I am not a Republican. I strongly disagree with most of the GOP’s core philosophy and just about every point on their platform. But I’ll give them this:
When Republicans get into office, they get things done. They don’t waste time, and they don’t mince words. It’s damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.
And what’s more, they don’t care how you feel about it — not one bit.
In just the past few months, they’ve doubled down on their alienation and marginalization of gays, Latinos, Blacks and most recently, women.
This is the one I just didn’t understand. Sexual and ethnic minorities are one thing, but women? Aren’t there more than a few Republican women? And aren’t those women going to be just as offended as anyone else at the way women are viewed and treated these days by the GOP?
Turns out, they’re fine with it — or if they aren’t, they’re keeping their outrage to themselves. Same goes for the Republican men who know in their hearts that forced invasive medical procedures and 19th century views on contraception are wrong, but can’t bring themselves to publicly disagree with their party leadership because of blind loyalty or fear of reprisal.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a while, you’ve heard about the latest volley in the GOP’s national war on women — the mandatory transvaginal ultrasound.
See, in the eyes of Republicans, young women who make the difficult and painful decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy simply lack the information to make an intelligent choice, meaning not having an abortion. So, the state, in its benevolent wisdom, will help those women make the right choice by harassing, embarrassing, humiliating, and traumatizing them further.
Moving swiftly through red state legislatures around the country, including here in Pennsylvania with House Bill 1077, so-called “ultrasound bills” are gaining momentum.
There are variants and subtle differences state by state, but the gist is this: In order to get a legal abortion, women must undergo a medically unnecessary, highly invasive ultrasound procedure, and be forced to watch the results on a monitor — the idea being if the woman sees the fetus and hears the heartbeat, she may have second thoughts about the abortion. There are also other cruel barriers set up, but all have one purpose: to use shame and fear to advance the pro-life agenda.
Those bills have had one unintended consequence, though — women (and men) are outraged, and some have come up with creative ways of expressing that anger.
One of those is state Sen. Larry Farnese of South Philly. What Farnese did was simply turn the tables on the GOP by introducing his own bill, which would force men seeking medical treatment for erectile dysfunction to undergo a series of emotionally traumatic indignities before they can get a prescription for Viagra or Cialis or whatever.
Farnese’s bill would force ED sufferers to undergo a full prostate exam and cardiac stress tests, participate in a tell-all counseling session, get a signed affidavit from their sex partner confirming the, ahem, difficulty — and watch a harrowing warning video outlining the potential dangers of popular ED drugs like Viagra.
He had me at full prostate exam.
“My bill is designed to send a wake up call to my Republican colleagues,” Farnese told me Wednesday. “I want to drive a stake through the heart of the ultrasound bill.”
And to those who’d accuse him of wasting taxpayer time and money on a smart aleck retaliatory bill with slim chance of passage, Farnese plays the hypocrisy card.
“The Republicans don’t mind spending taxpayer money to go after the poor, or money to curtail the right of citizens to vote, or money to turn back the clock on women’s rights,” he growled. “With 500,000 unemployed in our state, they’re spending taxpayer money on shredding the social safety net. I’m just asking that they re-prioritize.”
Farnese’s tongue is definitely planted in his cheek on this one, but he’s right.
When the GOP swept into power, they promised to cut taxes, attract new business and manufacturing, and most importantly, they promised to make job creation their highest priority.
What they actually meant was they’d make job creators, their cute euphemism for greedy millionaires, their highest priority. On that score, they’ve come through with flying colors.
Farnese’s proposed forced prostate exam will really just do to them what they’ve spent the last two years doing to the rest of us. That’s not exactly retaliatory — that’s karma.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
GarPANAMA CITY, Panama — From this vantage point, atop Coco Li Hill west of the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks, it appears that the long-running argument over deepening the channels to the Ports of Philadelphia may be decided by events far outside of the Delaware Valley. The widening of the Panama Canal — actually an entirely new set of locks and channels from this Pacific-side entrance to the Culebra Cut through the Continental Divide, and another new lock-and-channel construction next to the Gatun Locks on the East Coast — will bring larger, deeper-draft ships to the Northeastern United States, and every port has to be ready to take them.
Daniel Crocker, a senior commercial officer interviewed at the U.S. Embassy here, explained that the Panama Canal Authority — PanCanal here — was forced to widen and deepen the Canal to stay competitive in today's multi-polar world economy. Only seven to eight percent of the vessels moving to and from U.S. ports travels through the Canal, Crocker said.
SUB: Big Ships Go Around
Most of the large-capacity container ships, ore carriers and very large and ultra-large crude carriers coming to the U.S. from Western Pacific and Indian Ocean ports dock at Long Beach, Calif., Crocker said, because they are too large to fit into the Canal's lock chambers and too deep-draft for its channels. Cargoes meant for the Midwest or the East Coast then go overland on railroad trains. Other ships, bound for ports on the East Coast of South America, Western Europe and the East Coast of Africa, simply head south, either sailing around Cape Horn or around Africa's Cape Hope.
The largest cargo vessel ever to transit the Panama Canal was the San Juan Prospector, since renamed the Marco Prospector, an ore and bulk-oil carrier that is 973 feet long, with a beam (width) of 106 feet, sitting 39.5 feet deep in the Canal's 40-foot channel. The U.S. Navy's four Iowa-class battleships, the USS Iowa, the New Jersey, the Missouri and the Wisconsin, were wider — 109 feet — with less than six inches to spare between the ships' hulls and the concrete walls of the Canal's locks.
