Slag Heap | Pittsburgh City Paper

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Unwelcome Bill

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2008 at 7:25 PM

No one on council wants to speak out against city councilor Bill Peduto's effort to limit campaign contributions, at least not yet. But no one is rushing to vote for it, either.

Peduto's bill, which would limit campaign contributions to local candidates, is discussed at length in this thrilling 3,000-word City Paper account. And it was discussed further, at only slightly greater length, during a Feb. 26 public hearing at city council.

In terms of political drama, the meeting was about as gripping as ... as ... well, as reading a 3,000-word City Paper account about campaign finance reform. Less than two dozen people attended. Most of their testimony was brief, routine, and made by the usual suspects -- pro-reform groups like Common Cause and the League of Young Voters. (A rare spark was provided by Avenging Libertarian Mark Rauterkus, who referred to county officials as "law-breaking scum" for having ignored a law county council passed five years ago to put campaign contributions on-line. In order to prevent the city from similarly ignoring its own limits, Rauterkus suggested adding teeth to Peduto's measure. Contributors found exceeding the limits, Rauterkus recommended, should be denied any chance to receive city contracts or remittances until the officials they contributed to left office. Rauterkus also suggested creating a "Scarlet Letter" list to publicize the name of violaters.)

Only one speaker, representing the Allegheny County Labor Council, opposed the bill, citing fears that limiting labor contributions would stifle the voice of working people.

Ordinarily, you might take the lack of fireworks as a good sign. But Peduto's measure is facing something worse than contentious opponents. He's up against studied indifference.

Only two council members -- President Doug Shields and councilor Darlene Harris -- were actually absent. But it was hard to tell the difference. Throughout the hour-long hearing, only one councilor, Ricky Burgess, asked a substantive question about the measure. (I'd tell you what it was, but trust me: Not knowing is more exciting than the question or the answer itself.)

Other than that, Patrick Dowd asked inquired about the make-up of a task force Peduto had convened on campaign financing in 2004; Bruce Kraus pledged to "do my due diligence" and to be "open to further solutions"; and Tonya Payne groused about how public hearings and post-agendas needed to be scheduled more conveniently. ("Really, you're asking us to bump our calendars," she told Peduto.) Councilors Jim Motznik and Dan Deasy spoke nary a word.

But really, why would they? Why would anyone speak in front of a room filled with supporters of the measure? Who wants to be the person to champion the right of developers to give $5,000 checks to local officials? Even labor, whose lone voice against the bill might be enough to kill it, did so with little fanfare. Labor Council president Jack Shea didn't appear himself; he sent a factotum who spoke along with the other unscheduled speakers. 

Peduto was unbowed, of course. "You can count on one hand" the number of cities that have no limit on campaign contributions, he told his colleagues -- and many cities had measures much stricter than those he was proposing. "It is modest reform; it is not radical reform," he said of his bill. He pledged to hold another special council hearing in the future.

The prospect of another council discussion probably didn't thrill Peduto's colleagues. But the debate figures to get more interesting as time goes on.

I got the sense that the measure's supporters were, in fact, already trying to call out at least one councilor. Julia Nagle, who spoke on behalf of the Peduto-friendly League of Young Voters, seemed to direct many of her remarks to concerns Dowd raised in City Paper's aforementioned thrilling story. She even addressed fears that reformers assume campaign contributions were "nefarious" ... an adjective Dowd used in the CP piece.

I may be reading too much into Nagle's remarks, in hopes that she -- or anyone, really -- read my story. But it's no secret that friction between Dowd and Peduto supporters is mounting by the week. Nor is it terribly surprising, even though Peduto has previously backed Dowd as a fellow reformer. Nearly a year ago, a local political consultant told CP that trouble was likely in store between the two. (Dowd "knows how to work within the system better," he told us, whereas "Peduto's nature is to ... make his call and say, 'This is right.'")

