State Senator Vincent Hughes is taking the politically bold move of filing a discharge petition in order to get movement on Senate Bill 12.
The bill would expand Medicaid and infuse much-needed dollars into the coffers of struggling and distressed school districts statewide.
Hughes has long been a proponent of finding adequate school funding, while simultaneously criticizing Gov. Tom Corbett and his administration for a string of education funding cuts.
According to Hughes, SB 12 would provide health coverage to 500,000 additional Pennsylvanians through $4 million in funding from the federal government. The tax revenue recouped from such an endeavor could reach as high as $180 million, while creating upward of 35,000 new jobs in the health-related sector.
Hughes’ bill has languished in the senate’s Public Health and Welfare Committee since its March 26 introduction, and Hughes wants action before the end of the current session.
A committee can be discharged from consideration of a bill within 10 legislative days of its referral with the unanimous consent of the full senate. After 10 legislative days have passed, the bill can be discharged by a majority vote of Senate members.
“Last week, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said the ‘practical deadline’ for expanding Medicaid has almost arrived,” Hughes said. “I agree completely. That is why I’ve decided to file a discharge petition to seek a vote on Senate Bill 12 in the full Senate. We are rapidly running out of time to take advantage of the savings generated by Medicaid expansion in the state budget.”
Medicaid expansion is something that Pennsylvania needs to do, according to Hughes.
“If Gov. Corbett is unwilling to do the right thing, my colleagues in the Senate must send a clear message that this is unacceptable,” he said. “It’s time for a vote on Medicaid expansion.”
Hughes has the support of City Council members, most notably that of Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Marian Tasco, who have co-introduced a resolution calling for the state senate to adopt Hughes’ discharge resolution.
“With funding crises popping up on a seemingly weekly basis, Pennsylvania — and the City of Philadelphia — cannot afford for Governor Corbett and Senate Republicans to pass up an opportunity to receive a $4 billion infusion of federal funds,” Bass said via a statement released by her office. “Therefore, the State Senate must cease its delay and call Senate Bill 12 for a fair up or down vote on the floor and I commend Senator Hughes for filing this discharge resolution.
“While Philadelphia public schools and elected officials are desperately trying to bridge a drastic budget gap, Governor Corbett and Senate Republicans are refusing to participate in a program that would, according to an April 19, 2013, economic impact report released by the Pennsylvania Economy League, create over 10,000 jobs in Southeast Pennsylvania and generate nearly $2 billion in economic activity,” she added. “That’s money that could be freed up to go to our schools and to our social safety net.”
Officials with the financially distressed School District of Philadelphia have repeatedly said that the district would need an infusion of funds — at least $60 million from the city and $120 million from the state — to ensure its survival. The city took a big first step in answering the call, as Mayor Michael Nutter unveiled a series of new tax programs and initiatives that could net the district $95 million annually, well above the district’s target.
“I am proposing a revenue package to generate new money for investing in the education of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren. This set of recommended proposals is sustainable and substantial; the key is, they are also doable,” Nutter said, flanked by Hite and members of the School Reform Commission. “As I have already previously announced the supported increase in the liquor-by-the-drink tax, our proposed increased will generate approximate an additional $22 million by increasing the tax from ten percent to 15 percent. This proposal is scheduled to start on July 1, 2013.
“I am also proposing a city cigarette tax; the city currently has a tobacco tax, but cigarettes are not included in that tax,” Nutter continued. “The cigarette tax I am proposing will begin in January 2014, and will be set at $2 per pack. It will generate approximately $45 million in half a fiscal year.
“Almost all of the revenue from these taxes will be used to invest in the educating young children, and allows the Health Department to continue its smoking cessation programs.”
The third key, Nutter said, to delivering the much-needed funds is giving more power to Tom Knudsen, who is tasked as chief revenue collector. Knudsen is intimately aware of the district’s sinking finances, as last year he orchestrated a $300 million-plus bond deal so the district could get through the academic year.