SUB: Planning a ‘Post-Panamax’ Future
Panamanians call those big ships "Panamax" vessels, but today's "Post-Panamax" ships, built to far bigger standards than those established with the Canal's opening in 1914, carry so much of the world's commerce that Panama was missing out. Canal transits are the underpinnings of the Panamanian economy: Each ship transiting the Canal pays fees according to its cargo tonnage — a large cargo vessel pays $200,000 or more for a one-way passage, and today's large cruise ships pay as much as $300,000 apiece — and the Canal produces a hefty $8 million to $9 million a day in transit fees.
When the new "Third Set of Locks" open up beside the Miraflores Locks and Pedro Miguel Locks here in 2014, and the similar "Third Set" open beside the Gatun Locks near Colon, on the East Coast, Crocker said, the number of ship transits will rise, boosting both the number of transits and the percentage of vessels moving to and from U.S. ports.
SUB: PanCanal a Big Winner
"PanCanal knows they are not competing with Long Beach," Crocker said, "but PanCanal is run like a smart company; they know they are going to be winners anyway."
That's because, even with the new locks, with their 1,400-foot length, 60-foot depth and 180-foot width, and a new "Post-Panamax" ship standard of 1,200-foot length, 160.7-foot beam and 49.9-foot draft, The Culebra Cut, also called the Gaillard Cut, after the engineer who constructed it, is still a one-way bottleneck. The thirty-odd ships a day passing through the Canal will rise, maybe as much as 50 a day, because of the efficiency of the new locks' "rolling gates" and the addition of new, deeper channels to and from the Cut, to be sure. But the Culebra Cut, passing through a mountain range in the middle of the Isthmus, is all hard rock — basalt — and widening it further would be daunting.
And to be sure, the job of putting in wider and deeper locks and channels is a huge undertaking itself. As Marc Antony Villareal, an engineer with PanCanal's Expansion Program Administration, describes it, the $5.2-billion expansion program is dredging out millions of cubic yards of rock and dirt — including the rock Americans used to build up two artificial islands in Gatun Lake 100 years ago — re-cycling the excavated basalt through huge rock-crushing plants and re-using it as "composite" to stiffen the concrete walls of the new locks, and blasting and dredging the Culebra Cut to greater depths.
SUB: Americans Kicked it Off
Americans actually started widening the Canal back in 1939, Villareal said. "The Americans started build these new, third set of locks because they needed to transit their bigger warships through the existing locks and they don't fit. That's why they were trying to build new locks. They stopped all work because they got into the Second World War, so I think they used all the money that they had because they needed it for the war. And after that, once the war ended, they had strategic positions in the entire world, like Japan, Germany, so they had presence on-site, instead of trying to get in a short period of time to the area."
The current Expansion Project is run by Grupo Unidos Por El Canal, Villareal said, "a consortium formed by a Spanish company, another name is Acierdo Hermoso. The other company is an Italian company, Impregilio, they are associated with another company in the Netherlands, Jan Denool, that is a big dredging company in the world, and also there is a small partner from Panama, CUSA, that is participating. They are responsible to build the new locks, both on the Pacific side and the Atlantic side."
SUB: Carefully Re-Using Old Digs
The Expansion Project will re-use the Americans' ditches, Villareal said, on the eastern, Gatun-Locks side by widening and deepening the cuts to accommodate the new gates, and on the western, Miraflores side by turning the old 1939 trenches into water-saving basins, essentially recycling lock water rather than simply letting it wash down to the oceans. Gatun Lake, once the world's largest man-made lake, is used for hydroelectric power as well as for drinking water in Panama, and the Canal Authority is sensitive to its environmental impact.
The existing Canal locks, 100 years old, will still be working when the new locks begin operation, Villareal said. "The idea of having a new set of locks is just to make it more flexible to give proper maintenance to the existing locks. Because right now, those structures need deep maintenance and more attention. Right now, we are getting proper maintenance, to the gates. But the thing is, each time we4 program maintenance to any of these existing locks, we have a backlog of vessels, really large, increasing, wow!"
"To travel more cargo, because we charge actually, per cargo ... per tons. So the idea is to drive more cargo and more tons through the Canal in an efficient way."
SUB: U.S. Ports Respond to Panama
The response of American ports, up and down the East Coast, has been to deepen their harbors and make new investments in cargo-handling capacity.
In but one example, Miami — the closest U.S. port to the Panama Canal and Florida's largest container port — has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with PanCanal to deepen its port to 50 feet, widen it to open the way for larger, "Post-Panamax" vessels and to expand its own cargo-handling facilities. Miami agreed to install a new access tunnel to permit quicker highway access, and put in a new railway access to Miami's port facilities, all timed to coincide with the opening of the expanded Canal system in 2014.
Miami Port Director Bill Johnson visited Panama last fall and said in a press release, "The expanded Panama Canal will be a game-changer to container trade when it opens in August 2014. As the closest U.S. port to the Panama Canal, PortMiami will be the first port of call for fully laden Post-Panamax vessels. To capitalize on bigger ships and shifts in trade, the Port is putting in place over $2 billion in infrastructure improvements."