So far the worst fears of Peduto's camp -- that Dowd would support Jim Motznik as council president this year, for example -- haven't materialized. But Dowd has been skeptical of the campaign financing reform, and it's hard to see this issue resolving itself amicably. Peduto clearly isn't going to let it drop, if only because he sees it as a litmus test for who the real reformers are. However we end up financing our politics, a Bill is about to come due.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nagging Payne

Posted By on Thu, Feb 21, 2008 at 6:04 PM

Get out your handkerchiefs: Tonya Payne is really really really sorry about nearly botching the historic nomination of August Wilson's childhood home.

Not so sorry, though, that she couldn't fault those who pointed out her failure

While she apologized for dropping the ball on designating the Hill District home of the famous playwright last year, our friends over at the Post-Gazette quote Payne grousing, "Political pettiness has [surrounded] me since the day I got here."

Awwwww. I'd have more sympathy for Ms. Payne if she hadn't brought a lot of that pettiness with her -- beginning with the night she won her office. Let's recall that Payne reportedly celebrated her 2005 victory over incumbent Sala Udin by showing up at his election party uninvited and stealing his cake (as reported originally by the New Pittsburgh Courier.) 

"It said, 'Sala, still the one,'" Payne told the paper. "So we wiped his name off and people ate it." Payne also added another cheap shot: "He had a case of champagne -- he didn't leave that."

Ha, ha, ha. Ha. Ha. 

It was a trivial episode, of course, but the story has stuck with me ever since. Payne's district is badly fractured, and instead of using her election victory as a chance to heal those wounds, Payne chose to rub salt in them. And then to brag about it in the paper.

In fact, this story is one reason I give some weight to claims that Payne did neglect the August Wilson nomination on purpose -- just to stick it to Wilson's relatives (including CP columnist Kim Ellis). Ordinarily, I'm disposed to dismiss that kind of conspiracy theory. (I'm a liberal, so I naturally want to believe the best of everybody.) But sticking it to rivals unnecessarily is how Payne celebrated her win; why would she govern any differently once in office?  

What's sad is that things could have been so much different. Payne was the rare politician who could win the endorsement of both the local Democratic Party and the local chapter of Democracy for America, the Howard Dean-iacs who sought to revitalize the party and the country from the grass roots up. And while it's easy to forget now, a lot of people saw Payne as a reformer, a change from business as usual. Udin, the incumbent, was seen as a patsy for the mayor Tom Murphy. Payne won in part by playing on community suspicion that he who neglected his own district while supporting new sports facilities and other big-ticket development projects.

Stop me if these accusations sound at all familiar, Ms. Payne. And remember that revenge, like a victory cake, is a dish best eaten cold.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Brief Programming Note

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2008 at 8:56 AM

If you're like most Pittsburghers, you only tune in to WQED-TV to watch Lawrence Welk reruns, and that slightly creepy "Celtic Woman" who plays the violin. So you may have missed the PBS Frontline report last night, "Rules of Engagement,"  a look back at the allegations of a massacre in Haditha, Iraq, where 24 Iraqis were killed under murky circumstances in 2005. (You can see the report online by following the link above.)

Watching the broadcast made me wonder why conservatives ever wanted to get rid of PBS: Frontline provides a highly sympathetic, if not quite exculpatory, account of the Marines in Haditha, while engaging in some media criticism as well. (Even Fox News appears to hate the troops, based on the footage selected.)

The person who comes off worst of all, though, is Pennsylvania's very own John Murtha, the Johnstown Democrat who gave the Haditha story national prominence. It was Murtha, a former Marine and Bush Administration critic, who cited Haditha as evidence that US troops were snapping under the strain, to the point that they were going on murderous rampages. 

Military prosecutors trying the case did not comment for the Frontline story, citing a policy not to speak about cases outside the courtroom. (Defense attorneys were under no such obligation, and their interviews make up a sizable chunk of the Frontline piece.) Murtha isn't quoted either, and little time is spent dwelling on how he got his information about Haditha.