Nutter has said a ramped-up delinquent tax office could net the district upward of $28 million.
While Nutter and Hite voiced optimism — with neither saying what would happen if the state doesn’t come up with its share – there are roadblocks to the district getting the money.
First and foremost, the city cannot pass any new tax laws without first receiving authorization from the General Assembly. Although state Senator Vincent Hughes has introduced a pair of bills — Senate Bill 944 and Senate Bill 945 – that would spur action at the state level, in city coun
cil hearings, Councilman Bill Green voiced strong reservations about Nutter’s package — and the city’s relying on action from the assembly.
“While I support the mayor’s proposals to help schools, they are unlikely to pass the General Assembly, and frankly, they miss the point,” Green said from the council floor. “Even if they do, there is no more help coming from the General Assembly, so there will be a $200 million gap. The city is simply not able to fund the gap for the current failing system by itself. The issue today is far more complicated than just throwing more money at the school district.
“The question is whether the district is too big to succeed.”
Nutter’s proposal alsoreceived a chilly response from the Philadelphia Tavern Owners Association/Licensed Beverage Association, whose president, John Longacre, blasted the plan as another unfair tax hoisted upon small business owners and average-Joe consumers.
“I think it’s a terrible idea. Philadelphia is the only county in the state that already has an over-the-counter liquor tax; every other municipality in this state is able to function their government without putting it on the backs of consumers,” Longacre said. “Philadelphia is already the second highest-rated city in America in terms of tax burdens on its citizens. Businesses in Philadelphia are already paying an inflated sales tax, paying a four percent wage tax, already paying a net gross profit tax and a business privilege tax. We are already paying taxes that don’t even exist in other counties, and we’re already overpaying on taxes as is; and now they want to add another tax that doesn’t exist anywhere [else] in the state.”
Longacre does care about the plight of public education — in his view, it’s just unfair to ask businesses and taxpayers to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Instead, Longacre believes a leaner city government would cure many of the city’s fiscal ailments.
“In our opinion, the city needs to be run more efficiently, and you can [help the district] without compromising on the backs of business owners. The city could cut wasteful spending, but more importantly, if the city collected on real estate taxes at a rate commensurate with other cities, it would add $100 million every year,” Longacre said. “There are other ways to fill the school funding gap, other than to put strain on an already overtaxed business.”
Longacre said Nutter apparently has considered the effect this will have on the smaller bars, theorizing that most retailers will pass the tax hike on to their customers, which will lead to establishments losing customers. To not have that happen, Longacre said many smaller tavern owners will just eat the increase, thus shrinking their margins even more.
“It makes an already existing ridiculous tax even more ridiculous,” Longacre said, noting that there is already a 10 percent tax on drinks. “The fact that national publications are reporting that Philadelphia is the second-ranked city in terms of tax burdens, and to propose even more tax increases is clearly not doing anything to address the core problem, which is the efficiency of government.”
On the government side, as Nutter thanked and congratulated Council President Darrell Clarke for his hard work on the liquor-by-the-drink tax — Nutter and Clarke talked about and worked on the bill for more than a year — Clarke was quick to point out that, although his is generally satisfied by the news, there’s still a bit left to do.
“There’s a proposal we’ve talked about as an alternative to raising real estate taxes. We’ve tried our best, as we come up with solutions to increase revenue, to do things differently, as opposed to the traditional model of, ‘we need money. Let’s stick our hands in taxpayers’ pockets,’” Clarke said. “Real estate, wage or other things that people tend to not have any alternative. But if you have a liquor-by-the-drink or cigarette tax, and if you don’t want to pay that tax, you can simply not drink or simply not smoke.
“The last two tax votes for the schools were last minute, and they were very difficult votes, done in a way that was somewhat scattered, essentially cobbled together a series of votes from different members to try and push for measures, ” Clarke continued, noting that he was mildly surprised when he learned the figure from Nutter’s proposal was $95 million. “In spite of that, here we are with an additional $300 million-plus deficit, so it’s clear that’s not the way to fix this problem.