Miami, the world's busiest cruise-ship terminal, also is a container port with a $17-billion yearly economic impact on its region, providing or indirectly supporting some 180,000 jobs. Its new, $1-billion roadway tunnel will permit direct connection from the port to the Interstate Highway system, and other projects will directly connect Miami's port to the national rail network to put 70 percent of the U.S. population within one to four days' travel from Miami.
Norfolk, Va., also is deepening its port channel and berthing areas to a 50-foot depth, and Baltimore is deepening the channel to its Seagirt Terminal to 50 feet as well. The Port of New York, whose channel depth already is at 45 feet, is widening and deepening its access to 50 feet.
SUB: Dissent Hampers Philadelphia Project
That said, the question must be asked whether Philadelphia's projected depth of 45 feet will be enough to keep up with its East Coast, especially Northeast, competitors. Pertinent also is the question of whether political obstacles will prevent going any deeper.
Recent news reports suggest that the project to dredge the 102-mile length of the Delaware River channel to Philadelphia has been hampered by dissent over the economic impact and possibly bad environmental consequences of deepening the channel. A report by the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out that debate has dragged on for nearly three decades, and that deepening the river is opposed by the State of New Jersey.
Environmental groups, including the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, say the river-dredging project risks damaging sensitive ecosystems, including oyster beds and habitat for horseshoe crabs, as well as the breeding areas for Atlantic Salmon.
Other observers such as Taxpayers for Common Sense question whether the economic argument for deepening the river still holds up as oil refineries close on the Delaware, since petroleum and petroleum-product shipping has been such a mainstay of port traffic. Citing the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority's own reports of new ship traffic coming in, the Taxpayers group argues that deepening the port would return a cost-benefit ration of, at most $1.10 for every dollar spent, while adversely affecting the livelihood of communities that depend on the river for food, recreation, storm protection and drinking water, the Inquirer said.
SUB: Growth Heralded at Philly Port
Indeed, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority can claim some big recent successes in the port-to-port competition along the Eastern Seaboard.
Among other good news, the Port Authority recently signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding with the Republic of Lithuania that "promises to pen Philadelphia ports to the European and Asian shipping trade via the ice-free port of Klaipeda," on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea.
Klaipeda is the third-largest city in Lithuania and the principal ice-free port on the Baltic's eastern coast, the Regional Port Authority says, and its deep-water port connects sea, land and rail routes from east to west in that region, serving as the main connector to shipping lines to the ports of Western Europe and even Southeast Asia. This agreement, coming after establishment of a federally mandated partnership between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Republic of Lithuania, marks what the Port Authority called a "historic step in strengthening those ties."
The Port Authority's January 18 report showed that, with nearly 4 million metric tons of cargo handled in 2011 compared to slightly more than 3.6 million tons handled in 2010, the Port of Philadelphia saw a "solid 10-percent increase in cargo." Gains in both containerized cargoes and several non-computerized cargoes contributed to the rise in traffic. Combined with the 17-percent increase in cargo in 2010 over 2009, the Port Authority said, Philadelphia has re-established and even surpassed pre-Recession cargo levels.
SUB: Hyundai Deal Spurs Auto Growth
Among the biggest triumphs was the growth in automobile shipping, after a big win stealing the contract to handle Hyundai and Kia cars from the Port of Baltimore. With 127,347 Hyundai and Kia automobiles arriving at the Port of Philadelphia in 2011 compared to the already sizable movement of 68,876 autos arriving in 2010, Philadelphia's port saw a dramatic 85-percent growth in auto cargoes, the authority said. In tonnage instead of units, that's nearly 175,000 tons of automobile shipments in 2011, compared to 2010's 77,350 tons, a 126-percent gain.
The port's cocoa-handling center at Pier 84, a dedicated facility not duplicated at other ports, handled a record cargo of cocoa beans -- 19,328 metric tons -- in January for shipment to cocoa processors in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Philadelphia's port also contains specialized forest and paper-products handling facilities, at the Tioga Marine Terminal and at piers further south along the river.
And finally, with 740,890 metric tons of liquid bulk cargoes handled in 2011 compared to 677,553 tons handled in 2010, liquid bulk cargoes demonstrated a substantial gain of more than 9 percent, the Port Authority said in its statement.
Thus, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers analysis of port growth that argues that deepening the Delaware River would have not a $1.10 return for every dollar spent, but $1.64 return may hold up even after three refineries shut down at Marcus Hook, South Philadelphia, and in New Jersey. For its part, the Port Authority points out that not only will bigger ships come to Philadelphia, attracted to the deeper channel and berthing areas at Tioga, at the Packer Marine Terminal and the planned Southport Terminal, 100-200 acres on the grounds of the former Naval Yard, but also because deeper channels mean heavier loading of the ships that do come. Packer Avenue and the new Southport Terminal are south of the Walt Whitman bridge, which means its height restrictions will not apply.
All this presupposes that the Port of Philadelphia can continue to compete at the top of its game against ports like Norfolk, Baltimore and New York, all of which are taking their channels to a 50-foot depth to match the draft of the biggest Post-Panamax ships.
Only time will tell the story on that.
Guns. They seem to be everywhere and everyone seems to have them. This has been one of the main concerns of Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams, both raised in West Philadelphia where gun violence has taken its toll on the communities.