But at least one of the Marines charged in the Haditha deaths, staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich, blames his own superiors. In a 2006 defamation lawsuit against Murtha, Wuterich argues that Murtha may have been the willing dupe of nefarious elements in the Pentagon itself. Murtha, the suit says,

was one of several Congressional Members in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate who was provided information by officials within the Department of Defense concerning the ongoing investigation into the Haditha tragedy. According to news reports Mr. Murtha was briefed by, among others, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee. ... [T]he Department of Defense officials who have briefed or leaked information to Mr. Murtha deliberately provided him with inaccurate and false information.

Murtha responded to the lawsuit with a statement explaining that he made a public issue out of Haditha "to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident. Our troops are caught in the middle of a tragic dilemma. The military trains them to fight a conventional war and use overwhelming force to protect U.S. lives. I agree with that policy, but when we use force, we often kill civilians. What are the consequences?"

The Frontline story gives little attention to Murtha's defense, although it tacitly suggests that -- even if his criticism of the Marines in Haditha was over the line -- there may have been merit to his criticism of the war effort as a whole. At the end of the piece, Marines who'd been involved in the Haditha deployment say that on later missions, a new premium was put on protecting Iraqi lives -- and that this is a good, if difficult, thing. But in general, and for right or wrong, "Rules of Engagement" is kinder to active Marines than retired ones. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Advice For a Lovelorn City!

Posted By on Tue, Feb 19, 2008 at 10:22 AM

Regular readers of this blog (s'up, Bram? and as for the CP staffers who make up the rest of my audience, get back to work!) know that just yesterday, I posted a snarky little screed regarding Richard Florida, the expat Creative Class guru who fled Pittsburgh for greener pastures. I noted that Florida had gotten married, and that his wife Rana, who is also the CEO of Florida's consulting company, writes a syndicated advice column called "The Lowdown" with three of her sisters.

In a particularly juvenile turn, I submitted a question of my own to their column. I posed as a lovelorn reader who'd lost a Very Special Knowledge Worker to a woman with a lot more flash than I could offer. The idea, see, was that the guy in question was Florida himself: If the Kozouz sisters could tell us how to handle his departure, we'd know how to how to hold on to knowledge workers just like him. Then we wouldn't need Florida and his "talent retention strategies" anymore. Ha, ha, ha. 

So. Below is the advice given by the Kozouz sisters, who responded to my desperate plea within hours. It's written in the typical "Lowdown" format, with each sister offering me her own unique take on the question. Be warned: It features Rana Florida advising me to "calm my aching loins," which for some reason is only making things worse. But on the whole, I think the advice stacks up pretty well when compared to, say, the average Post-Gazette "Pittsburgh 250" essay.

I should note that when the Sisters Kozouz penned their advice, they knew exactly who I was and what I was up to. Within two hours of my blog post yesterday, Richard Florida sent me a good-natured e-mail about it. From this I conclude that Florida has special internet powers, and a Google news thingy that tells you when your name is being posted somewhere. Either that, or he has his grad students Web-searching his name every 15 or 20 minutes all day long. I'm hoping it's actually the latter -- because I decided yesterday to live vicariously through Florida and his sky-diving, Rollerblading bride. 

With that, let's get to the advice column itself, which the Kozouz Sisters have thoughtfully titled "Pitiful in the Burg." (It's like they really do know all about me!)

Dear Lowdown,

I had a whirlwind romance with a great guy -- handsome, smart, and almost too hip for words. But eventually he left because, he said, I didn't appreciate him or his talents enough. I thought I was over him at first … but I've just discovered that he's found a woman, and a life, that provide excitement I could never match. Is there any way I can get him back? Or at least to stop grieving over his loss?