“I want to emphasize that I’ve said in response to the mayor’s proposal, that I am pleased with the fact that the Pennsylvania General Assembly, particularly the Philadelphia Delegation, that continues to be supportive of measures that help the City of Philadelphia,” Clarke continued. “The reality is, the school district proposal cannot be in lieu of support from the state. I have said the city’s portion of the request is the smallest part of the puzzle, so even we are successful in coming up with additional revenues for the school, it’s still not going to matter, because reality is, until you get close to hopefully the $120 million the district is requesting, and some understanding as it relates to the school district as it relates to the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, we’re not going to be in a position to maintain the current level.”
With 23 candidates vying for the six open seats as Common Pleas Judge for Philadelphia County, and 25 more going for the three open seats for Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge, the contenders will start looking for ways to differentiate themselves from one another for Election Day.
Luckily for Timika Lane, she has hit the ground running and has at her disposal what many other candidates don’t: the backing and endorsement of the local Democratic machine, and years of experience working as a public defender.
Lane obtained the first by becoming a member of the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Bar associations and working as chief legal counsel for Senator Anthony Williams; Lane hopes the second will convince voters that she not only knows the minutiae of the job, but brings to it a sense of thoughtfulness and compassion lacking in courtrooms across Philadelphia.
“I am running for a few reasons, but the main reason is because, when people go before a judge, that’s when they are most vulnerable. They could be looking at jail time, there could be a child removed from the home by the Department of Human Services, or be the parent who had their child removed; it’s a variety of reasons,” explained the West Philadelphia native during a meeting with the Tribune’s Editorial Board. “But when they go before a judge, it’s clear they want someone who’s knowledgeable, someone who has common sense, someone who is going to listen and someone who is just really going to be fair.
“That’s all everyone wants; I don’t care what your color is or how much money you have or what your background is, everyone wants a fair trial.”
Lane’s time as a public defender has opened her up to retrospection about the cases she has tried – including one in which the presiding judge granted zero leniency to one of Lane’s clients who was trying to piece back together a life once destroyed by drugs – and has also represented juveniles. Lane also has experience as a public school teacher, having taught seventh-grade social studies in Maryland.
“As a public defender for six years, I saw how people were treated, first-hand, in the trenches. I’ve represented people who could not otherwise afford representation,” Lane said. “And I saw the difference in how there were treated differently in terms of sentencing and respect.”
Both from her work inside the criminal justice system to her mentorship away from it – Lane also serves as trustee member and greeter at Bright Hope Baptist Church, holds certifications as a child advocate and arbitrator and is a graduate of Howard University and Rutgers University-Camden’s School of Law – has prepared Lane well for the position, should she become elected; Lane’s is currently listed at No. 4 on the ballot – a generally favorable position.
Dr. Donna Laws, now a two-time contender for Traffic Court Judge, finds herself in a similar position of trying to state her case clearly and concisely over the din of a combustive race.
Laws, who is running on a platform of honesty and ethics, hopes to cause separation by “upholding ethical standards in judicial responsibility.”
“I certainly hope that this time is a charm, and I am given the opportunity to be the fair, honest and transparent judge of Traffic Court that I know I can be,” Laws said during a meeting with the Tribune Editorial Board. “I’m running for Traffic Court Judge because I have over 12 years’ experience in human services and social policy, and that’s what my Ph.D. is in.; those experiences will allow me to administer the duties of the court and hear summary offenses.”
Laws believes ethical treatment of those that come before her or any judge to be a paramount duty of the court, and Laws takes ethicism seriously. According to laws, she has been ethically certified by the state Minor Judiciary Board and attends recertification classes and programs on a routine basis; Laws has a Masters in Human Services from Lincoln University and holds a Ph.D. in Human Services Administration and Public Policy from Walden University. Laws currently ballot position is Button #146.
