose office is bringing a major suit against several pharmaceutical companies that contributed to his campaign) and former PA Governor Tom Ridge (about possible payola and influence schemes). The former, at least, will be interesting to see play out.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Carrying a great tradition

Today is the 10th celebration of Philadelphia's Martin Luther King Day of Service, in which tens of thousands of volunteers contribute part or all of the holiday to improving the city and especially the plight of those who need the most help. A fitting tribute to Dr. King, in just the right spirit.

In a different kind of tribute, at Just Between Strangers I've collected a bunch of quotes that show the feistier side of Dr. King -- his anti-war sentiments and calls to economic activism -- that we tend not to hear recited so often: The content of his character. Hope you're all enjoying the day!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Another suggestion for SEPTA

Legislation has been introduced to allow the sale of station naming rights. Hmmm, could Suburban Station become Wachovia station instead?
Pennsylvania Rep. Rosita Youngblood said the resolution (H.R. 6) urges the state's transit authorities to sell naming rights to businesses to generate money to enhance and increase ridership, defray budget costs and preserve some of the state's most historic stations.
I admit that the notion kind of offends me aesthetically, but might be a good short-term choice for an infusion of funds...

(via Philadelphia: America's Hometown)

Under cover of... holiday flurry?

Apparently the PA legislature signed off in early December on a measure which would limit the rights of Philadelphia citizens to be involved in land-use decisions in their own neighborhoods.
When Harrisburg lawmakers voted the other day to scrap a key right enjoyed by Philadelphia citizens, they did so in virtual secrecy - amid the usual, confused flurry of end-of-session lawmaking.

Without notice or debate, lawmakers from both political parties voted to toss out a long-standing tradition of citizen involvement in land-use decisions affecting neighborhoods and the city as whole. The tradition had provided leverage, for example, to community groups opposed to unsightly billboards.
In their defense, it was an amendment sneaked into an otherwise reasonable bill about controlling illegal dumping. However, Rendell signed it, leaving it to court challenges to determine whether homeowners have a right to have input into zoning and related decisions.

Hallwatch has a summary of who knew what before they voted, as well as exhortations to contact your legislator, here.

Running to catch up

Having experienced the joy of losing a leader recently, New Jersey now recognizes the value of having a second-in-command ready to take over in case of need. The NJ Congress appears on the road to agreeing on a bill to authorize the creation of a Lieutenant Governor position starting in 2010, an office that all but seven other states already have.

Next up...

Seth Williams, former assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia, is now gunning for his former boss, Lynn Abraham -- apparently he will announce his candidacy on Monday. His primary goal is to restructure the DA's office:
If he wins, Williams plans to reconfigure the office by assigning prosecutors to geographic sections of the city, as is done in places such as Chicago and Portland, OR, instead of their current groupings by types of crimes, he said.
Interesting. I could imagine a loss of efficiency when the lawyers and courts are no longer specialists in a type of crime, but his suggestion that the DAs would be held more acocuntable by their individual neighborhoods than under the current system is an intriguing one. I'll be keeping an eye out for more information about the relative merits of these positions (and whatever other turf the candidates stake out); this is an off-year election, so it should be easy to pay attention.

Q: Anybody want to change their bets on Abraham for Senate in 2006?

Noise from Casey on Megan's Law

Bob Casey, as Auditor General, undertook an examination last spring of the local success at implementing Megan's Law (which mandates community notification of sexual predators). In April he released a withering assessment of the police success in handling this:
"What the report found were serious problems with the community-notification responsibility," one source said. "It's appalling. They only have a handful to keep an eye on. These are really dangerous people."
. . .
The notification by state police did not happen in "several" of the 17 cases, sources said. The law-enforcement officials simply were told they had a "sexual offender" in their midst, which doesn't require community notification, sources said.
Now he's followed up on that report with another making several recommendations for reform, including the appointment of a "Megan's Law czar" to coordinate the various agencies that handle these cases.

How much is this a pet project of his own, how much one of many things he oversees, and how much a response, given his own political ambitions, to the way that this issue was used to batter Allyson Schwartz when she ran for Congress?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Mixed frequencies

I knew that there were rumblings about new theaters in the west-of-Broad part of downtown Philadelphia -- renovation of the SamEric and a possible Ritz competitor. I certainly share the ambivalence of LA at Young Philly Politics in response to the discovery that the SamEric/Boyd Theater project is under the control of evil corporate entity Clear Channel! (coming next: Swift Boat movies 'round the clock?? sanitized versions of popular shows?)

Casey in 2006?