Nutters’ controversial Stop and Frisk policy, which allows officers more liberty to stop citizens suspected of carrying illegal firearms, is one method used by the mayor to rid the streets of the guns used in crimes.
While there are those who contend that the measure stigmatizes Black and Latino men amounting to racial profiling, others feel that anything that could help prevent gun violence should be utilized.
It might be a no-brainer for some that guns need to be taken off our streets and more legislation ratified which would control their use in the city limits, however others disagree.
In fact, one piece of legislation, H.R. 822 The National Right-To-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011, would take away a state’s right to determine who could or could not carry a concealed weapon within their state.
On Sep. 13 Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey asked Congress to vote against the measure.
“We have a uniquely diverse nation. What works where I currently serve as commissioner of Philadelphia … does not work for our neighbor across the river in New Jersey,” said Ramsey during the hearing. “This bill would allow people to carry concealed and loaded guns in every state without consideration for the minimum standards created by their governments.”
With 279 shooting deaths in the city this year, not including 2,777 robberies with guns and another 2,039 aggravated assaults with guns Philadelphia is pressured to resolve the gun crisis.
Philadelphia now has another ally in its fight to maintain its right to control gun permits within its borders in Sen. Larry Farnese (D-1st District) who has championed the cause of closing the “Florida Loophole,” or the law which allows those denied permits in Philadelphia to go to Florida and, acquire a gun permit, and carry those guns in Philadelphia where they were initially denied.
“I think that public safety is paramount to Philadelphia success and the ability of Commonwealth to move forward,” said Farnese during an exclusive interview.
According to Farnese, the issue of guns and gun violence extends beyond political boundaries and affect businesses and communities in the region as well.
Businesses go where they feel safe, where their property and clients can be protected. For this reason, gun violence not only cost lives but, according to Farnese, affects the goods and services, along with the employment prospects, in the areas affected.
“We want folks to come to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and go to our schools and get their degrees but then they leave,” said Farnese about the economic and social impact of crime on the population, “we want them to know that if they want to start their families here they are going to be safe. They are going to be able to have their families and their grandchildren come visit. Those are the kinds of economic viability issues that are going to help Philadelphia and Pennsylvania,” explained Farnese.
Farnese introduced S.B. 622 which now sits in the Judiciary Committee and would, in effect, close the loophole if ratified.
“You cannot ignore that the gun lobby is very large and extremely powerful,” said Farnese, “this is about fixing a loophole, a mistake in the law that is being exploited by bad folks to the detriment of not just innocent men, women and children which should not have them [guns] but it is also an assault on police officers each and every day that are out there on the front lines and they and their family are giving their lives.”
Farnese believes that police officers not only need the necessary tools to ensure that they can do their jobs such as proper equipment, but also need the legislative tools necessary to not only do their jobs but also to help ensure that they can do so more safely.
“When I am at a funeral of a fallen officer and I see their families there, elected officials can certainly provide the cars, the bullet proof vests and the radios but we also need to give them the legislative equipment that they need to make themselves safer,” said Farnese, “I have a real problem with that, if you want to mourn over a fallen police officer who have made the ultimate sacrifice than you should fight the political pressure, say that this loophole is ridiculous, its clearly an exploitation of a hole in the wall and we as legislators should do everything to fix it.”
Lawmakers ponder alternatives to Corbett’s plan to cut school funding
Statehouse Democrats have already begun weighing alternatives to Gov. Tom Corbett’s $27.1 billion budget proposal, released early last week.
“We will be putting together a list that can be utilized to save dollars — and a list of options that can be used to create investments to save jobs,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Several of his colleagues in the Senate and House echoed Hughes, criticizing the governor for not focusing enough on job creation and additional revenue sources.
“He didn’t include in his budget any new funding,” said state Rep. Ron Waters, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, “which I believe is critical so that we can do better by the citizens of this commonwealth.”
A vocal critic of Corbett during last year’s budget debate, Hughes, along with others, has already made a number of suggestions he said would create jobs, something he said Corbett failed to do in his budget.
Chief among his suggestions was creating a “responsible tax plan” to provide incentives for small businesses, homeowners and working families.
“The number one issue in Pennsylvania is jobs and job creation. Putting Pennsylvanians back to work,” Hughes said. “The governor did absolutely nothing in terms of job creation.”
Corbett’s budget proposal, which did not include any tax increases, did impose cuts in a number of areas. Among them: A 25 percent cut — representing $230 million — from the allocation for state-supported colleges and universities, among them Temple, Lincoln and Cheyney universities. There was also a 4 percent cut to community colleges and a 6 percent cut to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.
School districts would see their basic subsidies rise about $45 million to $5.4 billion, but would lose $100 million in state grants that helped fund full-day kindergarten. And, while overall spending for the welfare department remained level, Corbett suggested slashing $319 million from welfare programs by eliminating cash payments for about 60,000 participants in the General Assistance program, which helps people who do not qualify for the federal welfare program.
The governor, in his budget address on Tuesday, characterized his proposal as “lean and demanding.”
Hughes called it “insensitive.”
Other area legislators echoed his sentiments and rattled off several ways the state could raise revenue.
“Closing the Delaware Loophole, that has to be done,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, another Democrat from Philadelphia who also serves on the appropriations committee, referring to a provision in state tax law that allows companies that do business in more than one state to lower or avoid their Pennsylvania tax liability by legally headquartering their business in Delaware. “That’s going to bring in revenue.”
