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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Back to the Future

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2009 at 5:52 AM

Some interesting stuff on KD/PG Sunday Edition (wait -- did I just say that?) this week. I was especially interested to watch the in-studio interview with city councilor Bill Peduto and presumptive councilor-to-be Natalia Rudiak.

Peduto sounded like a kid for whom Christmas came early. What did it mean that Rudiak had won her May 19 primary, along with Peduto's former campaign aide, Daniel Lavelle? Said Peduto:

You're going to be taking away two rubber stamps and putting in two independent thinkers who are going to base their decisions on policy, not politics. I'm going to sit at that council meeting, I'm going to have a cup of coffee in front of me, and I'm going to enjoy the debate. That's why I got in this. I feel finally there's going to be that council I'd hoped for.

Peduto also waxed nostalgic for how life was in the good old days, when he was an aide to his predeccessor, Dan Cohen. Back then, Peduto contended "There was a debate on issues," thanks to the leadership of guys like Jim Ferlo, Alan Hertzberg and Bob O'Connor.

Huh. I'm not sure that's quite how I remember it, but OK. In any case, there's little arguing with Peduto's larger point: On today's council, too often "There has been no debate. There has basically been a rubber-stamp for the mayor."

The question is what the newcomers will do to change the equation. Rudiak was walking a very thin line on the show. As Chris Briem pointed out, while District 4 elected Rudiak, it also went more heavily for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl than any other district in the city. Rudiak has to be mindful of that, and her top priority has to be addressing district needs.

So on Sunday, she pledged "to having an intelligent and an ethical debate about the issues," and noted that one challenge in her district was a loss of faith in city government. But on the other hand ... 

To whatever extent other city council members and the mayor's office want to work with me to bring investment to the South Hills, they'll find an ally in me... I've said this from day one: Anybody who is interested in working with me to bring investment to the South Hills -- whether that's working with community groups, whether that's providing more efficient city services, whether that's working on implementing policies citywide that would benefit the entire city, that’s what I'll do.

So naturally there is some tension here. Rudiak got elected -- in part -- with the help of a lot of Peduto backers. But she can't afford to be captive to Peduto's agenda. Pittsburgh still has a strong-mayor system even if results of the council election make Ravenstahl look weak. It'll be interesting to see how she negotiaties this stuff. 

Peduto himself, when not rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee, predicted the city would soon have "not an antagonistic council but an independent council. A council that serves not as a function of the mayor’s office anymore." Which seems about as much as we can hope for.

Bram's guess would be mine as well: While they represent very different districts, Rudiak is going to occupy the same political territory as Ricky Burgess. More than Peduto or Shields, whose districts include some of the city's most prosperous neighborhoods, she's going to have to balance district needs with loftier concerns about transparency. 

Right now, she seems most interested in keeping options open. Rudiak and Peduto were asked about specific policy intiatives, and Rudiak's answers were not terribly transparent. 

Peduto, for example, discussed his hope to replace the city's $52-a-year commuter tax with a tax levied as a percentage of income. This resulted in a spirited (by KD/PG Sunday Edition standards, I mean) exchange. When it came time for her to weigh in, Rudiak observed that people in her district lived just across the border from other adjoining municipalities (so do people in other council districts, of course).

"People in the city feel that we are being burdened by taxes," she said. "[I]t's a real issue that we need to look at."

***

Up above there, I gently chided Peduto for waxing nostalgic over the good old days when Tom Murphy was mayor and we had luminaries like Joey Cusick on council. But I experienced a bit of deja vu this weekend too, after reading this story about Mayor Ravenstahl's renewed efforts to levy taxes for the sake of bailing out the city. It's like somebody on Grant Street found the Murphy political playbook in a desk drawer and decided to dust it off. 

Let's see ... 

-- An almost certainly fruitless attempt to get the non-profits to pay more taxes? Check.

The mayor said there's "clearly the need for nonprofits to contribute more than they do currently, whether that's through state action or through increases in voluntary [contributions]."

-- The claim that when even suburbanites go out of town, they tell people they are from Pittsburgh? Check. 

"[W]hen you go out of town, and you're asked where you live, you say Pittsburgh," Mr. Ravenstahl said

-- The plea that, hey, our paramedics will treat you for a medical emergency without checking the ZIP code on your driver's license? Check. 

"We all experienced a great Penguin win [Thursday] night. There were a lot of people that came to that game that didn't live in the city. Our police officers helped them to get out of there afterward by directing traffic. Our firefighters and paramedics were there to make sure that everything went well."

I'm not saying I disagree with any of this stuff, necessarily. I didn't disagree with it when Murphy said the very same things. But past experience suggests that this is not a winning approach.

The problem is simple: It's not in the political interests of, say, state Sen. Jane Orie to tax her voters for the sake of constituencies outside her district. If Paul wants Peter's money, he should at least move to McCandless.

Of couse, we can get all het up about the need to "think as a region" and to "show leadership that transcends petty politics." But then, Tom Murphy liked to lecture suburban officials about their responsibilities too. Look where that got us. 

What would I do instead to help build support for more taxing power to help the city? I'd exploit the fact that some suburbanites actually do have a very direct stake in the city's fiscal well-being.

As we reported last year, there are scores of suburbanites out there who used to be city employees -- and who still depend on the pension checks they started getting when they retired. The city's pension fund is dramatically underfunded, which means there are a couple hundred suburbanites whose retirement is at stake. If Jane Orie votes to let the city rot, she's letting those constituents suffer too.

When Orie lectures the city about fiscal responsibility, underlying the argument is the claim that, hey, your voters got you into this mess ... let them get you out of it. But that argument starts to fray when you realize that

a) many of the people actually benefiting from these pensions no longer live in the city, and

b) many of the people paying those pensions didn't live in the city back when those suburban pensioners retired. 

To some extent, there's a transfer of wealth between working-class folks in the city, and retirees living comfortably out in the 'burbs.

But again: Economic justice arguments don't get you anywhere. The real point is that there is a pool of people out in the suburbs who are depending on the city's pension fund remaining solvent. The city might want to think about mobilizing them. 

I'm not sure that will work: The number of suburban-dwelling retirees isn't that large, relatively speaking. And who knows whether they'd want to tax their current neighbors to help out people they used to live next door to. But I guarantee one thing: If you could find retirees who would help make the argument, they'd be more sympathetic figures than Luke Ravenstahl. 

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