Sign me,

Heartbroken in Pittsburgh

Smart, talented and handsome? I live in a suburb of Detroit, and let’s just say when something like that comes around, women scratch each other’s eyes out to hold on. And let me tell you, they hold on for dear life. What were you thinking, sista?

— Reham

I encourage you to analyze your actions. Start a list and write down what you did right and what you did wrong. Hopefully, the second time around you can be more upbeat and appreciative.

— Ruba

First of all, calm your aching loins. Was he really all that hip? Get over it; I’m sure there are other men out there for you.

— Rana

I always say, true love is so hard to find. You need to give this guy a second chance and make your way back apologetically into the arms of this perfect "place." If he’s the one, he’ll take you back and make sure you treat him right this time around.

— Leena


Monday, February 18, 2008

Florida Watch: News from Pittsburgh's Favorite Ex-Pat

Posted By on Mon, Feb 18, 2008 at 10:22 AM

City Paper prides itself on keeping Pittsburgh informed about the doings of Richard Florida, the former Carnegie Mellon University academic who coined the phrase "creative class" to describe knowledge workers and others. You may recall that a few years back, Florida left Pittsburgh to go teach college down in northern Virginia, where they better appreciated his unorthodox approach to talent attraction. (Or at least they offered him enough money to attract his own talents.)

What's he been up to since?

I'm happy to report that he has a new book coming out. Following up on the landmark success of The Rise of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class, Florida has penned a third volume: The Creative Class III: Revenge of the Sith.

OK, not really. The book is actually called Who's Your City? And according to the PR pitch I received this weekend, it's all about -- surprise! -- attracting talent. As the press release explains:

It's a mantra of the age of globalization that where you live doesn't matter: you can telecommute to your high-tech Silicon Valley job, a ski-slope in Idaho, a beach in Hawaii or a loft in Chicago; you can innovate from Shanghai or Bangalore.

According to international best-selling author, Richard Florida, this is wrong. Place is not only important, it's more important than ever. Globalization is not flattening the world; in fact, place is increasingly relevant to the global economy and our individual lives. … And everything we think we know about cities and their economic roles is up for grabs.

You'll also be heartened to hear that the book will feature "first-ever rankings of cities by life-stage, rating the best places for singles, young families and empty-nesters." So when the book hits the stands, it's guaranteed a "how do we match up?" newspaper article just about everywhere books are sold.

Note, however, the somewhat dismissive reference to The World is Flat, by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Maybe you think Florida is punching above his weight by taking on a big gun like Friedman. But as it turns out, Florida now has a columnist in the family too. So there.

How do I know? After hearing about Florida's new book, I got curious as to how our boy was doing. So I checked out the Web site of his Creative Class Group. (In case you were wondering, the CCG, as I like to call it, is a team of "next-generation thinkers and strategists" who offer "leading-edge knowledge … professional development worldwide." So the world's at least flat enough for purposes of a consulting gig.) And after flipping around through the site a bit, I have to say the question "Who's Your City?" was a lot less interesting to me than "Who's Your Daddy?"

I mean, check out the members of Florida's "Creative Class" team ... each one prettier, and sporting more exquisitely carved cheekbones, than the last. And that's just the guys!

But brace yourselves, ladies: Florida himself has gotten married; his wife is Rana Florida the CCG's CEO. The publicist who sent out word of this new book, Reham Alexander, is Rana Florida's sister. (Globalization aside, it really IS a small world after all!) And as it turns out Ms. Florida and Ms. Alexander write a newspaper advice column called "The Lowdown," which they pen with their sisters Leena and Ruba.

Judging from "the Lowdown" Website the column offers "four opposing viewpoints from the smart-talking Gen X sisters," and has "created quite a buzz, generating questions from an equal number of male and female, young an old."

I haven't actually read the column, but by browsing its Web site, I can tell you that I would follow almost any instruction the Kozouz sisters -- as the column's four authors refer to themselves -- gave me. Ruba is a part-time model, for example, while Ms. Florida herself apparently possesses a "high spirit and sense of adventure" that have her roller-blading and skydiving her way across the globe. What's more, her "cut to the chase attitude and philosophy on life is reflected in her advice which is straight and direct, firmly stating who is right or wrong."