Another suggestion was making sure the state captured sales tax revenue from Internet transactions, he said.
Another option has local lawmakers particularly riled up — a missed opportunity to tax Marcellus shale drillers.
“One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made was Marcellus shale,” Farnese said. This week the general assembly agreed to impose a fee on the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus shale, but it was not a tax, rather a fee based on the volume of the gas extracted and then given to the municipalities where drilling occurs.
“That has to be one of the largest errors of this administration,” Farnese said. “To leave that kind of money on the table and not do the same kind of thing that states around the country have done.”
“We should tax it at a level similar to other places,” he said, noting that they range from 6 to 7.5 percent.
Corbett’s proposed cuts are misplaced, said Waters.
“He is not investing in what it takes in order to make a person a success in life,” he said, pointing to the education cuts as an example.
The decisions made in this budget cycle and the last will have a long lasting impact on the state, he said.
“We ask our children to go to school, to be law abiding citizens, to do right thing, but we have to do the same thing by them,” Waters said. “The role of government is to protect the health and welfare of its citizens. This is not investing in their health and welfare.”
Last year, in the first budget of his term, Corbett cut $1.1 billion in public education funding, $662 million cuts to higher education and included tax breaks totaling approximately $320 million. Like this year’s proposal, his plan did not include any new taxes.
Despite stiff opposition from Democrats, that budget passed easily through the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Senate passes measure, but leaders say no time left for House to act
Senate Bill 1115 — which included wide-ranging charter school and special education reforms —effectively died on the floor of the Pennsylvania Legislature last Tuesday when the State Senate approved the bill but left little time for the House of Representatives to vote on it the following day. House Speaker Sam Smith said that there was simply not enough time to act on the complicated bill.
State senators passed SB 1115 with a 33-16 majority, and Senator Anthony Williams is the lone locally-serving senator to vote in favor of the bill. Notable nay votes came from Senators Lawrence M. Farnese Jr., Vincent Hughes, Shirley M. Kitchen, Michael J. Stack, Christine M. Tartaglione and LeAnna M. Washington.
And considering that state lawmakers will probably not take up any bills during the post-election period, it could mean a permanent shelving of the bill and its elements. State Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne introduced SB 1115, which was initially buttressed by early bipartisan support.
According to the Education Law Center, the legislation would have addressed problems with the state systems for funding and accountability of special education for students with disabilities. Prior to last Tuesday’s inaction by the House, the Senate Education and Appropriations Committee last spring twice unanimously passed SB 1115.
SB 1115 would have amended the Public School Code of 1949 and also allowed for the establishment of a Special Education Funding Commission, along with proving funds for special education student achievement. SB 1115 would have also spurred charter school funding reforms, which would have drastically altered the method in which the state funds charter schools. The bill would also bring into line the commonwealth’s reimbursements to statewide school districts, which presently subsidizes the charter school system.
In a recent report by Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, in relation to the nationwide average, Pennsylvania spends about $3,000 more per pupil to educate students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, while the commonwealth spends more than $3,500 to educate children in charter and cyber charter schools. Without naming any specific bills or legislative efforts, Wagner’s report shows that the state could save up to $315 million if it undertook several charter school funding reforms.
The School District of Philadelphia alone pays roughly $838 million to fund charter schools in the district, a major point of contention as the district deals with a budget gap approaching $300 million. The failure of SB 1115 has caused heated contentions between parties on both sides of the issue, and has even caused similar-minded education organizations to butt heads on the legislation.
StudentsFirst Pennsylvania — the statewide effort of the national educational non-profit StudentsFirst with more than 1 million members that pursues education reforms across the board, blamed the bill’s failure on legislators kowtowing to a strong statewide lobbying effort.
“Last [Tuesday], the Pennsylvania House of Representatives failed to take up SB 1115, effectively killing a bill that, while not perfect, would have taken important steps to improve the quality of school choices for parents. Unfortunately, legislators caved to pressure from special interests that put the interest of children last,” said StudentsFirst Pennsylvania State Director Ashley DeMauro. “Although this session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly has come to an end, we must build on our progress and use this as an opportunity to continue to work with the governor’s administration and Pennsylvania legislators to craft a comprehensive measure that includes an accountability system with better authorizing and monitoring structures that allows high-performing charters to continue to do what works.”
Officials with the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania — whose ideology mostly matches that of StudentsFirst Pennsylvania — believes the legislators’ failure to move on SB 1115 was a wise and prudent decision, and one that showed a certain toughness by the state’s lawmakers.
“The Pennsylvania House adjourned without taking up SB 1115, which was amended to include ill-advised charter school ‘reforms’ that would have removed charter school authority and oversight from parents, local taxpayers and school boards and given it to the state Department of Education. Proponents of the charter amendments, which were tacked onto a special education funding bill with broad and bipartisan support, did not have enough votes to pass SB 1115,” said AFT President Ted Kirsch. “It took courage and wisdom for House members to let SB 1115 die without action at the end of the two-year session. Charter reform is overdue, but giving the Pennsylvania Department of Education the authority to hold, amend, and renew charters for multiple charter school organizations would have done an end-run around local communities.
“The playing field between district, charter and cyber charter schools, academically and fiscally, must be leveled,” Kirsch continued. “But SB 1115’s amendments were the wrong way to do it. AFTPA members thank House members for ensuring that the important issues around charter school governance will have a chance to be considered openly, carefully and with full public input in the future.”
