Democratic State Representative Brendan Boyle announced this week that he is planning to introduce a bill that he says would enable inmates who are wrongfully convicted to be freed based on the validity of exculpatory evidence.
According to Boyle, right now prosecuting attorneys are only legally and ethically bound to turn over exculpatory evidence — that is evidence that may clear the defendant — before conviction, not post-conviction. Boyle says his legislative proposal would change that — if it’s passed.
“My legislation would make the withholding of this evidence, regardless of when it is obtained, a violation of the defendant’s rights,” Boyle said. Should the legislation become law, prosecutors would be required to turn over exculpatory evidence within five business days after obtaining it.
Exculpatory evidence is the evidence favorable to the defendant during a criminal trial that clears or tends to clear the defendant of any wrongdoing. Boyle cited a 2001 Dauphin County court case in which the defendant was convicted of burglary and other charges and sentenced to 22 to 70 years in prison. Five years later, the prosecuting attorney discovered DNA evidence that exonerated the defendant, but did not disclose that information until several more years had passed, when the defendant filed an unrelated petition for post-conviction relief.
“This Dauphin County court case proves that this legislation is sorely needed to protect people’s rights,” Boyle said. “Had that DNA evidence been turned over when it was first discovered, it is my belief that the defendant would have been saved from serving even more time in prison for a crime he did not commit. It is outrageous that evidence proving innocence has been discovered by prosecutors without being turned over.”
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has pledged support for the legislation. Attorney Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Innocence Project, stated, “The Pennsylvania Innocence Project supports any efforts to ensure that only the truly guilty are prosecuted. While there have been isolated incidents of intentional misconduct by prosecutors, we are grateful for the prosecutors who serve their functions every day with honor and integrity. No prosecutor wants an innocent person in prison. This legislation provides guidance for prosecutors in handling issues which arise in the post-conviction setting where no current guidelines exist. Together with Senate Bills 1337 and 1338, pending before the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee, Representative Boyle’s proposal is geared toward the particular goal of ensuring that only the guilty are prosecuted, and the innocent go free.”
Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Hugh Burns said that while he wasn’t familiar yet with Boyle’s proposal, prosecutors are already required to turn over all evidence against a defendant.
“The Constitution already requires that we turn over all evidence before trial and in general, after a trial,” Burns said. “Exculpatory evidence is often disputed before a trial, but generally, even after a trial, such evidence has to be disclosed to the defense. Now I don’t have a breakdown of supposedly wrongful convictions in Philadelphia, but there is a lot of misinformation about exonerations. In some of these cases people have been released on the basis of evidence not relevant to guilt. In other cases, witnesses simply weren’t telling the truth.”
Democratic State Representative and Chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus Ron Waters said he supports the proposal and would like to see broad support for it.
“A lot of people shy away from talking about issues related to individuals convicted of crimes, and in these kinds of cases it’s important that we help them put their lives back together,” Waters said. “Part of the problem comes about for the families of some victimized by crime — say robbed or killed. The family wants justice, and let’s says the police arrest a suspect. The suspect doesn’t have an alibi and can’t afford a good defense attorney. If that person didn’t commit the crime but they still get convicted, the family may feel comforted — but the actual guilty person is still on the street. If the innocent person manages to get released, their biggest problem is pulling their lives back together, and that’s not easy with a criminal record following you. They may be able to get the record expunged — a lengthy process. At the very least we should do that for them. Next, why spend tax-payers money to convict an innocent person? In the legislature it’s always safe to be on the side that’s tough on crime, not soft on crime. We need to be right on crime. Let’s not punish the innocent, but prosecute the guilty.”
Phila. School District, Pa. conduct policies may have been violated
It’s too early to predict the impact of a damning new report on the role of former SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and state Rep. Dwight Evans in steering a contract to run Martin Luther King High School away from parents’ choice of school operator to one that they both had a deep connection to, but one thing seems certain — scrutiny of the School Reform Commission will increase.
The specter of criminal charges also hovers in the background.
“There needs to be some fundamental changes in how the District is administered and run,” said state Rep. Michael McGeehan, a vocal Philadelphia School District critic. “This is just the latest revelation about how dysfunctional the system has become.”
