Thomas Fitzgerald: Great Pa. divide: Philly, take it or leave it

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) speaks at a Harrisburg rally Tuesday urging Gov. Corbett and Republicans to provide more funds to the city's financially strapped public school.
Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) speaks at a Harrisburg rally Tuesday urging Gov. Corbett and Republicans to provide more funds to the city's financially strapped public school. (MARC LEVY / Associated Press)
Posted: July 01, 2013

They might as well be on different planets.

For all the talk of the youth vote, the growing electoral power of Latinos, and the gender gap, demographers know that the sharpest divide in American politics lies between urban and rural areas.

Downstate Illinois resents Chicago. Outstate Michigan hates Detroit. Upstate New York is none too fond of the city of the same name.

Then there's Pennsylvania.

Right now, the most powerful current feeding Harrisburg's gridlock on the budget, transportation funding, and Medicaid expansion may well be the fear and loathing many upstate lawmakers have of the state's largest city.

Philadelphia, that giant vacuum sucking tax dollars from their constituents. Sodom on the Schuylkill.

Rural representatives in the State House are rebelling against a package that would fund road and bridge repairs by hiking wholesale gas taxes and vehicle registration fees - because the package would also include money needed for mass transit, such as SEPTA.

"More money will be thrown into the black hole of mass transit," Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, Republican of Butler County, thundered Friday at a news conference of conservatives who opposed the transportation funding plan being pushed by their own GOP leadership and Gov. Corbett.

That was mild compared with Metcalfe's characterization of mass-transit subsidies as "just more welfare" in a scathing May e-mail exchange with Rep. Tom Killion (R., Delaware) about Southeastern Pennsylvania's transit needs.

"Your buses don't do a thing for my constituents," Metcalfe wrote, according to Capitolwire, the online news service that unearthed the e-mails.

Killion cited a recent report by the Pennsylvania Economy League showing that just 27 percent of the state's transportation funding goes to Southeastern Pennsylvania counties, while the region has 32 percent of the state's population and 40 percent of its economic activity.

"If you help me pass legislation to keep all of the revenue the Southeast generates in the Southeast, we will be good to go and will never ask for anything else from the Commonwealth," Killion wrote.

On Friday, several dozen GOP House members also mutinied on health care, saying they would vote against the state budget - which is due by midnight Sunday - if an expansion of Medicaid for the poor, provided under Obamacare, is rammed through by more moderate Republicans.

Philadelphia and its suburbs put Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes out of reach for Republican Mitt Romney last year, and the region is a major reason that Democrats have carried the state in the last six presidential elections.

That kind of stark division is happening elsewhere. Last year, 27 of the nation's 30 most populous cities voted Democratic for president. Only Phoenix; Fort Worth, Texas; and Jacksonville, Fla., went for Romney.

Though Texas is one of the reddest states in the nation, its largest cities - Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin - all voted for Obama last year.

The same rural-urban chasm has blocked gun-control measures backed by voters in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and perhaps figured in a confrontation last week on the State House floor. Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.), who is openly gay, rose to praise the Supreme Court's landmark decisions on same-sex marriage - only to be silenced by other lawmakers' objections.

Among them was Metcalfe, who explained his reasons in an interview with WHYY-FM: "I did not believe . . . that I should allow someone to make comments such as he was preparing to make that ultimately were just open rebellion against what the word of God has said, what God has said, and just open rebellion against God's law."

Philadelphia, of course, is also counting on the General Assembly to help the city find more than $100 million to avoid draconian cuts to public schools, including thousands of teacher layoffs. Though there would be no direct cost to the state treasury - enabling legislation would allow Philadelphia to raise a $2-per-pack levy on cigarettes and to extend an existing sales tax - opposition has been intense. Passage is uncertain, to say the least.

Consider the words of State Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair). Discussing the cigarette tax, which would not affect his constituents, during a Senate Finance Committee meeting last week, he said he had "reached his limit" for Philadelphia requests for help.

"They keep coming back to the state asking for special taxes," Eichelberger said. "And it never gets any better. I don't see any benefit to giving them extra revenue. . . . I just think it's a bad bet."

Corbett, who is facing a tough 2014 reelection campaign, has pledged to help Philadelphia's schools, as long as the teachers' union gives concessions on work rules and benefits to provide long-term relief to the district.

That crisis presents an opportunity for the governor.

"If he were to come in and save the Philadelphia schools, it would be huge for him," said pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "If he could extract something from the legislature to help, it would show that he's not an ideologue and that he cares. Most of all, it would show leadership."

Said Charlie Gerow, a Republican political consultant in Harrisburg: "He would be hailed as a hero."

Even if it is Sodom.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.inquirer.com/bigtent.

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