Friday, April 27, 2012

Port Authority board approves transit cuts ... hopes to reverse itself

Posted By on Fri, Apr 27, 2012 at 12:16 PM

The Port Authority board of directors today approved a plan that would implement deep service cuts, massive layoffs and a fare increase to deal with a $64 million budget deficit.

The plan, set to go into effect Sept. 2, slashes service of 46 routes, reduces the remaining routes, eliminates service after 10 p.m. for all but 13, and shutters the Collier operating division. For the first time in the agency's history, paratransit service through ACCESS would also be severely reduced. Between 500-600 positions will be eliminated.

Fare increases go into effect in July.

Port Authority brass described the cuts -- the deepest in the transit agency's history -- as a dark day for the region.

"Who really thinks that making Pittsburgh's region's roadway conditions and parking worse is a good idea? Why of all things would we want to cut vital connections to jobs?" Steve Bland, CEO of the agency, said to the board. "None of it makes any sense."

Bland, along with other agency leaders and transit advocates and workers, continued the drumbeat that the state needs a dedicated funding stream for transportation. The state's funding mechanism collapsed when the federal government refused to toll Interstate 80, a linchpin to generate more transportation dollars in the state.

"The missing piece of the puzzle," Bland said, "is a lasting, permanent solution to the way we fund public transportation in the Commonwealth."

While the board approved the service reduction, many today painted the state as the hold-up in averting the cuts.

Patrick McMahon, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, said he's tired of offering concession agreements when the state doesn't address the funding issue. Their current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of June.

"We can't make a deal with Port Authority on a labor contract without knowing what the state is going to do," he told the board.

"We are not ATMs who can be rung for more cash every time politicians fail to live up to their responsibilities."

McMahon asked the board to vote against the cuts "and put the onus on the state" to either shut the system down or offer a funding stream.

While Gov. Tom Corbett's own Transportation Funding Advisory Commission offered a report earlier this year with revenue-generating suggestions, it's not clear what, if anything, Corbett will do with it. Corbett has been clear, however, that he isn't planning any last minute flexes that former Gov. Ed Rendell frequently did to stave off cuts in the eleventh hour.

In an interview with KDKA's Jon Delano Thursday, Corbett said the state is looking to the county, Port Authority and union to come up with the solution.

"In years past, the state has been able to produce that money and solve that. We don't have that money," he told Delano.

Agency brass, the union and county executive Rich Fitzgerald are scheduled to meet with the Governor's office next week.

Outside of the authority's Downtown headquarters, ATU members and supporters rallied against the cuts, many with signs against the governor. "Tom Corbett Corporate Prostitute" read one, while someone else yelled "Corbett's a piece of shit!" Others chanted "They say cut back we say fight back."

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McMahon told the crowd of about 100 it was time for Corbett to take the lead.

"We need to push the governor," he shouted. "He's the only one who can stop the cuts."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Plenty for progressives -- especially Peduto -- to like in 2012 primary

Posted By on Wed, Apr 25, 2012 at 8:00 AM

OK, now THAT was one weird-ass election. Not that anyone was paying attention: In Allegheny County, turnout was below 20 percent, according to unofficial numbers form the county's elections department.

But here in Pittsburgh, some political pillars were toppled. Raja, a political newcomer who ran a failed bid for Allegheny County Executive last year, beat out an established Republican, Mark Mustio, in a state Senate race. Jason Altmire, forced by redistricting into a battle with fellow Dem Mark Critz, also lost -- despite having been a good football player at one point!

But in Pittsburgh, the most important races were two state rep contests won by a younger generation of political progressives. Challenger Ed Gainey steamrolled Joe Preston, who almost qualified for legislator-for-life status in state House District 24. In House District 22, meanwhile, Erin Molchany trounced Martin Schmotzer, the endorsed Democrat. In doing so, she also bested another political pillar: Pete Wagner, the brother of former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, and the chair of the city's sprawling, vote-rich 19th ward.