State Rep. Ron Waters went a step further, saying that he would support a deeper investigation into how the District awards all of its contracts, and make an effort to remove politics from the process.
“There are other things that might have happened too that need to be looked at,” Waters said, adding, “I hope that there is not a problem, because Philadelphia doesn’t need that.”
On Thursday afternoon, the city’s Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman released the results of her investigation into Archie and Evans’ role in securing a contract for Foundations Inc., a New Jersey based non-profit, to operate Martin Luther King High School. The contract went to Foundations despite the fact that the school’s advisory committee recommended a Georgia based company, Mosaica, to run the school.
The document sums up the role of both men at its conclusion.
“Archie’s and Evans’s actions in this matter have compromised the School District of Philadelphia’s ability to secure parent involvement in their children’s schools, to make decisions according to a fair process and to garner public confidence in those decisions.”
At its heart, the report suggests that both men violated the District — and, perhaps, the state’s — ethics policy.
How that would affect Archie is unclear. He stepped down as SRC chair Monday.
At the very least, the report could spur the city to push for more ethics training for SRC appointees as part of its oversight.
“That is a distinct possibility,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald.
In the case of Evans, though, it could mean a state investigation.
Robin Hittie, chief counsel with the State Ethics Commission, would not comment specifically on the ramifications of Markam’s report. However, speaking in broad terms she said that for an ethics violation to occur a financial benefit has to be established.
“Under the Ethics Act, for a conflict of interest to be established, a public official or public employee must either have used the authority of his public position or confidential information he received by being in that position for a private financial benefit to himself, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated,” Hittie said. “To establish that a public official or employee is associated with the business, it must be shown that he, or a member of his immediate family, is a director, officer, owner or employee or has a financial interest in the business.”
Penalties for ethics violations varied, Hittie said, and ranged from fines to criminal charges.
“The Ethics Act provides both financial penalties and criminal penalties,” Hittie said. “The State Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction to impose criminal penalties.”
Any criminal charges would have to be brought before a court, which would impose penalties.
Both Evans and Archie had financial relationships with Foundations.
Archie’s ties are less clear than Evans’. On March 16, he recused himself from a vote over the future of MLK High, citing the fact that Duane Morris had done business with Foundations.
In a statement released Thursday, he said that neither he nor Duane Morris had represented the firm since 2002.
Evans’ ties are well documented in campaign finance forms, which show he has accepted campaign donations from Foundations Inc. and its top officials. A routine Google search turns up donations totaling more than $63,000 since 2000.
Members of the community flocked to join the members of the Church of Christian Compassion during the ribbon cutting ceremony to announce the opening of their new facility at 6121 Cedar Ave. in West Philadelphia, Saturday afternoon.
The new building, years in development, will serve as the new site for the churches growing congregation and provide space to conduct its services to the community. The church, founded in 1981, is pastored by Pastor W. Lonnie Herndon, who prides himself on overseeing a church heavily invested in the community which focuses on outreach.
Herndon said the mission of the church, “is to be a church in the heart of the community with the community at heart.”
According to a press release, “As more churches grow to stadium proportions, small and mid-size congregations see their diminutive size as an asset for missions to enrich their communities by bridging the gap between the church and the community.”
“This is the grand opening of the Church of Christian Compassion,” Herndon said. “This is the dedication service of this building, a building which will seat 3,000-plus members,” said Herndon. “We’re grateful and thankful that, in the midst of a recession, to put up such an edifice and it’s the hard work of the people and the grace of God which has blessed us tremendously.”
Despite the accomplishment, Herndon said that the actual building of the church was secondary to the larger goal of serving the needs of people.
“Most of all we are interested in building lives and building this community back up,” he said.
Herndon admits that there were obstacles to completing the construction but says that such things could be expected in the pursuit of good and noble endeavors.
“These [obstacles] are meant to build you and make you better; they are meant to test your character,” he said. “We’ve met some obstacles, we built this in the middle of a recession but our congregation was great and God was great to us, and the people never stopped believing that today will finish the first leg of the race.”
