Notes on the state of things

Airline officials can say the darnedest things. Take, for instance, Brian Davis.

It was back in June 2015, as vice president for marketing at Allegiant Air, that he was raising a stink over proposed subsidies for Elite Airways at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz.

“It’s completely inappropriate,” Davis told The Arizona Republic. “We don’t mind competition … what we do mind is subsidized competition.”

Fast-forward to this month.

Allegiant announced that this spring it will begin seasonal service from Pittsburgh International Airport to Charleston, S.C., and year-round service to Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla.

And the service will be subsidized with a “small marketing incentive,” the full amount of which has not been set, said a spokesman for the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

So much for “completely inappropriate … subsidized competition,” eh?

Curiously, just this week the very same Elite Airways that was the subject of Allegiant’s ire in Arizona pulled out of a plan announced late last year — with great fanfare – to begin non-stop service to the same Sarasota-Bradenton airport, near the home to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training camp.

The authority was to pay Elite a $30,000 “marketing” subsidy. Elite’s cancellation came a day after Allegiant announced its subsidized flights.

Things that make you go “Hmmmm … .”

Turns out there was more to the compensation package of new Port Authority CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman than first revealed.

As the Post-Gazette reported this week, when Kelleman was hired, her compensation package was announced as being a $230,000 salary, the same defined benefit pension package as other authority nonunion employees and a 3 percent match for a 401(k) savings plan.

But, as the P-G reports, a month after the Nov. 8 announcement of her hiring, the Port Authority board “approved an additional contribution of 15 percent of her salary every year to her 401(k), which was agreed to when she was hired and amounts to $34,500 this year.”

That’s a darn generous package. The public should expect big things from her.

Kelleman faces a variety of challenges at the Port Authority. While she says she considers it to be “one of America’s bedrock transit systems,” its “underlying cost problems have yet to be addressed in a substantial way,” Allegheny Institute researchers reminded when Kelleman was hired.

If Pittsburghers thought the sour experience of majority taxpayer funding for a baseball field, a football stadium and a hockey arena taught government-types elsewhere an experience not to be emulated, think again.

The Washington Times has the shocking details of the drubbing Nevada taxpayers and the general public will experience for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders’ new $1.9 billion football stadium in Las Vegas:

“The public’s $750 million contribution – financed through tax-exempt bonds – is the largest public subsidy ever granted for a U.S. stadium. It will be used in combination with a $500 million contribution from the Raiders and an additional $600 million loan from Bank of America.

“The Raiders’ contribution, however, will be about $50 million from the team itself. About $200 million of its portion will be financed with a loan from the NFL and the remaining $250 million will be generated from the sale of personal seat licenses. …

“Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, will raise the funds to pay those bonds by raising the hotel tax on the famous strip by nearly 1 percent.”

But that’s not all.

The Times further reports the deal allows the Raiders “to break the lease and look for another home if Nevada attempts to impose new taxes over the next three decades” specifically “on the team, stadium, fans or players,” including visiting teams and fans.

The Raiders, however, “will collect revenue of the sale of (luxury) suites, tickets, stadium naming rights and local television broadcasts,” the newspaper reminds, estimated to be about $130 million in the first year of operation.

Quoting Neil deMause, a longtime critic of publicly funded sports complexes, “This is adding insult to injury. It’s bad enough that Nevada is handing over $700 million in cash, now (it has) made things even worse by agreeing to a deal that makes sure Nevada taxpayers never see a penny from the stadium.”

Which makes the economic contribution of this football stadium redefine, downward, the term de minimis – which long has described the economic benefits of publicly subsidized homes for the barons of sport.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Secrets & subsidies

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald remains adamant:

He will not, nor will other local “leaders,” release details of the region’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

“The object is to be successful,” the ACE told the Post-Gazette last week. “Giving out our information to all the other cities, I think, would put us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Which continues to be a nonsensical thing to say, considering the bid deadline passed long ago. The object should be transparency.

Some other jurisdictions that put in bids for what Amazon calls “HQ2” have made public their bids, some heavily redacted. But enough information has been released to suggest very deep and long dives into taxpayer pockets.

Local governments here have denied media requests for what clearly is public information. That suggests not necessarily attempts to protect “proprietary” information but to blunt public outrage. Appeals now are before the state Office of Open Records.

The latest rationale for not letting the public see what its public officials propose they pay for is that there are nondisclosure agreements with private property owners whose sites are part of the proposal.

But that’s specious as well.

A public entity is pledging public money – easily millions and, perhaps, hundreds of millions of dollars. And the public does not have a right to see the potential deal?

That’s ludicrous. Transparency in government should be the baseline, not an option. Open government is must.

It once was written that time and chance reveal all secrets. But when it comes to your government pledging your money to a private company, transparency should not be left to chance.

The time is long past for Allegheny and Pittsburgh officials to make public the Amazon bid – down to the last cent. The public’s business is not governments’ secret to keep.