Browne was travelling and unavailable for comment as of Tribune deadline. Officials with the School District of Philadelphia haven’t had proper time to review the decision regarding SB 1115 and withheld comment until they do so.
Data provided by non-profit organization Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools show that there are 105,056 Pennsylvanian students enrolled in charter schools, representing 6 percent of the entire statewide school-going population; it also showed that more than 44,000 students are on charter school wait lists and that a full quarter of School District of Philadelphia students attend charter schools.
PCPCS also sided with StudentsFirst in blasting the inaction, releasing a scathing statement that also pinned SB 1115’s failure on a strong special-interest lobbying effort.
“The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools is incredibly disappointed that the House of Representatives have chosen to bow to special interest groups over the well-being of the children of this state. In failing to pass SB 1115, the House rejected three years of work by people who have been sincerely and passionately dedicated to crafting legislation that increases accountability for charter schools and provides better quality educational options for our children,” the statement read in part. “This lack of action by the House continues to deny hope to our most vulnerable children, is a stand against higher standards and accountability, keeps charter legislation in Pennsylvania 15 years behind the best educational practices and is a national embarrassment for the Commonwealth.
“Why this happened is a good civics lesson for our children. At the last minute, all of the work to provide a more accountable and transparent education system was destroyed by misinformation and intimidation by organizations that represent the entrenched special interests in the educational monopoly.”
Public testimony continued Thursday in City Council over Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed actual value initiative, or AVI, a plan to radically overhaul property tax values in Philadelphia.
None of those who spoke during the hearing expressed total opposition to the plan; in fact they acknowledged that the current property tax assessment system is unbalanced and extremely flawed. The greatest concern was the fear that Council could vote on the issue before all of the property reassessments are completed — which won’t be until 2013.
“We’re not against AVI,” said James Foster, publisher of the Germantown Chronicle. “But we are concerned about how its passage will impact the economy of the city. I call this an awakening to the reality of neglect in the city. We have one of the best transit systems in the country and I would ask that Council members take a ride on a train, get a window seat going just outside the city and a window seat going back in. All of these trains go right through the hearts of your districts. You will see what’s left of the economic base that made Philadelphia great. Dilapidated buildings, abandoned houses, impromptu junkyards, and of course, empty blocks where buildings once stood. What do all of these properties have in common? They are paying no real estate taxes. They are paying no business taxes and are employing no residents of Philadelphia. Bad decisions drove people out before — and if this passes you will once again see another several hundred thousand leave in short order.”
Foster also said that Council and the Nutter administration should put more emphasis on collections of tax delinquent properties.
Last week, City Council approved to the new property tax system, but the final vote is pending. The proposal, which if passed along with the Use and Occupancy tax, would bring more than $85 million more for the financially limping school district. But public support for the new measures is shaky and residents are concerned that council is being pushed to pass the bills before all of the property assessments are in. The vocal residents who testified on Thursday, along with some members of Council are asking for a one-year delay in AVI, a proposal offered by City Councilman Mark Squilla.
“Our primary concern is the long term impact that raising the tax bills will have,” said Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association. “Some residents could find their tax bills going up from $800 dollars to $2,500 or $3,500 dollars. These residents could wind up making late payments on mortgages or in some cases even face foreclosures, decreasing the values of the communities and dumping more properties on the market. We’ll see more residents dislocated. If we don’t have a year to work this out, it could be a disaster.”
Residents stated their agreement that the current tax assessment system needs to be fixed. Mayor Nutter wants to fix Philadelphia’s broken property-tax system by reassessing all homes and businesses, and in the process, raise millions for the school district. Revamping the property-tax system will give city residents the most accurate assessments in years.
AVI would change the way the city assesses real estate, moving from assessments based on a fraction of property value to the full market value.
“No more fractions. No more complications. You should not need a math degree to be able to figure out what your taxes are,” said the mayor in a previous interview. “Once the new values are in, we have to use them.”
Councilmen Bill Green and Mark Squilla have announced their opposition to the proposal, calling on the administration to delay implementation for another year. And state Sen. Larry Farnese has also come on board, saying he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would give Council that option. Opponents say they’re being asked to vote on something before all of the information is available and assessment figures will not be available until July.
Over and over during Thursday’s hearing, residents and business people alike implored Council to delay the process for one year.
“Really, I’m very pessimistic about Philadelphia’s prospects for the future,” said real estate developer Richard Snowden. “The notion that this Council is even considering a property tax increase, coming on the heels of other recent large tax increases and a jump in virtually every fee the city imposes on businesses indicates a blatant disregard for the people of this city. Due to the unreasonable scale and lack of phasing of this policy I have alerted our employees, tenants and members for 2013 includes enormous rent increases which many simply cannot afford to pay. We’ll see layoffs and curtailments in restoration and rehabilitation of buildings — all so the city can get its thirty pieces of silver. Many small Mom and Pop businesses will simply close their doors.”
The Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program — the controversial statewide program that allows both reimbursements to parents for the costs associated with transferring their children out of low-performing or persistently violent schools; and provides companies with tax credit breaks for participating in the program — received a nearly $99,000 funding boost, thanks to the Bridge Educational Foundation and its array of partners.