Following the ribbon cutting ceremony a service was held during which a video detailing the journey taken to construct the new church as well as the congregation’s history was shown. The service was well attended by residents of the area, members of the church and local and state officials including state Sen. Anthony H. Williams and City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Pastor Herndon and the Church of Christian Compassion is noted for its annual “Great Family Gathering” during which thousands of homeless people residing in Philadelphia shelters are treated to a traditional Thanksgiving meal with all of the fixings, including live entertainment.
During this event, the homeless, many of whom are transported via chartered busses, are given an opportunity to be served by elected officials who have taken the oath of service, as well as others in the community who volunteer to serve on that night. In the past Blackwell and state representative Ronald G. Waters have donned hair nets and aprons to meals.
Pennsylvania’s newly signed voter identification law is an attempt to disenfranchise minority, poor and older voters; and block President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, contend a number of local officials.
Conversely, the local tea party applauded the measure.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed H.B. 934 Wednesday evening, just after the state House approved it, making the commonwealth the sixteenth state to pass such legislation.
“This is nothing more than an attempt by Republican leadership to keep seniors, minorities and low-income citizens from their constitutional right to vote,” said Rep. Ron Waters, head of the Legislative Black Caucus, who voted against the law. “Pennsylvania will have the distinction of moving backwards with this discriminatory bill. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and it will eventually be overturned at taxpayer expense.”
The bill, which passed in the Senate last week, was approved by the House in a 104-88 vote, dividing members along partisan lines.
It will not affect voting in the April 24 primary, but thereafter all Pennsylvanians to show photo identification before voting.
Corbett said the legislation is meant to prevent voter fraud.
“I am signing this bill because it protects a sacred principle, one shared by every citizen of this nation,” Corbett said in a statement. “That principle is: one person, one vote. It sets a simple and clear standard to protect the integrity of our elections.”
State Rep. Rosita Youngblood scoffed at that notion.
“Give us proof of recent instance of voter fraud,” she said, predicting “chaos” at the polls. “To me the whole crux of this is this — this is a format to stop Barack Obama. Look at the states that have passed this draconian measure, either the legislature is Republican controlled or the governor is Republican.”
“They want to make sure that Barack Obama is a one-term president,” he said. “This measure violates not only the Constitution, but our own state constitution that says elections must be free and clear and without government interference. This is the same as instituting a poll tax or requiring literacy tests, and will have a detrimental impact on voters.”
Not everyone opposed the law.
“Voter fraud … is a big problem in our state — especially in urban areas like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” said Teri Adams, president of the Independence Tea Party Association. “We can no longer tolerate imposters voting for dead people, or fraudulent votes being cast by individuals claiming to live in non-existent residences,” said Adams.
Already the law faces the threat of legal action.
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams was among those who voted against the bill when it went to the Senate last week, and said the fight against the new law is not over. Opponents may take their fight to the courts. In Wisconsin, a judge issued an injunction against a similar law in that state; and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder moved to block voter ID bills in Texas and South Carolina.
“While I’m disappointed that the state House has continued this march toward voter disenfranchisement, the battle is not over. The Constitutional right to vote is too important to institute disingenuous hurdles at the ballot box, period,” said Williams. “States that already have gone down this road have seen the error of their ways, as injunctions in Wisconsin and Texas demonstrate. There will be a lawsuit filed on behalf of those voters, who, though today eligible, tomorrow would not have their vote counted once HB 934 is enacted.”
Acceptable forms of identification include a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver license photo ID, a military ID, valid U.S. passport, county or municipal employee identification, college ID or personal care home ID.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said the organization is planning legal action against the law.
Some citizens will lose the vote if this becomes law,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But those who want to block the vote should not be fooled into thinking that this is over once the governor signs it. The next stop for this bad idea is in a court of law, and we are prepared to challenge it vigorously. Our legal team is currently mapping a strategy for overturning this voter suppression bill. In the week since the Senate passed the bill, the phone calls and emails from citizens who are concerned they or a loved one will lose the vote have increased dramatically. We are confident that we can show how this bill will disenfranchise citizens.”
Implementing the new law is expected to cost about $4 million, money that would be better spent elsewhere, said Waters.
“It astounds me that there is no money for public education, colleges, universities, the disabled or poor — but there is money for a non-existent voter fraud problem,” he said.