And these races weren't squeakers, either. Gainey, who chairs the city Democratic committee, won by a 65-35 margin. Molchany beat Schmotzer 51-38. (A third candidate, Shawn Lunny, was deemed ineligible by the state Supreme Court, but his name remained on the ballot and got most of the other votes.)

Arguably, though, the biggest winners last night were Matt Merriman-Preston -- who managed both the Gainey and Molchany campaigns -- and the politician for whom Merriman-Preston acts as field marshal: city councilor Bill Peduto. Last night's results showed that voters across the city are ready for new faces and a progressive message -- the same message Peduto will no doubt campaign on during his likely run against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl next year. The outcomes also suggested that the old guard's grip on power is increasingly arthritic.

Continue reading »

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Op-ed: When politicians wrap themselves up in the Black and Gold

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2012 at 1:38 PM

When fascism comes to western Pennsylvania, it will be wrapped in a Terrible Towel.

Sinclair Lewis didn't actually say that, though he probably could have. And as we wait for tonight's primary-night festivities, I've been stewing over how elected officials dumb down our politics by bringing up football. Or, what may be worse, how they dumb down football by dragging it into politics.

We all know how this works, right? When Jason Altmire re-introduces himself to voters in the newly-redrawn 12th district, for example, he naturally lets us know that he used to play football back in high school.

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In western Pennsylvania, obviously, playing football is one way to demonstrate character and local roots. And it allows us to gloss over parts of our resume that may be, well, a little harder for voters to relate to. You'll note that Altmire's ad boasts that his "work ethic followed Jason [from] the football field and later to Congress" ... with no mention of what he might have done in between. Namely working as a lobbyist for UPMC.

Of course, if you're gonna use football fandom to reach voters here, you better do it right. Back in 2010, state Sen. Anthony Williams was an also-ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The Philadelphia-based Senator, casting about for a way to relate to the western half of the state, ran an ad featuring an alleged voter in a Steelers jersey. The problem? The jersey was that of Santonio Holmes, who had left the team in disgrace not long before.

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(In fairness to the Williams camp, they recovered the fumble nicely. After I wrote a blog post mocking the campaign's gaffe, I got a good-natured message from the guy who'd put the ad together. He jokingly insisted the ad was an attempt to honor Roy Gerela.)

But this year's biggest practitioner of wrapping himself up in the Black and Gold is Republican Evan Feinberg, who is running a Tea Party challenge against Republican Congressman Tim Murphy. Feinberg has been running a radio spot -- on sports-talk station 93.7 FM, no less -- that is either the dumbest or the most brilliant ad of the spring, depending on who you ask.

Continue reading »

Monday, April 23, 2012

In state House district 20, Purcell drumbeat on Ravenstahl continues

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 5:29 PM

With hours to go before tomorrow's primary election, things are heating up in the race for the state House seat currently occupied by Adam Ravenstahl in District 20.

One of Ravenstahl's two opponents, Mark Purcell, sent out a mailer last week accusing the incumbent of blowing off community meetings ... a charge Ravenstahl denies.

The front of the mailer shows a collage of Purcell working in the community with the phrase "Proud Public Servant". On the back, it says "Adam Ravenstahl Missing in Action" and shows 9 chairs with the names of North Side civic groups on it, and phrases like "missing," "absent" and "no show."

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Ravenstahl has fired back at the mailer. In a statement released today, Ravenstahl said

"I've been the target of aggressive negative attacks by my opponent ... I've not missed a single vote in Harrisburg and I've attended hundreds of meetings in our community. I promise to continue to fight hard for what is right for our community."

Asked to explain the mailer, Purcell says he's been approached by community groups -- which he declined to name -- that they have felt Ravenstahl hasn't been present in the district.

City Paper reached out to the nine community groups named on the mailer. Only two responded, though we'll post more responses as they come in. Leaders of both groups declined to evaluate Ravenstahl's work in office, but said he has been accessible when approached.

