The scores of laid-off Pittsburgh crossing guards gathered in front of the Sheraton Station Square Aug. 6 cheered pretty much all of the politicians who stopped to speak to them prior to Gov. Ed Rendell's news conference inside the hotel. But one, Sen. Jack Wagner, got mixed reviews. Wagner, a long-time rival of Mayor Tom Murphy, was applauded when he criticized the mayor's decision to lay off 203 crossing guards to repair the city's broken budget. "There should not be reactionary measures taken at this time in August," the Beechview Democrat said, implying that the state might yet help Pittsburgh out of its fiscal mess.
"So are you going to vote for the occupational tax?" asked crossing guard Pam Zupancic, referring to the $42 increase Murphy wants in the levy on everybody working in Pittsburgh.
"We'll get to that," Wagner answered. The General Assembly must approve the increase before the city can impose it, and some legislators feel it's excessive and regressive. As Allegheny County's senior senator, Wagner's vote is expected to be important, and his accusations that Murphy has avoided budget cuts and exaggerated the city's past workforce reductions have hurt the mayor's lobbying efforts.
After a few broadsides at General Assembly Republicans, Wagner offered this: "I have not made a decision as to whether or not I am going to vote for [the occupational privilege tax]. & The fiscal problems in Pittsburgh were predictable years ago," he said, implying that Murphy should have acted sooner.
Not far away, state Rep. Dan Frankel shook his head. "I'm stunned to hear that he's still thinking about the occupational privilege tax," said Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat and Murphy ally. "Jack Wagner was president of city council, sat on city council, knows the issues. He hasn't come up with one constructive suggestion."
Indeed, Wagner's critiques of Murphy may be generating a backlash, now that the mayor has laid off 731 city workers while the General Assembly dithers with a host of problems. Democrat Rendell has blamed senate Republicans for stalling the state's business, but the GOP legislators say they're not the biggest problem facing Pittsburgh. "The biggest obstruction to [the city package] is Jack Wagner!" said Sen. Jane Orie, a McCandless Republican, shortly after her encounter with the crossing guards.
Zupancic, for one, wasn't impressed with Wagner. "He gave me a wishy-washy answer," she said.