And yet, something puzzles me. Florida's book apparently disputess the idea that it doesn't matter where you live. Yet his team apparently lives by the "mantra" that his book sets out to disparage. Florida now teaches in Toronto, but lives with his wife in Washington D.C. When his wife isn't traipsing off on safari or visiting the Dead Sea, she and her sister, who lives in Michigan, write a column that appears in the U.S. and Canada. And while the team's members do seem to be clustered in Washington D.C. and Michigan, one of them lives in Sydney, Australia. So is the earth flat or not?

Ordinarily, I'd hire an expensive consultant to help me figure that out. But if you want to get advice and counsel from a member of the Kozouz family, it seems, there's a cheaper way.

To wit …

Dear Lowdown,

I had a whirlwind romance with a great guy -- handsome, smart, and almost too hip for words. But eventually he left because, he said, I didn't appreciate him or his talents enough. I thought I was over him at first … but I've just discovered that he's found a woman, and a life, that provide excitement I could never match. Is there any way I can get him back? Or at least to stop grieving over his loss?

Sign me,

Heartbroken in Pittsburgh

If the Kozouz sisters have any advice for us, we'll pass it along to you ... and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Equal Time

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 8:51 AM

Anyone who read my council column, "Going Through the Motions," knows I'm above taking a dig at former Councilor Twanda Carlisle.

When Judge John Zottola gave her a one- to two-year sentence on public-corruption charges Feb. 4, it was a bit more than I thought she would get. But still, she had violated the public trust, even though she publicly blamed the media for blowing the whole stealing-public-money thing out of proportion.

But now I find myself almost sympathetic to Carlisle ... almost.

Incarceration of some period is necessary for what she has done. But then I compare her sentence to those of other public officials recently convicted of violating the public trust.

My expert analysis: It stinks.

Within 24 hours of Carlisle being sentenced, former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta and Mark Donley, a police chief from nearby Beaver County, were sentenced on corruption charges of their own. LaGrotta received six months of house arrest for paying close to $30,000 to his sister and her daughter to "work" at no-show state jobs. The sister (a kindergarten teacher in Ellwood City) and the niece were given probation. As for Conley, he pleaded guilty to taking bribes and was given probation.

Some people resent it when the race card is played, especially in defense of somebody who couldn't even defend herself in a courtroom. (Carlisle pled "no contest" to the charges.) But it's hard to ignore the fact that, of the three public officials sentenced recently, only one is black …. and that's the only one who will be doing hard time.

Other public officials in recent memory have also fared pretty well inside the legal system. Former Councilor Joe Cusick was convicted of extorting bribes and selling jobs while a member of Alcosan — he received six months in a halfway house and six months of house arrest. Former state Rep. Jeff Habay has faced a multitude of charges in recent years. On the first group of charges, that he had his state staff do campaign work, he spent a week in the county jail before being referred to an "alternative facility." He was recently given four to six months in the county jail, followed by 14 months house arrest for staging an anthrax threat at his office.

I don't want Twanda Carlisle to get special treatment. I think Zottola was on the money when he sentenced her to a maximum of two years in prison. Contrary to what Carlisle and some of her supporters allege, this wasn't a bookkeeping error.

But sentences ought to be even-handed … and these white, male public officials should have been given stiffer penalties too. LaGrotta is helping officials in other investigations … but he ought to do time for paying his family with our tax dollars for work they didn't do.

Twanda Carlisle stole from the city and from the people of her council district. She should and will pay for that. But for her to be going to prison while others get an anklet, their own bed and all the Judge Judy they can watch, is a crime in itself.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Spec: punditry that's worth what you're paying for it

Posted By on Sun, Feb 10, 2008 at 7:23 PM

This wouldn't be a politics blog without some pointless speculation about the upcoming presidential campaign. And anyway, there's been some speculation that Pennsylvania might actually matter this year, at least as far as the Democrats are concerned.