According to Corbett’s office, studies show that 99 percent of Pennsylvania’s eligible voters already have acceptable photo IDs. They also said a recent poll determined that 87 percent of Pennsylvania voters favor a law requiring identification at the polls.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who also voted against the legislation, called it a “Voter Suppression Bill” and said that even on the national level, based on a study conducted by the United States Department of Justice during the presidency of George Bush, only 86 cases of voter fraud were committed between 2002 and 2007 out of 300 million votes. Hughes also said that in Pennsylvania during the 2008 election, there were only four cases of voter fraud reported.
“We will not allow the voice of so many voters to be silenced because this legislation has been signed into law. We will continue to voice our opposition and fight to see that this erroneous law is stopped, just like in Texas and Wisconsin,” Hughes said.
In city council Thursday morning, members blasted the law with a resolution condemning the state Senate for its approval last week. The resolution passed 15-2, with two Republicans voting against it.
Members Brian O’Neill and David Oh voted against, saying they too disapproved of the law, but that the word “condemn” was too strong.
“It’s too strong for me, and I think it’s unwise,” O’Neill said.
Others had no problem with the language.
“There is no question that this was done during a presidential election year in an attempt to suppress votes,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “It’s just a terrible piece of legislation. It’s been a waste of our legislators time.”
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said voters should use an absentee ballot.
“This whole issue is just unfortunate and unfair,” she said. “I hope people will consider absentee ballot applications, which certainly is our right.”
The Committee of Seventy is planning a massive public education campaign to counter the possible effects of the law and to make sure people know their rights and what types of identification will be acceptable when they go to the polls.
This enormous undertaking must start right now and continue every day until the Nov. 6 general election.” said Zack Stalberg, President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “Every possible resource will be tapped — from convenience stores to banks to media outlets to libraries — to let voters know which IDs will be accepted at the polls and where to go if they don’t have one. “If necessary, we’ll drive voters to PennDOT offices to get ID.”
J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Pennsylvania NAACP has joined with the coalition forming with the ACLU to oppose the new law. In the meantime, registered voters should show up at the nearest PennDOT center on Wednesday, March 21, to receive the free photo identification cards. Normally they cost $13.
Hopeful guardians of children with fathers incarcerated concluded a workshop in West Philadelphia recently to prepare for a program that would allow children to meet with their fathers confined at Graterford prison.
The Fathers and Children Together (F.A.C.T.) program was created by members of the United Community Action Network (U-CAN).
The group consists of men confined at Graterford prison and was crafted to eradicate the culture of street crime. Those selected to participate in the program are permitted close, supervised visits with their children in an effort to re-establish a positive relationship with their children in an effort to end what’s called the “cradle to prison pipeline.”
As part of the preparations for the visits, which will begin in June, mothers, grandmothers and guardians of children, attended workshops at Walnut Park Plaza and were counseled by Dr. Umar Johnson, a certified school psychologist and child therapist.
Similar preparations were conducted on the inside of Graterford prison where the men of U-CAN facilitated workshops and orientation groups.
“Today we are rapping up a series of sessions with mothers of children who have fathers serving time in Graterford state correctional facility,” said State Rep. Ronald G. Waters of West Philadelphia who serves as U-CAN’s liaison and actively supports the program.
“We have concluded that his could make a difference in the lives of the people who participate.”
After the session, excited children played while their mothers talked with one another and members of Waters’ staff.
According to Waters, the men selected for participation in the program will be thoroughly screened by both the prison’s administration in addition to the members of U-CAN who created and coordinates the program.
“We are hoping that we could break the cycle in which a child of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to end up in prison themselves, so this is a chance to break the cycle,” said Waters.
Waters noted such visits would provide fathers with another important opportunity. That would be the opportunity to apologize to their children for not being in the home to help raise them.
“It also gives them an opportunity to teach their children not to make the same mistakes they have made and therefore to stop the vicious cycle of mass incarceration,” said Waters.
Louise Savage, whose son, Hanif, is incarcerated at Graterford, attended the workshop with her grandson and looks forward to the time when he can meet with his father one-on-one beginning in June.
“I’m happy for the program and hop it continues,” said Savage. “It gives children an opportunity to visit their parents who are incarcerated and there are more kids who need to visit their incarcerated parents.”
Melody Cooper, also a grandmother whose son is confined at Graterford, shared similar sentiments.