"He has come to general membership meetings ... We have five each year, he's been to most of them," says Pete Bellisario, president of the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation, adding that they requested he attend their Memorial Day event May 28 and that his office has purchased advertisements in programs for their other events. "Honestly I don't recall him coming to clean-ups or the Halloween parade but that doesn't mean anything." Bellisario says Ravenstahl hasn't been different than any other elected officials on the North Side who have to juggle multiple community groups, functions and responsibilities.

"When they come, I'm happy but I understand the competing priorities that they have ... Adam has provided some support to organizations on the North Side."

Mark Fatla, the executive director of the North Side Leadership Conference, says his organization didn't know about the mailer, "and no one asked us about [Ravenstahl's] attendance" at Conference gatherings.

"Adam has not been at conference board meetings, but we have never asked him to attend," Fatla adds. "Our meetings are open, but we've never asked him or expected him to attend," he says. "In fairness to Ravenstahl, when we've asked for a meeting with him or his staff, they've accommodated us."

The empty-chairs mailer has not been Purcell's only attack.

Continue reading »

Friday, April 20, 2012

Molchany campaign goes after Schmotzer on financial reports

Posted By on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 at 3:37 PM

In politics, the long knives often really start coming out in the days just before the election. And in a South Hills battle to represent state House District 22, Erin Molchany has launched a salvo at the endorsed Democrat, Marty Schmotzer. Team Molchany has accused Schmotzer of failing to file a campaign-finance report on time, accusing him of "betraying the public's trust." Schmotzer, who denies the allegation, called the attack "cheap publicity."

Late this morning, Molchany's camp sent out a statement reminding readers -- in case they could forget -- that while working in the county clerk's office in 1997, Schmotzer transferred $50,000 to a private account. (Schmotzer later returned the money.) "[T]here he goes again," the Molchany statement says. "When he admitted to stealing $50,000 ... Schmotzer said he used the money for gambling, paying taxes, and daycare bills. So, we have to ask: where's Marty spending the money now?"

Campaign finance reports were due to the state April 13, and indeed, a search of the state online campaign-finance database didn't turn up Schmotzer's report by mid-afternoon. But that's not unusual: The Department of State, which handles the filings, has taken its lumps from Gov. Tom Corbett's budget cuts, and is short-handed to the point where calls to it sometimes ring with no answer. (The work of uploading documents to the web, meanwhile, is done by a vendor.) A department official told me, "We can't say he's missed the deadline, because we are still processing those hundreds and hundreds of reports that we've received."

Reached by phone, Schmotzer denied filing his report late. "I had it notarized and postmarked April 12," he says. Under state law, a finance report is considered on time if it's postmarked the day before the filing deadline.

Schmotzer says he also filed a copy of his report -- in person -- at the Allegheny County Board of Elections last Friday. I've obtained a copy of that report, which was indeed notarized April 12, and time-stamped by county workers at 4:01 p.m. April 13.

It's safe to say Schmotzer was not happy about Molchany's original statement. "It's another sign of the little game this candidate and her cohorts play, and of the cheap publicity she wants," says Schmotzer. "What she's saying is an absolute lie."

When I notified Molchany's campaign about the copy of the report at the county -- and Schmotzer's claim to have properly mailed it into the state -- they sent a correction of their earlier release, which added the following statement:

This campaign has had conversations with the Department of State over the past several days. Candidates have a requirement to file a campaign finance report with the state by April 13th, 2012. Molchany's report has been online and accessible since 4/13. One week later, Schmotzer's report is still not accessible online & the Department of State has informed us that no report of Schmotzer's has been processed. Schmotzer has filed a courtesy copy with the county Elections Division.

And what does Schmotzer's report show? Between mid-February and mid-April, he raised $43,200. A full $10,000 of that came from Schmotzer himself, with another $10,000 from a relative. Schmotzer is the endorsed Democrat, and has some labor backing as well, so not surprisingly, other large contributors include a number of unions led by the Steamfitters ($5,000), and committees affiliated with state Rep. Dan Deasy ($500), and Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein ($2,500).