But when you look at the polling -- a dubious idea, I know -- it's hard to see much of a contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Two recent and well-known statewide polls show a commanding lead for Our Lady of the Pantsuit.

A Quinnipiac University "Swing State" poll carried out in December shows Clinton over Obama by a 43-15 margin. A Franklin & Marshall College poll from last month shows a similar 40-20 margin. The F&M poll suggests nearly half of Democrats are still unsure of their choices, and Obama's recent momentum gives him a shot to change some minds. But so far, the numbers have been pretty stable: An F&M poll from August 2007 shows a statistically identical margin.

Why are Clinton's margins so large in Pennsylvania, even as polls show the race tightening nationally? This is Pittsburgh City Paper, so the answer is ... it's the class distinctions, comrade.

According to F&M, Obama does best among Pennsylvania voters 18-34 years old, with college degrees and incomes of more than $75,000 plus. In each of those groups, Clinton gets around 35 percent of the vote, with Obama trailing by between 5 and 8 percent. Clinton, meanwhile, trounces Obama by margins of three-to one in voters ages 55 and over, with high-school diplomas and less, and among those earning less than $35,000 a year.

Noted revolutionary, and New York Times columnist, David Brooks recently argued that states like Pennsylvania tend to have a higher pecentage of working-class Democrat, who support Clinton's message that voters "need someone who'll fight tougher, work harder and put loyalty over independence." Obama's loftier, more visionary approach appeals "if you've got a basic level of security in your life, if you're looking up, not down." Pennsylvania and Ohio are "Hillary-friendly" states, Brooks says, in part because they rank low (32nd and 40th, respectively) in college education per capita.

In Pittsburgh, I'm guessing this will mean a reprise of the class/cultural distinctions everyone is already sick of me talking about in local races. I expect city councilor Bill Peduto and his tribe -- knowledge-working East End types -- to get behind Obama. Older-guard Dems like county exec Dan Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will back Clinton.

Both sides may take the opportunity to mutter about who the REAL Democrats are (again). I hate to see that happen, since one way Dems can tear victory from the jaws of defeat this year is through that kind of identity politics. My colleague John McIntire contends that the sniping between Obama and Clinton has been a nice change of pace for us white males. But I think the white males who stand to benefit most by such divisiveness will be the GOP nominees for President and Vice President.

Then again, most Dems I know will be happier voting for Obama OR Clinton than they were voting for white male John Kerry in 2004. And I expect at least one difference between 2007 and 2008: I doubt any Pittsburgh Democrats will be threatening to support the Republican in this year's general election.

So what have I proved here? Nothing much ... except that anyone with access to some online polling data can play at being a pundit. Try it yourself by posting a comment below.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Lost in Trans-lation

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2008 at 5:35 PM

On Feb. 7, Allegheny County rescuers saved 27-year-old Rebecca Hare from the flooding waters of the Allegheny River.

Some reporters who covered the incident, however, were apparently still at sea.

Hare was born a man but is transitioning to a woman. And while reporters thrive on rescue stories, they were clearly unsure how to handle a transgender victim.

WTAE's Janelle Hall, for example, repeatedly referred to Hare as "the person" or "the victim" in her report about the rescue, which took place in a tunnel connected to the David Lawrence Convention Center. (Hare had, apparently, sought shelter from the cold in a conduit that had a riverside outlet.) Hall did once identify Hare as a "27-year-old transgender woman," but the rest of her report consisted of tortured phrasing like: 

"Police think it all happened when a homeless person was trying to find a place to stay warm. Investigators say that person somehow broke into this room to stay warm."


"[T]here will be no charges filed against this person, because the convention center says they're just happy that person is OK."