“The program means, to me, a reconnection with the parent and the child and I’m glad to be able to have my granddaughter and my son participate in this program,” said Cooper, who said her grand daughter lives in Maryland and she lives in Delaware. “With this program I know that it [the visits] will be more intense for them to spend time together because it’s not just going to be a regular visit but a workshop of rebuilding for my granddaughter and her father as well as all the fathers and their children [who participate].”
For more information about the program, call the office of State Rep. Waters at (215) 748-6712.
The fight continues for the education of students in the Chester Upland School District as State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland held a public meeting to discuss the ongoing financial crisis in the district last Friday at the Chester Fine Arts Center.
About 150 concerned residents attended the meeting.
The meeting started with a brief history of the school’s district governance over the past few decades, which included the state taking over the district with an empowerment board overseeing the district. An elected board was later set into place for the district.
A federal judge ordered the state to advance $3.2 million to the Chester Upland School District on Jan.16 to enable the district to meet its immediate bills until its next court date, Feb. 23.
The school board has sued the state to provide the funding needed to keep the district open through June.
“If the school district is forced to dissolve, and we are talking about 3,600 kids, guess what; the Constitution states that our children have a right to a good, quality education,” Kirkland said. “So if it were today, the other school districts would have to accept and absorb our children. You can’t put our kids out on the street.
“You can’t just kick them out and say no more education — go walk the streets. They don’t want your kids in their district,” he added. “And quite frankly, I don’t want them there either. I don’t want our children somewhere where they are not wanted.”
Kirkland told the crowd he is currently working on a plan with Chester Mayor John Linder and others to reduce the district’s projected deficit of $20 million.
He also said the district’s actual debt totals $75 million, which he believes occurred when the state took the district over.
He also told the crowd that he was against another state takeover. Kirkland is requesting an audit of the district by the office of the state auditor general to learn what exactly happened to the district’s money and where the money went.
In addition to addressing the crowd, Kirkland also had the support of State Rep. Ronald G. Waters of Philadelphia, and chairman of the legislative black caucus at the meeting.
Waters encouraged those at the meeting to continue to fight for their district.
“I am here because I feel your pain,” he said. “There are a lot of people (in Harrisburg) who really don’t care about what’s going on in the Chester Upland School District or the Philadelphia, Harrisburg, or Pittsburgh school district. But what you have to show them is that you care about what’s going on.
“There is strength in numbers and sometimes you have to rattle the cages,” Waters said. “It has to be a united effort. This situation is an embarrassment to this state. With all the revenue this state can raise if they wanted to, they refuse to and let this school district go down.”
With the district’s long-term outlook still uncertain, local legislators and residents will continue to take action by scheduling community meetings and planning a trip to Harrisburg.
On Friday, Jan. 27, State Sen. Domini Pileggi has planned an open forum from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the Chester Upland School District administration building.
State Rep. William Adolph of Springfield, will be hosting a meeting that same day at 10 a.m. at Widener University. Chester residents are also planning a bus trip to Harrisburg on Jan. 30.
It’s done. Legislators have approved changes requiring voters in Pennsylvania to show I.D. at the polls during elections. Opposition and complaints contend that the ID requirement amounts to a modern day poll-tax, taxes once used to keep voters from the polls and therefore constituted another form of voter suppression.
In response to the new voter ID requirement, state Representative Ronald G. Waters held a forum at Sayre High School’s auditorium at 5800 Walnut Street in West Philadelphia, Thursday, March 15 to share awareness about the law as well as to address other community concerns such as school violence and crime.
“We targeted a particular subject that’s pretty important in our area,” said Waters who also chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “Some of the criminal behaviors and violent crime that concerns many residents, most particularly some of the behavior going on in our schools.”
To hear some of the disturbing stories of delinquency of students attending West and Southwest Philadelphia public schools, one need only talk with some of the educators who often speak about the unruliness of some of the pupils, often from troubled homes, who are often supervised by parents who seem just as unruly as the children themselves.
While this problem is of major concern to the residents of West and Southwest Philly, block captain and Committeewoman Julia Chinn stated that the audience seemed mostly concerned about the new voter ID law.
