Karen Heller: When in doubt, just hire a lobbyist

From left, aide Tumar Alexander, finance chief Rob Dubow, Councilman James F. Kenney, Dubow aide Anna Adams discuss the Actual Value Initiative, on which Council and the mayor have differed.
From left, aide Tumar Alexander, finance chief Rob Dubow, Councilman James F. Kenney, Dubow aide Anna Adams discuss the Actual Value Initiative, on which Council and the mayor have differed. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: June 14, 2012

While Michael Nutter wooed the sugar haters in Washington last week, given that he was against soda before Bloomberg blew up on Big Gulps, things were souring back home in a supersized way. The mayor was playing beautifully on the road but getting dismal reviews back home.

City Council was unhappy. You do not want City Council unhappy.

There were problems with millage, the homestead exemption, Actual Value Initiative (AVI), and the aggregate value of all city property, complicated issues that matter greatly. The School District is in wretched financial straits. The problem can't be overstressed. The state, which contributes almost 50 percent, whacked funding last year and kept it flat this year. The great majority of local funding derives from city property taxes, which are increasing again and most likely at a higher rate than projected. The city happens to be lousy about collecting taxes, indeed leads the nation in delinquency. Residents considerate enough to pay are being socked for more.

In Harrisburg, Philadelphia legislators weren't sold on AVI, a problem since implementation rests partially on state approval. The delegation was also furious with the School Reform Commission and its chair, Pedro Ramos, for going around it to gain the right to cancel contracts and win union concessions.

Ramos may have taken this approach because Harrisburg is controlled by Republicans, and there's only one in the city's 33-member delegation. Still, said Rep. Mike O'Brien, "you can't lock out the home team." Genteel Education Committee Democratic Chair James Roebuck lost his temper. O'Brien said, "No one had ever seen that before."

Mind you, these are our advocates.

This may come as a shock, but there is no love lost for Philadelphia in Harrisburg. Also, our expensive, bloated, full-time legislature really wants to get all business done by month's end, the sooner the better, so folks can enjoy three months of paid vacation to attend barbecues with constituents, ensuring reelection in perpetuity.

Politicians win election presumably because they're persuasive at championing their causes. They still end up hiring help. The Nutter administration spends considerable money on lobbyists, nearly half a million a year. If you lie awake worrying about the fate of former politicians, fear not. They land gainful employment as lobbyists. Former U.S. Reps. Bill Gray and Bob Borski lobby for Philadelphia in Washington. In Harrisburg, the city employs lobbyist and former State Rep. Stephen Wojdak. It also uses former State Sen. Joe Loeper, who went to prison for failing to disclose $330,000 in income from a tax-collection firm even as he thwarted legislation that might hurt the firm's business.

You would think this would be enough lobbyists. Uh, no.

Now, Council President Darrell Clarke is considering hiring a lobbyist to represent the interests of Council. There were complaints about a lack of communication between Council and the legislature, a failure of the city to obtain state commitments.

We're going to throw more money at the problem, that money being your money, though the move is not without precedent. A dozen years ago, the city legislature hired former Councilman Critter Jack Kelly - between gigs in Council, as it turned out - whose favorite issues are the webbed and the pawed. If Council can wait until August a year from now, Vince Fumo will be available.

Having two sets of lobbyists might prove confusing, diluting the city's goals, argued State Rep. Dwight Evans. "You have to be in sync on the subject matter," he said. "It gives others the sense of 'What's your message?'"

What's our message? Our school district is in desperate shape. We have a lot of poor people. We need more money. Rotten, broken schools keep residents mired in poverty. They can't land good jobs and pay more state taxes, purchase nice homes and pay rising property taxes, all of which support schools. Poorly educated citizens drag on social services and law enforcement, causing city, state and federal government costs to rise while driving middle-class families to the suburbs for better schools.

So much about Philadelphia is flourishing. Better, properly funded schools would continue that success.

Indeed, they are key.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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