And where did that money go? Mostly on postage -- LOTS of postage -- printing, rent for the Schmotzer campaign headquarters in Brookline ... the typical stuff candidates spend money on. At first blush, nothing really jumped out at me as being unusual.

(In any case, it might be worth noting -- as our Chris Young reported not long ago -- that the rules governing campaign expenditures are so loose as to be meaningless.)

And what of Molchany's fundraising? Her statement boasts of her "broad base of small donors, which reflects her viability and wide spread support."

Indeed, in the first quarter of the year, she raised just shy of $31,000 -- roughly the same amount Schmotzer raised when you subtract his own contribution. Nearly 45 percent of Molchany's fundraising was in amounts of less than $250; all but $1,900 of Schmotzer's total was in checks larger than that amount.

Much of Molchany's support, not surprisingly, comes from like-minded progressives: Among her biggest supporters is Run Baby Run, a PAC which supports female candidates and which gave Molchany $4,100. Meanwhile, the campaign fund of City Councilor Natalia Rudiak, whose district overlaps portions of the 22nd and who has already backed Molchany publicly, has loaned her $2,500. New Castle businesswoman and former Congressional candidate Georgia Berner -- a reliable supporter of progressives -- gave $1,000.

But Molchany also drew support from more entrenched Dems, like a PAC affiliated with the Operating Engineers ($250), parking lot magnate Merrill Stabile ($1,000), and Reed Smith attorney Daniel Booker ($1,000).

The 22nd House District may not be around for much longer: a GOP-led redistricting plan has it slated for execution in 2014. But if it does perish, at least it went out with a bang.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Port Authority takes next step on service cuts

Posted By on Wed, Apr 18, 2012 at 2:41 PM

A Port Authority committee today advanced a plan for massive service reductions and fare increases across the transit system. The full board will vote on the measures next week.

While officials tweaked some of the plans, the cuts still resemble much of what was proposed in January to deal with a $64 million budget deficit as a result of a state transportation funding crisis.

If the plan goes through, 46 routes will be eliminated, the Collier operating division will close, and 500-600 positions will be eliminated on Sept. 2. Fares in Zone 1 will increase by a quarter in Zone 1 and 50 cents in Zone 2 in July.

Additionally, paratransit service through the ACCESS program will also be cut for the first time, stranding what the Authority and disability advocates have said is the county's most vulnerable population.

"In previous cuts I could take comfort" that ACCESS would still be able to provide service, said Guy Mattola, chairman of the Planning and Development Committee. But this time, "We would be abandoning people who don't have choices."

The Port Authority offers door-to-door service via ACCESS between any two points within the county and up to 1.5 miles into neighboring ones. Under the proposal, the service area would shrink down to ¾ of a mile within a fixed route -- the requirement under federal law.

But Karen Hoesch, executive director of ACCESS, and other Port Authority officials are advocating to preserve the service. Hoesch says that under the state's funding mechanism for transportation, every county except Allegheny receives funding to provide ACCESS program through something known as Programs of Statewide Significance.

Hoesch said she's trying to rally the disability community to lobby state legislators to change the funding distribution to include Allegheny County. "At this point it's a matter of equity. We're facing losing so much," she said. "We all want the same things."

The authority's successes with the more than 30-year-old program -- it goes well above what's federally required for riders with disabilities and become a model in the country -- have, in a way, cost it today. As Hoesch said, "[The state] doesn't pay for it because we've always had it."

Authority CEO Steve Bland told the committee that any plans approved at next week's board committee could be reversed should the state solve its transportation funding problem and the authority receives adequate concession from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, who is working on a new collective bargaining agreement. And after meeting with county executive Rich Fitzgerald and Gov. Tom Corbett in March, Bland said he is hopeful for the authority's future.

"This day and next Friday are going to be tough days in the history of the authority," he said. "Hopefully they will be historical footnotes that there are better days to come."