“It was a very good presentation given by the representative [Waters], opening the eyes of a lot of people that wasn’t even aware that the bill [voter ID law] had been passed,” said Chinn. “We need to be educated about what the new law is about and that we are all going to need ID.
Like others interviewed for this story, Chinn believes that the new law is an attempt by conservatives to derail democratic President Barak Obama from regaining the White House.
“Elections are coming soon, and everyone is going to have to have personal ID such as a driver’s license or non-driver’s license to prove who they are when they go to the polls,” said Chinn.
Chinn praised Waters for spelling out the specific requirements of the law for the community and explaining what it will mean to the voters. Unfortunately, said Chinn, the first forum wasn’t very well attended.
“Waters gave a lot of information that was very fruitful to the community.” said Chinn, “I’m concerned that there just weren’t as many people there as should have been to hear this.”
“In Harrisburg, we were very upset about his unnecessary legislation [requiring voter ID] that will be a hardship on some of our constituents, especially the elderly,” said Waters.
Waters referred to his mother who was born in 1929 and was a consistent voter.
“She knows everyone in the polling place, and everybody knows her. Now, if she does not have the required form of ID, she will not be able to vote,” said Waters who called the law a violation of the state constitution which, water says, states that elections should be free and clear without interruptions.
“The Republican members that voted for this all said that it was against voter fraud,” said Waters. “The bill itself is a fraud. We don’t have voter fraud in Pennsylvania.”
Of the 20 million voters in Philadelphia ballots cast, there were only four complaints of voter fraud and these, said Waters, were not actual cases of fraud but issues of registration and eligibility to vote.
For a list of subsequent forums, call Ronald G. Waters’ office at: 215-748-6712.
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.
Deepest cuts are to education, from kindergarten to college
For a lot of Philadelphians, it’s déjà vu as the reality of Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal — which included 25 percent cuts to state supported colleges and universities and welfare funding — begins to sink in.
“Once again, the Corbett Administration is steering this commonwealth in the wrong direction,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Democratic chair of the Senate appropriations committee. “Corbett … would rather cut first and ask questions later. Pennsylvania cannot flourish in that environment.”
Hughes, who was among the most vocal opponents to Corbett’s last budget, said this year’s proposal suggests the governor remains out of touch with his constituents.
“Despite what the governor may have said … the reality is Pennsylvania’s job creation has been stagnant, economic development is at a standstill and public education — which is still dealing with last year’s billion-dollar body blow — is getting hit again,” he said.
Mayor Michael Nutter was more reserved in his comments, but said the budget proposal is likely to have a significant impact on the city.
“The preliminary view is significant hits in human services and the social safety net, in education — some impact on the library system as well as the areas of public safety and a few others,” Nutter said.
He added that city officials are poring over Corbett’s proposal in an effort to get a more precise picture of how it might affect the city, and noted that the process could take weeks.
Corbett characterized his proposal as “lean and demanding.”
In his budget address Tuesday, the governor outlined a $27.1 billion spending plan that did not include any new taxes, but was filled with cuts, large and small, to many state agencies.
Among the largest, and likely among the most controversial, was his proposal to hack $230 million — roughly 25 percent — from the allocation for state-supported colleges and universities, among them Temple, Lincoln and Cheyney universities.
Community colleges would see a 4 percent cut, and grants through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency would see a 6 percent cut.
School districts across the state got hit with $860 million in spending cuts in last year’s budget. Under this proposal, they would see their basic subsidies rise about $45 million to $5.4 billion, but that would be offset by the loss of $100 million in state grants that helped fund full-day kindergarten and other programs.
That could translate to a $269 million deficit for the Philadelphia School District, said Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, up from the present $61 million deficit between now and the end of the school year.
In addition, 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 for people who do not qualify for federally-funded welfare. He would also impose new eligibility rules, including minimum work requirements, for about 30,000 recipients who receive Medicaid benefits, administration officials said.
In City Council on Thursday morning, Councilman Curtis Jones blasted the budget proposal and the governor.
“Those cuts start in Harrisburg, but we feel them here in Philadelphia,” he said. “Gov. Corbett is not concerned about Philadelphia or poor people. In the budget message that he sent it was clear. It was mean-spirited. What elected official, what politician, dares threaten kindergarten to the tune of $21 million? State funding for programs to the poor, the elderly, domestic abuse survivors are being dismantled.”