This summary over at dailyKos gives an intriguing look at Bob Casey, Jr., as a possible 2006 US Senate opponent to Rick Santorum.
The surprising news on Casey sounds like he may actually be giving the Senate race real thought. Its surprising because Casey has had his heart set on the Governorship for years.
I am interested that they also mention the possibility of a Barbara Hafer candidacy, but nothing about Hoeffel (who gave Arlen Specter a better-than-expected run for his money) or about Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham (who might have ambitions closer to home); these musing probably reflect my Philly-centric view of the state right now...

For more speculation about all 2006 races, see this Observer-Reporter article...

Getting a headstart?

Patriots Against Santorum is spreading the word in preparation for 2006...

(via Rittenhouse Review)

Update: kos reports rumors about possible opponents for Santorum, in discussing other races...

Fumo weighs in for SEPTA

And when Fumo weighs in, he brings some heavy footsteps into the room. His plan would raise the transfer tax (on the sale of real estate) by a fraction, generating most of what the transit system needs. There will need to be some concession to the rural areas, probably in the form of more funds for roads and bridges, investments which only increase future traffic problems, but it's a start...

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Philly mega-skyscrapers?

One blogger, at least, thinks the new monster building(s) will be ok additions. I'm intrigued by the fact that the new building will include a lot of park space -- will be interested to see how that actually plays out...

Nonpartisan ethics infusion?

In general, I've been a bit weary of the constant coverage of the Street/corruption investigation, but I would certainly be glad to see the decades-long system of payola in Philadelphia city functions come to an end. Now the venerable Committee of Seventy, longtime election watchdog, says that under its new leadership it "will work to be heard on government ethics issues raised by the federal corruption probe." Very interesting...

(via SFR staff researcher RSM)

SEPTA crisis meeting(s)

SEPTA has officially delayed its implementation of emergency measures (i.e., fare hikes and schedule cuts unless more funding is provided), but they are supposed to go into effect March 6. That notice lists some public hearings about this plan.

I'm tempted to go, and to remind them of the blue-ribbon commission of 4-5 years ago which recommended a set of changes, basically aimed at increasing ridership, for which the exact opposite were what the system chose instead. But if they wouldn't listen after paying untold thousands to the commission for its research and report, why would they listen to me, with red ink staring them in the face? Sigh.

See the SaveTransit site and the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers for future discussion and updates.

Just what every city needs: gambling with our future

Here's a good blog rant about the proposal to have a slots parlor in the midst of Center City Philadelphia. Having watched riverboat gambling arrive in St. Louis, MO, I can recall vividly
  1. the "unexpected" surge in gambling addiction and consequent bankruptcy
  2. the great enrichment of a few investors/cabals with a net gain of a few dozen jobs for locals.
All that and a big seedy blight in a part of the city that could use some development (and that borders several important sections of town, such as the Convention Center and Chinatown). What more could we ask for? Sigh.

Old wingnuts never die...

...they are brought back in a different guise. By which I mean to introduce the news that Pat Toomey, who recently tried to oust Arlen Specter from the right, has become head of the Club for Growth, an uber-conservative economic kingmaking organization. wheee.

(via the Toomey Blog)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

It's not bad enough

...that Intelligent Design (creation studies by another name) is being debated in the Dover, PA school system (see rants here and here); one of our state's senators (unsurprisingly, Santorum) tried to get these ideas built into the No School Left Behind Act... Color me previously in denial.

See his Christmas Opinion piece on this matter and several outraged responses here. Santorum claims to be a reasonable man, but shows his flat-earth roots:
Evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to scrutiny, not as sacred dogma that cannot be questioned.

But is there a real scientific dispute? Absolutely. [blahblahblah]
Follow my links at the top of this page if you want more about the weakness of these claims. Or just accept that natural selection is as much a theory as gravity is; it's mighty powerful and widely taken as a given for its proven predictive value.


(tip via Echidne of the Snakes)

Breathing more easily just thinking about it

The most exciting development in my personal experience of Philadelphia may arise from the legislation that Mayor John Street says will be his priority for 2005: a smoking ban for public places. Nothing makes me feel old faster than having to bow out of drinks, dancing, etc. because my eyes are smarting and my head is spinning from all the second-hand smoke... (not to mention the turnoff effects of my and my partner's smelling like big ashtrays afterwards!) Go, Street!

Plus, I like having this be the first real post, given this blog's title...

Let's see what happens

Am creating this blog to spur myself to learn more about local, rather than just national, politics and policy development. I think I'd like to get more involved, and MoveOn (whom I worked with to turn out the Kerry vote) isn't the right way into things at this level. So, this is a placeholder post for the day, and let's see what I can find! Will make the blog public as soon as there's content...

Update: I went public pretty quickly. Have already discovered a wealth of good news and opinion sources, gotten a few visitors, and am already feeling more clueful. Looks like this is will be a lasting operation!