BEF, the BDB Company, CSX Transportation, Enterprise Holding, Penn Jersey paper and United Savings Bank all pitched in to the pot, which will go toward increasing school choice among local families.
State Sen. Larry Farnese and state Rep. Bill Keller joined the business leaders as they made the announcement of the funding at Our Lady of Hope Regional Catholic School. Senator Farnese and officials with the Bridge Educational Foundation were unavailable for comment as of Tribune deadline.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, tax credits may be applied against the tax liability of a business for the tax year in which the contribution was made, and businesses are reimbursed up to 75 percent of its donations in tax credits, up to $400,000 per year. The plan also caps all annual donations to K-12 at $44,466,667. That cap has now been reached.
Enacted in 2001, the EITC program has positively affected the educational outcomes of 44,000 students and their families, according to data released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The foundation also reports that there are 23 active scholarship organizations benefitting from those funds.
“Even though there is more work to be done to give all families in Pennsylvania real educational freedom, leaders and advocates in the Keystone State did what every school choice supporter should do - never give up,” said Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice President and CEO Robert Enlow. “Other states can learn from Pennsylvania’s hard-fought experience to provide school choice to more families, as well as their dedication to keep on fighting for kids.”
Families can apply for the grants through several methods, including downloading the application from the department’s website, www.newpa.com.
The department defines an eligible student is a school age student, including an eligible student with a disability, who is a resident of Pennsylvania, who is enrolled in a school located in this Commonwealth and who is a member of a household with an annual household income of not more than $60,000 except that an additional income allowance of $12,000 is permitted for the student and for each other dependent living within the same household.
Governor Tom Corbett, largely assailed for the overall cuts to education funding, actually expanded EITC funding in his latest budget.
“This new EITC initiative will give students in failing schools an opportunity to succeed,’’ Corbett said during the budget announcement. “By giving them a choice, we are giving them a chance. Just like last year, education is our number-one spending priority. In fact, this is the highest amount of state money going into basic education in our state’s history.”
But the ability for parents to transfer their children out of schools that are either failing academically, wracked with violence — or both — trumps any costs associated with it, department officials said.
“Months of feverish activity on the part of school choice advocates have paid off in a big way here in Pennsylvania,” said Commonwealth Foundation Vice President Charles Mitchell. “It’s simply unacceptable that there is a violent incident every 17 minutes in one of our worst-performing schools, and thanks to our recent victory, we’re no longer accepting it.”
A coalition of state legislators, two city council members and several community activists have launched their own tax revolt, urging Mayor Michael Nutter to halt his administration’s plans to move ahead with its Actual Value Initiative.
“We need to reform our property tax system, but we need to do it right,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, calling Nutter’s plan a “back door tax increase.” He added, “We don’t want this.”
Under the administration’s plan, the city would change the basis of real estate taxes from its traditional method using a fraction of the property value, to one based on the market value. Just how the change would affect most property owners is unclear – administration officials admit taxes for many would go up, but contend that for others, it would go down.
A group of 11 people – members of the state House and Senate, city council and two community groups – gathered at Farnese’s South Philadelphia office Friday morning to brief reporters on their united stand against the move to AVI.
“It’s time to wake up,” said Councilman Bill Green, who has been very vocal in his opposition to the mayor’s plan. “Or, you’re going to wake up in October with a tax bill that is an outrage.”
Green and Councilman Mark Squilla have led a charge in City Council against AVI.
Opposition hinges on two main factors.
First, council is expected to pass a budget by June 1, but administration officials have told members that full reassessment numbers will not be available until July at the earliest. That concerns council members who worry that they are being asked to approve a budget based on incomplete numbers.
“We don’t have all the information,” Squilla said this week.
In order to set the tax rate, Squilla and Green argued, council needs to know the aggregate value of all of Philadelphia’s real estate. Assessors are wrapping up their valuation of the city’s residential properties, but have not started reassessing commercial or industrial properties yet.
“We need to be able to have all the values in place before we tell the people what their taxes are going to be,” he said. “There is no way to know what millage we need to come up with.”
Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the change is already underway, and that when the new numbers have been generated the city will be obliged to go ahead.
“We are in the process of implementing AVI, which is for the first time in generations going to provide fair and accurate property assessments to all property holders,” he said. “Those numbers will be available later this year, and it would not be right to not use them.”
The lack of numbers from the administration is not the only reason opponents object.
Green also cautioned that the move to AVI involves a shift that places more of the financial burden on residential property owners. On Monday he introduced a bill that would increase the city’s use and occupancy tax, a move he said would equalize the tax burden on residential and business property owners.
Green is also among those who object to AVI on the grounds that it’s not revenue neutral.
The shift to the new system would generate an additional $94 million, earmarked for the school district. That concerned many of the people gathered at Farnese’s office, who agreed the move was a tax increase by another name. State rules generally force any municipality making a similar shift to collect the same total revenue before and after the change, something officials said is needed to maintain confidence in the system.
Nutter’s plan does not do that, they said.
“[Nutter] is already cooking the books,” said state Rep. Brendan Boyle. “And the people of Philadelphia have had enough.”
Noting that property taxes have gone up each year for the last three years, he added, “We cannot have a third property tax increase.”
Green has proposed an amendment to Nutter’s plan to keep it revenue neutral.
State Rep. Mike O’Brien said he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would force the city to freeze its wage tax, rather than reduce it as planned, and give the difference – roughly $86.3 million – to the school district.