Laws will likley encounter longtime grassroots organizer and first-time candidate Inja Coates, who is also running for Traffic Court Judge.
Coates, well known for her work with a myriad of organizations including the Asian Arts Initiative, ACT-UP, and the Village for Arts and Humanity, but Coates may be best known for her work with the Philadelphia Community Access Coalition, in which Coates spearheaded the fight that ultimatelty won free access television for Philadelphia.
“I have been an activist for racial and economic justice, and have a deep understanding of the struggles around poverty and the ways systems of oppression work in our society,” Coates said. “I’m not a single-issue person, and now with traffic court in urgent need of reform, I am looking to continue my work,” Coates added, noting that corruption, particulary that uncovered in the ranks of traffic court, is indicative of the old-school political establishemt pervasive in the city. “I’ve talked with voters all over the city about different concerns, such as people who drive for a living and immigrants.
“In general, I feel that [citizens] want judges, not beuracrats and administrators; someone who has an understanding of the issues that different communities face, and listen with an open mind and heart, and make courts more accountable,” Coates continued “My nonprofit background says a lot about who I am. I’m not coming with a lot of establishment backing, but I do have a diverse group of supporters.”
Coates current ballot position is Button #147.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz is a veteran of both local and state politics, but finds himself in a tightening race with challengers Brett Mandel, Mark Zecca and Terrance Tracy — with Mandel being the more aggressive, airing new television ads that have suggested that the School District of Philadelphia’s current fiscal crisis occurred on Butkovitz’s watch and bear his fingerprints.
Butkovitz, in a sit down with the Tribune’s editorial board, defended his record while stating his case for re-election.
“I think we’ve turned it [the City Controller’s office] into a ‘people’s office.’ We made the factual case that resulted in the first disqualification of a contractor for cheating minority subcontractors,” Butkovitz said. “We’ve been on the impact issues since I’ve first came to office. We did a great report about the obstacles facing minority contractors to graduate to full contractors … when I came on the Pension Board, only four percent of the pension assets were managed by minority managers, and now that figure is up to 25 percent.”
Butkovitz’ more current record shows that he has resisted implementation of the controversial real-estate reform and taxing bill known as Actual Value Initiative, or AVI, and spoke up against what Butkovitz believes is city’s lax approach toward collecting taxes. Butkovitz, a Democrat, also put public over partisanship, as Butkovitz led an investigation into the Sheriff’s Office, which led to massive reform and the establishment of a multi-million dollar fund to assist homeowners who lost residences through the sheriff’s office mismanagement.
“We have been constantly a critical examiner of the AVI process. This reassessment was sold as something that would be fair and more accurate, and people expected that taxes would go down for people with low income, and go up for people with higher income,” said Butkovitz, who recently released a Controller’s Analysis on AVI. “I was among the first people to point out the biggest impact of the city was in Grays Ferry, where average tax would go up ten-fold.
“There was a lot of resistance to that idea, because the elites in the city brought the concept, regardless of what the evidence was,” continued Butkovitz. “So, we’ve had quite a lot of fencing over public opinion in the weeks after the federal report … we went to all these community meetings, and I think there was kind of surprise at the number of African American faces engaged in tax revolt, because the expectation was it would be Center City and South Philly that would scream. So people intuitively understood that they were getting cheated, even while the official party line was this is something that would make things fair.
“I would say that part of the campaign has given fuel to the idea that there has to be a $30,000 Homestead Exemption and gentrification relief, because people are literally going to be taxed out of these gentrifying areas.”
To that end, Butkovitz said his office engaged an outside expert to analyze the accuracy of assessment data; Butkovitz claims the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter has said the property values are within 15 percent of what their fair market value is, while Butkovitz said his expert has found that the assessments were off by 112 percent.
“The old assessments were very flawed,” Butkovitz said. “As you get to lower-value properties, the errors become greater, and as zip codes become more and more African-American, they become valued at a higher percentage of market value than they do in Caucasian neighborhoods.”
