With Friends Like These... | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

With Friends Like These...

...who needs Republicans?

"We've gotten through the hard part," Mayor Tom Murphy told the Post-Gazette back in January of 2001, when he was launching his re-election campaign. Rivals might accuse him of being too chummy with the corporate elite, but Murphy retorted, "I have...effectively built a great partnership here in Pittsburgh. ... Am I going to run away from that? Absolutely not."


Well, Murphy was right about one thing: He never did run away from the partnerships formed during his first two terms. His partners ran away from him. As the city faces a projected $80 million deficit next year, in fact, they haven't even gotten close enough to stick a knife in his back. They've sent Harrisburg Republicans to do the job.


As this issue goes to press, Republicans in the state Legislature are preparing to unveil a unique city bailout plan -- one that does just about everything except bail the city out. Murphy had hoped Harrisburg would give him the power to levy $60 million in new taxes on commuters and tax-exempt employers, along with a financial oversight board to make sure the city was living within its means. What he appears about to get, though, is an oversight board not in exchange for new taxes but instead of them.


According to news reports and their own statements, Republicans led by Mike Turzai (R-Bradford Woods) plan to create a panel of five overseers -- though perhaps "overlord" might be the more accurate term. The board wouldn't just monitor and approve city budgets; it would actually be drafting them. And it could suspend state funding if city spending got out of line.


So with appointees making budgets, what would we be paying Murphy and council for? It's hard to say, though presumably Murphy can still attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Maybe that's just as well: It seems like that's the only thing he really enjoyed anyway.


In some ways, the legislature is just doing to Murphy what a Murphy-appointed panel recently proposed doing to the Pittsburgh school board: taking power away from elected officials and giving it to appointees. ("How do you like being on this side, Tom?" more than one school-board member must be wondering.) But the Harrisburg plan is even less democratic -- and less Democratic.


Instead of being chosen locally, two of the appointees will be picked by Republicans in the state House and Senate, while Harrisburg Democrats will choose two more. The fifth overseer will be chosen by the other four. The board members won't even have to be Pittsburghers: State Republicans have said that members of the board need only "have a primary place of business or employment" inside the city. The power of city officials, in other words, could be usurped by people who couldn't even vote against them in an election. In fact, these are the very people Murphy says have shortchanged the city all along: commuters who live outside the city but work within it, paying only nominal taxes for the services they use.


You have to admire the state GOP on some level. They've devised a plan to control two out of five of the people running an overwhelmingly Democratic city. They may also have found a way to press a union-busting agenda in a union-friendly town: Already a public statement by House Republicans promises the board will "foster efficient fiscal practices and policies, including...sale or privatization of assets."


And credit Republicans as well for being reliable: You can always count on them to be Republicans. If only Murphy's supposed friends were as consistent.


Take all the corporate CEOs and nonprofit heads whose water Murphy carried for his first two terms. Murphy fought to give companies like Heinz and Federated Investors sizable tax breaks -- the very tax breaks he now says are crippling the city. At the urging of Mellon and PNC Bank, he staked millions of tax dollars and much of his prestige on bringing more shopping Downtown. And at the behest of many of these firms Murphy led the charge to build new stadiums.


But where are Murphy's allies today? Sure, the Allegheny Conference has occasionally muttered something about supporting the city financially, and one or two CEOs have appeared in Harrisburg to plead the city's case. But where is the high-profile "public-private" effort that lobbied for new stadiums? Where are the op-ed pieces by bank presidents, the bogus economic impact studies showing how much new taxes will help the region, the Powerpoint presentations by US Steel head Tom Usher?


In the nonprofit world, meanwhile, there's been some honest talk from guys like Maxwell King, the head of the Heinz Endowments, who has conceded that nonprofits need to find a way to help the city more. But where's the action? If the city faces a budgetary crisis, and there's no help forthcoming from suburban legislators, why not raise the alarm by suspending funding for programs outside city limits? That's what King and others did when the Pittsburgh school district wasn't being run to their liking, after all. Or do foundations only feel comfortable holding Pittsburgh school kids hostage?


Murphy can't even get help from the "young people" he has so often claimed to serve. Consider the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (PUMP), that allegedly influential group of young professionals who were so concerned about the city's future in the late 1990s. Back then, PUMP members held rallies and traveled to Harrisburg in their effort to see tax dollars spent on new stadiums. But PUMP's only action on behalf of the city in this crisis was to conduct a membership survey earlier this year. And while PUMP's official statement contends, "Young and young-thinking professionals cannot thrive unless the City thrives," six out of seven PUMP members didn't even bother to respond to the survey.


And while the group backs most of Murphy's proposals, it hasn't exactly pressed the matter, either: It's taken no public action except the survey. Apparently, it was too busy fighting for that other key issue for Pittsburgh's youth: the Allegheny County Executive's line-item veto power. In March, the group joined a lawsuit filed by county exec Jim Roddey to protect his veto power from county council. Never mind cutbacks in street paving or garbage collection; apparently it's spending in the prothonotary's office that keeps PUMP up at night.


PUMP members were, by contrast, quite happy to turn Pittsburgh into an urban playground of tax-exempt concert halls and stadiums for their amusement. But now that the playground needs maintenance, they can just pick up their marbles and move to the suburbs, if they haven't already.



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