Lines Drawn in District 22 state Rep race

Posted By on Wed, Apr 18, 2012 at 9:21 AM

File this under "politics makes strange bedfellows": It's the front of a flyer being sent out by the campaign of state Rep. candidate Erin Molchany in District 22:

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The folks you see there are Molchany with two of her supporters: City Councilor Natalia Rudiak and a former rival, Tony Coghill. In fact, Coghill and Molchany herself have previously been on opposite sides of thie own election battle: Back in 2010, Molchany lost her seat on the Democratic Committee to Lisa Orlando, Coghill's one-time campaign manager, during Coghill's failed effort to topple Pete Wagner as chair of the party's 19th Ward Committee. (ADDED: I should also say that while the Coghill/Wagner battle was personal, as we'll see, Coghill only had kind things to say about Molchany even back in 2010. Orlando and Molchany just happened to live in the same neighborhood.)

So why are these folks all on the same side now?

Part of what's going on here is obvious: As I hinted in a brief write-up of this race, Coghill is looking to even the score with Wagner, a former ally, by helping Molchany beat the candidate Wagner is backing in this race, Marty Schmotzer. Watchers of this space know that part of the reason Rudiak beat Coghill in the first place back in 2009 was a split between Coghill and the Ward 19 chair. Coghill's attempt to oust Wagner from the committee in 2010 stemmed from that loss, and the bad feelings obviously continue. Schmotzer and Coghill have both told me that they exchanged words at a recent fundraiser for Congressman Mike Doyle at LeMont. The confrontation got so heated that a rumor spread that someone had nearly taken a swing at Mayor Luke Ravenstahl ... who just happened to be standing nearby.

Rudiak and Molchany's alliance is even easier to understand. Both are progressive women who draw from a similar base of support. And Rudiak is up for re-election next year: Having an ally in the state House sure wouldn't hurt, especially if Rudiak ends up facing another Wagner-backed rival.

If I had to bet on this race, I'd still pick Schmotzer: He's the endorsed Democrat in a special election taking place on the same ballot, and Pete Wagner has been pushing him hard. That's a tough combination to beat. But if Molchany did pull this off, it would be a sign that the political geography is shifting under Wagner's feet ... and in a legislative seat previously held by his own daughter, Chelsa.

Actually, we may as well note the landscape may be shifting anyway.

Continue reading »

Coming Home Pennsylvania: The challenges Western PA veterans face returning to civilian life

Posted By on Wed, Apr 18, 2012 at 4:00 AM

This week, Pittsburgh City Paper joins other local media, old and new, by taking part in "Coming Home PA," a joint effort to document the experiences of Western Pennsylvania veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our stories, on veterans becoming more politically engaged, and how the military is contending with sex assaults on the increasing number of female soldiers in the service, join reports filed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Essential Public Radio, The New Pittsburgh Courier, and other outlets. The effort was coordinated by PublicSource, a nonprofit journalism venture in the mode of ProPublica.

A full index of Coming Home PA stories is below:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Protesters try to give UPMC its Tax Bill

Posted By on Mon, Apr 16, 2012 at 3:10 PM

Protesters, led by Pittsburgh United’s Barney Oursler, attempt to enter UPMC Tower on Grant Street Monday afternoon.
  • Protesters, led by Pittsburgh United’s Barney Oursler, attempt to enter UPMC Tower on Grant Street Monday afternoon.

About 100 protesters marched to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Grant Street headquarters for a lively Tax Day protest of the non-profit's non-existent tax contribution to city, state and county coffers.

We know what would happen to us if we didn't pay our taxes don't we?" asked the Rev. David Thorton of the Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church and a member of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network. They call this a charity hospital, well what kind of charity is this?"

For years the tax payments, or lack thereof, by non-profits has been a bone of contention for both public officials and community activists. Currently the only money given by non-profits like hospitals and universities comes in the form of voluntary donations.