Butkovitz said he also helped settle issues with illegal constructions in north Philadelphia that also included health regulations that involved pollutants reaching surrounding schoolyards.
While those are certainly worthwhile accomplishments, Butkovitz appears most proud of his work in handling the school district — which flies in the face of accusations made by Butkovitz’ challengers.
“I have been deeply involved as a critic of school management and school fiscal policy since January 2006 when I was elected,” Butkovitz said. “I pushed the school district toward five-year budgeting, and I’ve consistently fought with the district repeatedly about dishonest accounting and financial reporting practices.”
With the primary elections looming on May 21, there are no less than eight races with a total of 25 seats at stake; the prize will be the ability to shape local and regional politics for the next several years.
Statewide, there is only one vacancy for Superior Court judge, although two other judges will be up for retention in the November 2013 elections, according to data provided by the political watch group Committee of Seventy.
Locally, the race for city controller will pit incumbent Alan Butkovitz against three sturdy opponents: Democratic challengers are nonprofit executive Brett Mandel and former city lawyer Mark Zecca, who resigned his position to run for controller; Butkovitz’ Republican challenger is retail business manager Terrance Tracy.
Butkovitz, first elected to the City Controller’s office in 2005, also served as State representative for 14 years prior to the 2005 election, and bases his platform on fiscal transparency and rooting out corruption. While Butkovitz’ track record is strong, his three challengers seem well-equipped to pull off a surprise upset.
Mandel, according to official biographies provided by the Committee of Seventy, is steeped in the world of business, as academically, Mandel received his B.A. from Hamilton College in 1991 and obtained his M.G.A. from University of Pennsylvania’s Fels School of Governmental Administration in 1993.
A stickler for policy and budget, in previous stints, Mandel served as the Philadelphia Independent Charter Commission assistant policy director, as well as Pennsylvania Economy League policy analyst. Interestingly, for a time working out of the City Controller’s office, Mandel worked as the director of Financial and Policy Analysis.
And it would appear Mandel’s platform will consist of tax reform and citizen protections.
“In Philadelphia, taxes are going up and the services we count on are being cut; jobs are scarce and poverty is on the rise. Schools are being closed, fire stations are being ‘browned out’ and library hours are being cut back. This year more than ever, voters understand that how we raise and spend our money affects our lives. The City Controller is Philadelphia’s elected financial watchdog. We need a budget bulldog to deliver the action and accountability to stop waste and fraud, and focus government on efficiency and effective service delivery,” Mandel told the committee, noting that he will also stop the School District of Philadelphia’s recurring deficit. “I will help Philadelphians set priorities to make Philadelphia the city we know it should be. I will audit every agency every year, use pre-audit authority to ensure that our government plays by the rules, and make the budget completely transparent so we all see what City Hall does with our money.”
Zecca, who holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and Juris Doctor degree from Temple University’s Law School, is well-known politically. Zecca has previously served on the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, along with stints with U.S. Department of Justice and on the Federal Cuban/Haitian Interagency Task Force; he also has more than 30 years of experience working on several Democratic Campaigns.
“After over 20 years of handling high profile matters for the people of the City in the Law Department, I realize that the Charter establishes a strong mayor form of government. But to be better mayors, mayors need a strong controller to put pressure on the mayor to force mayors (whomever they are) to serve the people and address issues that mayors would otherwise close their eyes to. The controller is the main independently elected citywide check on the mayor,” Zecca said. “It is time for a new controller to refresh that office, particularly because no controller should serve for more than two terms and the incumbent is seeking a third. Also, as a longtime Ward Leader, the incumbent is far too enmeshed in the machine to be a strong and effective fighting champion for the people to make their government accountable to them.”