The Post-Gazette, meanwhile, identified Hare as a "he" -- as in "the victim [said] he was in the process of undergoing a sex change." (The Tribune-Review's coverage, meanwhile, referred to Hare as a woman throughout, and in fact didn't even mention the sex-change angle.) The PG -- whose stories typically use "courtesy titles" like Mr. and Ms. -- refrained from using them to refer to Hare. In fact, the story referred to Hare by name only once.

The county's emergency management district chief, James Holman, was quoted in the P-G as follows: "It took a little while to figure out where [the trapped person] was because there was no contact with him." 

But tape from Hall's story suggests that Holman was comfortable referring to Hare as a woman: "I think she was at the end of where she could have gone, and it was her fear that the water was going to come up ... and eventually drown her," he told reporters at one point. "I think the young lady is very, very lucky."

So who's right? According to a media guide published by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Holman is. "A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not they have taken hormones or had surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender," GLAAD advises. (It also says that "referring to a sex change operation, or using terms such as pre- or post-operative, inaccurately suggests that one must have surgery in order to truly change one’s sex.")

The Associated Press stylebook -- a standard reference in the trade -- similarly recommends that reporters "[u]se the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly."

Some activists are calling on the community to write letters to the editor and get in touch with local stations about their careless language … and to suggest they dig deeper next time. One blast e-mail received by City Paper urged that members of the public "write letters to the editor and point out the missing aspect to this story -- how she is probably homeless because she's trans, how trans people face employment discrimination and disproportionately face poverty and homelessness. ... And of course you can correct the news organizations that referred to her as a man."

(Melissa Meinzer contributed to this post.) 

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Budgetary Imbalances

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2008 at 5:45 PM

There will be a lot of bickering about Gov. Ed Rendell's latest budget proposal in the months ahead. You can bet that Republican lawmakers will be paying special attention to Rendell's proposed 5.9 percent increase in the budget for educating Pennsylvania's children.

Far less controversial, meanwhile, will be the budget that includes tossing kids in prison for the rest of their lives.

The governor is seeking nearly $1.7 billion to house the state's prison population next year -- a 17.5 percent increase since 2006-07. That's more than twice the rate of increase for the budget as a whole. Among other things, the new money will cover the construction of another 690 prison beds, which will offer a little breathing room to a prison population carrying 5,000 more prisoners than it was designed to hold.

Say this for the Department of Corrections: At least they're building one part of the state people are crowding to get into. In less than a decade, the state's prison population has jumped to 46,000 people -- an increase of 28 percent. (The prison population grew by more than 1,600 people in the last year alone ... more than twice the number of beds Rendell hopes to add next year.) The number of Pennsylvanians living outside the razor wire, meanwhile, has increased by only 1.2 percent in roughly the same period of time, according to the US Census Bureau.

One small, but disturbing, part of the problem is the number of inmates who are serving life in prison with no hope of parole … for crimes they committed as minors.

This week, even as legislators were digesting Rendell's budget, the New York Times editorial page deemed Pennsylvania "the worst offender" in the nation when it comes to shutting away juvenile offenders for life. We are one of 38 states that sentence juveniles to life in prison with no possibility of parole ... a sentence that almost no other civilized country in the world hands out to its minors. "Hundreds of inmates -- estimates range from 360 to 433 -- have no hope of ever being released [from Pennsylvania prisons] because of crimes they committed between the ages of 13 and 18," the Times observes.

(Perhaps the editorial's saddest statement is that, apparently, no one is sure exactly how many kids are rotting away in state prison cells. Not only do these offenders not count; they aren't even being counted.)

To the governor's credit, Rendell's budget does make a pitch for more funding on drug treatment, more post-prison support and other programs to reduce the prison population. Such programs, the governor estimates, could save $19 million over the next four years. But I'm not optimistic that the legislature will embrace these ideas, or give up on locking away kids forever: After all, Harrisburg has finally found a way to keep the young people from leaving.


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