UPMC, for example, donates money for the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship fund totaling about $1 million every year. Meanwhile, the healthcare giant saw revenues last year of $9 billion.

The crowd, led by Pittsburgh United's Barney Oursler, wanted to present the company with a bill for the roughly $204 million in taxes they claim the company would have to pay if they weren't a non-profit." They chanted phrases like: Jeffrey Romoff you can't hide, we can see your greedy side" to the oft-criticized UPMC CEO.

Protesters gave speeches on the steps outside the company's Grant Street location before attempting to enter the building. They were met by security and caused congestion at the front entrance for a few minutes before being told that a representative of UPMC would come down and speak with them if they returned to the steps.

But to the surprise of no one in attendance, officials refused to come down but offered to allow one person to bring the bill" up to their offices. The protesters, likewise, declined.

The action is the first of several this week sponsored by local groups and organizations. At noon Tuesday in Market Square, Occupy Pittsburgh will sponsor Tax Dodger Dodge Ball. On Wednesday, One Pittsburgh will hold an anti-fracking action from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. outside of the EQT shareholders meeting at 625 Liberty Ave. Later that day from noon to 1 p.m., volunteers will be meeting outside of the Department of Motor Vehicles on Smithfield Street to both protest the state's voter identification bill and help individuals get a free state ID so they can vote — a birth certificate and two documents establishing residence are required.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thanks to LGBT advocacy, state AG candidate Patrick Murphy gains star power

Posted By on Thu, Apr 12, 2012 at 2:51 PM

Pennsylvania Attorney General candidate Patrick Murphy's appearance in a documentary about the history of Don't Ask Don't Tell not only helped draw attention to last year's repeal of the law, it also likely helped provide a financial kick to his campaign coffers.

Among the usual contributions from Pennsylvania residents, attorneys and labor groups, Murphy received several contributions out of California -- several from the entertainment business, according to a campaign finance report filed last week.

In 2011 Murphy, who is running against former Lackawanna County prosecutor Kathleen Kane, participated in the HBO documentary, The Strange History of Don't Ask Don't Tell. The film outlined the law's history and was first aired at midnight on Sept. 20, 2011 -- the same time the law was repealed. Murphy is a former congressman, military prosecutor and combat veteran who helped lead the legislative battle to repeal DADT.

Among Murphy's contributors tied to the project was $1,000 from Sue Naegle, the president of HBO, $500 from the film's producer Randy Barabto, and $500 from Jeff Guthrie, senior vice president of HBO.

But that's not all of Murphy's Hollywood contributors. Other contributors were Bryan Lourd, the managing director of talent agency Creative Artists, $5,000; Kevin Huvane, an agent with Creative Artists, $1,000; John Carrasco, creative director for the production company, Sterling Winters, $2,500; Bruce Cohen, a producer of films including American Beauty and Milk, $500; Joe Keenan, a screen writer for the television shows including Desperate Housewives and Frazier, $1,000; David Kohan, producer and writer who was also the co-creator of TV's Will and Grace, $500; James Miller, manager of Mosaic Media Group a film production and talent agency that represents talent including actor Will Farrell, $1,000; Rick Rosen, a partner in the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, $500; and TV movie producer Frank von Zerneck, most famous for TV movies about Natalee Holloway and Elizabeth Smart, $1,000.

In an e-mail, Murphy campaign manager Nat Binns says it's "fair to say Patrick's work to repeal DADT and end the war in Iraq play a big role."

But Binns took pains to note that most of Murphy's support isn't from Hollywood; more than 3,000 Pennsylvania residents "have sent a check [and] we've seen an outpouring of support from folks around the country who believe in Patrick," Binns wrote.

Having cash on hand will be important in the primary's final weeks. Kane has nearly $2 million in her campaign war chest, though most of that is from a $1.75 million loan from her husband, an executive at his family's trucking and logistic firm. Murphy, despite outfundraising Kane, trails her on the balance sheet, with slightly less than $1.2 million on hand.

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