Like the other two challengers, Tracy also holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, earning a master’s in Government Administration; Tracy also has a B.A. in Political Science from Temple University. While assisting on several campaigns, Tracy’s overall political background doesn’t appear to match up to that of the other two candidates; whether that can help or hurt Tracy’s candidacy will be left to the voters, but Tracy doesn’t sound too worried.
“Having spent the last decade running brick and mortar retail stores in cities across the continent, I understand that if we do not create a quality customer experience, our customers will shop somewhere else. If we do not create a quality living experience, our citizens will choose to live somewhere else. Simply put, our government is capable of providing world class service, and when we do, we’ll be well on our way to making some big improvements,” Tracy said, adding that if elected, he will focus on economic development, public education and government accountability.
Across the plaza, first-term Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams will face Republican challenger Daniel Alvarez, a candidate who admittedly has little political experience, aside from the eight years Alvarez served as Assistant District Attorney.
But where Alvarez seems to lack in political tie-ins – helpful since Alvarez says he will not become a career politician - he appears to make up in academia and law enforcement knowledge. Alvarez, an associate with Lamb and McErlance, PC, earned a B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute and J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law.
“I’m not politically ambitious, but rather I am ambitious for my children as other folks are ambitious for theirs. I am running for office because I want better for my two young kids, not because I enjoy it. As a father I am very concerned about the high crime, violence, and rampant political corruption. People want better for their kids and reject political partisanship,” Alvarez said. “Moreover, I won’t make politics a career. I support term limits because it cuts down on political corruption. There is something to be said about humility and the willingness to walk away from power, which is absent in the halls of power. And ‘We the People’ suffer as a result of this political arrogance.”
Court of Common Pleas
There are six available seats on the bench for the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County – with 23 candidates running. All but two of the candidates are running as Democrats, while Anne Marie Coyle and Kenneth J. Powel Jr. cross-filing, meaning they can run on both the Democratic and Republican ticket.
The other 21 candidates are Frank Bennett, Giovanna Campbell, Deborah D. Cianfrani, Derrick W. Coker, Conor Corcoran, James C. Crumlish, Jr., Joe Fernandes, Vince Giusini, Daine A. Grey Jr., Leon A. King II, Timika Lane, Rania Major, Jon Marshall, Daniel D. McCaffery, John J. O’Connor Jr., Tracy B. Roman, Stephanie M. Sawyer, Katie Scrivner, Sean P. Stevens, Sierra Thomas Street and Dawn M. Tancredi.
Of those, Bennett, Cianfrani, Corcoran, King, Major, Marshall, O’Connor, Roman, Stevens, Street and Tancredi all received a “not recommended” listing from the Philadelphia Bar Association.
There are ten candidates vying for three vacancies in Philadelphia Municipal Court: Frank Bennett, Shoshana Bricklin, Martin Coleman, Robert M. Kline, Henry Lewandowski and Fran Shields. Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County candidates Corcoran, Fernandes, Grey and Roman are also listed as candidates for Philadelphia Municipal Court judges.
There are a whopping 27 candidates – 25 Democrats and 2 Republicans – running for the three vacancies in Traffic Court, all with a varying degree of social service backgrounds. Those candidates are Sharif Ali, Marnie Aument-Loughery, Bruce H. Bailey, Warren Bloom, Ella P. Butcher, Inja Coates, Ashley Michelle Cook, Bobby T. Curry, Donna J. De Rose, Wayne E. Dorsey, Jose A. Figueroa, Brigette Garvin Johnson, Suzanne Harmon-Carn, Lewis Harris Jr., Holly J. Harris-Seidle, Keith Jackson, James Johnson, Donna Marie Laws, David Mamikonyan, Tyrone T. Martin, Ryan Mulvey, Omar Sabir, Kyle J. Sampson, Tia M. Seibert, Verna Ragan Tennant, Robert Tuerk and Christopher M. Vogler.
According to the Committee of Seventy, there will be candidates hailing from all 1,687 city divisions for Judge of Elections; the same holds true for Majority Inspector and Minority Inspector in the Inspector of Elections race.