They also contend that school district officials were wrong who cautioned that without the additional $94 million provided in Nutter’s budget, schools would not open the fall.
“Contrary to what the school district will tell you, the schools must open in September,” Green said.
Green urged residents to oppose Nutter’s plan by calling the mayor’s office and their council person or state legislator.
“Let your representatives know you want to wait a year,” he said.
Bill would impose five-year prison sentence
The Pennsylvania State Senate unanimously passed a bill on Wednesday that imposes a mandatory five-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of straw purchasing firearms for previously convicted felons.
The measure, known as HB 898, now heads to Governor Tom Corbett to sign into law. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and State Senator Larry Farnese called the bill’s passing a victory for public safety. The bill passed with no amending from the NRA.
“I want to thank Representative Marcy Toepel for sponsoring this bill, Senators Larry Farnese, John Rafferty, Stewart Greenleaf, Bob Mensch, Dailyn Leach, Anthony Williams and Representatives Ron Marsico and Tom Caltagirone for their leadership in helping to get this law passed,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. “While illegal gun crime is an epidemic in Philadelphia, this new law is important for the entire Commonwealth. Thanks to this legislation, people who buy more than one gun for a felon will go to jail for a long time, which will make all of Pennsylvania safer.”
A straw purchaser is a person with no criminal record who buys guns for previously convicted felons. Conceivably, a straw purchaser could go into a gun shop, buy any number of handguns or rifles and then turn them over to whomever they’re fronting for. Under current Pennsylvania law, the straw purchaser would face little or no jail time - but all of that is about to change. Once Governor Corbett signs the bill into law, a straw purchaser faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison for buying and illegally transferring ownership of firearms.
“Advocates from across Pennsylvania have been fighting for years to strengthen our penalties for illegal straw gun purchases, and today we sent a bill to the Governor’s desk that does just that,” Farnese said. “This is good legislation, and I pledge to continue to do all I can to make our streets and communities free from gun violence and illegal guns.”
Law enforcement officials have said that the level of gun violence in Philadelphia is a crisis that has reached epidemic proportions. According to statistics provided by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and Philadelphia Police Department, there were 324 murders in the city in 2011. Firearms were used in 265 murders in 2011, or in 82 percent of the cases. For that same year, there were 1,421 people who were shot and police recovered well over 3,000 illegal firearms. Research shows that 80 percent of the firearms used in criminal acts had a point of origin with a straw purchaser, as in the case of recently slain police officer Brad Fox.
“The need for this bill was most recently and tragically demonstrated by the death of Plymouth Township Police Officer Brad Fox,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri-Ferman. “He was killed while investigating a car crash on September 13, 2012 with a gun that was obtained from a repeat straw purchaser. His loss is felt everyday in Montgomery County, but the passage of this law is a great tribute to his memory.”
According to investigators, in 2012 alleged straw purchaser Michael Henry bought nine handguns over a four month period and illegally transferred them to previously convicted felon Andrew Thomas. Under Pennsylvania law such an individual is not allowed to purchase or even possess a firearm. On Sept. 13, Thomas allegedly used one of Henry’s straw-purchased weapons to shoot Officer Fox to death before using the .9mm Beretta on himself. Henry was subsequently arrested and charged with nine felonies for illegally buying firearms for another person.
“Jose Cruz, Christian Hall and Jason Gonzalez may not be household names in Philadelphia,” Williams said, “But collectively they are responsible for putting 16 guns onto our streets. They are all straw purchasers, and while they may not have pulled the trigger or committed crimes of violence themselves, they are just as responsible as the criminals breaking the law with those guns. Our mission to clean up the streets of Philadelphia and take them back from thugs and criminals just got a little bit easier with this legislation.”
A deeper Delaware River is crucial to Philadelphia’s future economic vitality, said Sen. Larry Farnese.
“Philadelphia’s ports and Navy Yard are two of the city’s largest economic engines, not to mention job creators,” he said. “I’ve supported and regularly advocated for them through continued legislation, continued investment and dredging.”
Farnese met Friday with the Tribune’s Editorial Board to discuss a number of issues, among them the necessity of deepening the Delaware River.
He supported the creation of the Southport project, which will set aside about 218 acres of land at the Navy Yard to build the infrastructure needed to allow Philadelphia to handle super containers.
“Philadelphia, for the first time, can begin to receive these huge containers that you only see in the other parts of the world … couple that with dredging and you automatically put the ports of Philadelphia as a major shipping location of the world because it has access to the railroads.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will set aside $16.9 million this year for dredging a 15-mile stretch of the Delaware River’s main shipping channel. The federal funds will be used to deepen the river to a depth of 45 feet from its present 40 feet. Work is expected to begin in August.
So far, 17 miles of the 102-mile long shipping channel have been dredged.
The total cost of the project is expected to run about $300 million. Pennsylvania has spent about $40 million so far. The federal government has spent about $4 million.
The debate over dredging has been going on for about 30 years with opponents arguing that dredging injures critical ecosystems, including oyster beds and horseshoe crabs. The risks to those ecosystems, they argue, are not worth it when the port is already growing.
But, the expansion of the Panama Canal, expected to be finished in 2014, may force the issue.
A new set of locks and channels will bring larger, deeper-draft ships to northeastern ports.