State Rep. Ron Waters, chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said Corbett needed to look at new revenue options, something he failed to do in his proposal.
“I believe it’s critical in this economy,” he said. “There is funding available, so that we can do better by the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Waters suggested that the state impose a tax as high as 7.5 percent on natural gas extraction. This week the general assembly did agree to a “local impact fee” that would fluctuate according to gas prices, but that money would flow directly to the municipalities where drilling takes place.
“Citizens are hurting right now,” he said. “Why not ask [gas companies] to do their fair share? That’s what’s missing as we look forward.”
Waters urged his constituents to immediately begin to voice their opposition to Corbett’s proposal.
“The voters out there have the opportunity to send a strong message on this that ‘we want you to do better by us,’” he said. “If the voters of this state send that message to the members of the general assembly, I believe they will fall in line and do the right thing.”
Last year, in the first budget of his term, Corbett cut $1.1 billion in public education funding and $662 million cuts to higher education, as well as including 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.
Nevertheless, Hughes pledged that Democrats would again oppose Corbett’s proposal.
“Over the next few months, my Senate Democratic colleagues and I will continue to push … and work toward a state spending plan that best reflects the needs of Pennsylvania,” he said.
West and Southwest Philadelphia organizers and elected officials were among the many who gathered at the Brown’s Shoprite supermarket at 24th Street and Oregon Avenue on Monday to receive holiday gift baskets, which they in turn will distribute to those in need.
Betty Harris, founder of Betty Harris Homes, Inc., a residential program for abused and neglected children, annually serves hundreds of meals to homeless residents in downtown Philadelphia each Thanksgiving.
Thanks to the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC), she is now able to distribute turkey baskets, each containing one turkey and all of the ingredients necessary for a thanksgiving meal, to ten people in the community who, because of hard economic circumstances would not otherwise be able to help themselves.
Also present was West Philadelphia resident and organizer, Julia Chinn.
“We’d be surprised at how many people are out here that want but cannot receive,” she said. “I made it a point to be here and be available as long as the good Lord lets me, and come down and get the turkey baskets and deliver them to people. Some of the people that I deliver to are amputees that can’t come out.”
Chinn thanked the Urban Affairs Coalition and Brown’s Family Shoprite for their philanthropy and promised to continue serving the needy as long as she is able.
West Philadelphia resident state Rep. Ronald G. Waters, was credited by UAC with participating in this effort every year distributing holiday turkeys to the constituents in his district.
“I enjoy being here every year because I want to be a part of some worthwhile activities and making a difference in the lives of so many homeless in our area,” said Waters who thanked the non-profit groups whose representatives gathered at the event.
Although he couldn’t attend himself, Desiree Jones spoke on behalf of Sen. Anthony H. Williams.
“This is an opportunity to give families food that may not have had it and to give them memories, the most important part,” she said. “What do you remember most about you childhood? The holidays — and we are going to make this holiday a blessed one for a thousand more families than who had it before.”
This was the 28th Annual Thanksgiving Basket Distribution organized by the UAC, and this year the group, whose motto is “driving change from the ground up” was able to provide one thousand turkey baskets to non-profits who will distribute them to those in need within communities across the city.
Farrah Samuels, youth division director and project manager for the event, said that the distribution was important given the poor state of the economy.
“The Urban Affairs Coalition has been doing this for 28 years and every year we raise the money ourselves to provide a thousand Thanksgiving baskets with turkey and all of the trimmings which feeds over 6,000 individuals within families,” she said.
Thanks to donors, the UAC was able to continue its tradition of providing meals to those in need this Thanksgiving.
Sponsors of the effort included: Brown’s ShopRite; Uplift Solutions; The Pepsi Bottling Group; Glory Foods; state Rep. Kenyatta Johnson; state Rep. Ronald G. Waters; state Rep. W. Curtis Thomas; and Sen. Anthony H. Williams.
If you are interested in donating, you can go to www.uac.org or call (215) 851-0110 and specify that you would like to make a donation to the Thanksgiving Basket program.
“We will be collecting donations throughout the year in preparation for next year’s Thanksgiving basket drive,” Samuels said.