Here’s an interesting tale:

As the Trib reported it, Allegiant Air will begin seasonal flights from Pittsburgh International Airport to Charleston, S.C., in April. At the same time, year-round service will begin to Sarasota, Fla.

And as has become the per usual, the public appears to be paying a premium (above and beyond ticket purchases, that is) for the Allegheny County Airport Authority’s version of “progress.”

An authority spokesman says a “small marketing incentive” is being paid to Allegiant. The amount? Shhhhhhhh! Secret!

Now, the really interesting part is that, at the same time, Allegiant is adding flights to Lehigh Valley International Airport in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

But it didn’t cost the local airport authority there a thing. At least that’s the information Tom Shortell has. He’s a reporter at The Morning Call in Allentown. We traded a few emails last week.

As far as any subsidy for Allegiant goes, “Our (airport) authority hasn’t authorized anything along those lines,” Shortell told me. “They would be hard-pressed to offer something like that right now – they’re only a year removed from crushing debt and are still ramping up long-deferred repairs and hires.”

So, again, why is the Allegheny County Airport Authority subsidizing service when others aren’t?

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

 

Weekend essay: Wintry renewal

“The nakedness and asperity of the wintry world always fill the beholder with pensive and profound astonishment,” wrote 18th-century English essayist Samuel Johnson.

Indeed, there is a roughness and a harshness to this stripped-bare season. The winds and the cold that bite with their teeth and lash with their tail can bruise and batter our souls.

It is as if life itself has been snatched from us. And despite knowing better, we question whether there will be, can be, another spring.

But upon closer examination — aided perhaps by a cup of sweet English tea that rekindles the soul — our pensiveness wanes; our astonishment no longer invites the pejorative. For there’s plenty of life, if not grandeur, to be found in the seasonal slumber.

Is there anything more beautiful than the contrast of the red cardinal against the bark of an ice-slathered silver maple? Why, yes, there is: Even more stark in its beauty is the counterpose of the elusive red fox and its kits, scampering back to their den, against the fresh comforter of snow.

And back inside? William Cowper, one of Mr. Johnson’s contemporaries, crowned winter as “the king of intimate delights.”

“Fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness,

“And all the comforts that the lowly roof

“Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours

“Of long uninterrupted evening know.”

Winter need not be the season of our discontent. It is, as we must attest, the season of our renewal.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

The government subsidy game

After reading an Allegheny Institute commentary (at pennlive.com) on the dichotomy that is this nation’s notable manufacturing gains but Pennsylvania’s continuing manufacturing losses, an engaged commentator noted:

“(I)t would be nice if you could explain in specific terms what other ways may be used to make Pennsylvania more competitive to draw manufacturing into the state.”

From think tank president Jake Haulk:

“I don’t believe Pennsylvania should put money into attracting any business. Lower the corporate tax rate, enact right to work (and) reduce the regulations that inhibit manufacturing startups or expansion.

“Adopt a business-friendly environment for all types of business, not just manufacturing,” the Ph.D. economist says

And that said, Haulk adds “a new mind-set by Democrats will be needed” as well as “more backbone in Republicans.”

That is, the same-old, same-old economic policies of the past simply don’t work; it is way past time for the failure to be called out, with the facts, not replicated ad infinitum.

Another commentator also believes Pennsylvania should not put resources into attracting manufacturing jobs. But he employs a different rationale:

“Manufacturing is returning to the U.S. from offshore because of robotics. More stuff is being made by machines, so if you eliminate the labor costs from the equation, the next largest expense is logistics.

“Thus, you move production closer to the point of sale, which is what is happening. Any job growth is for the people who build and program the robotics, or those responsible for the logistics stream.”

The writer also sees “the biggest impediment” to economic growth in the commonwealth as being “systemic corruption” in state government:

“Market forces aren’t allowed to move freely because both business and labor are greasing the wheels with campaign contributions, and government keeps pouring money into businesses via grants and tax abatements that could not survive otherwise.”

Whether mutually exclusive or not, the courts have ruled that the former is free speech. And whether the quid pro quo alleged is perceived or actual long has been elusive to prove.

But what is easily proved is the fallacy of government attempting to pick economic winners and typically losing, with public money. And in a realm in which it has no business doing business – other than, that is, as Haulk reminds, to keep the tax and regulatory burdens as low as possible for all so as to facilitate real economic growth.

Consider this passage from “Man, Economy and State” by late, great economist Murray Rothbard:

“(T)he more government intervenes and subsidizes, the more caste conflict will be created in society, for individuals and groups will benefit only at one another’s expense.

“The more widespread the tax-and-subsidy process, the more people will be induced to abandon production and join the army of those who live coercively off production.

“Production and living standards will be progressively lowered as energy is diverted from production to politics and as government saddles a dwindling base of production with a growing and more-top-heavy burden of the State-privileged.

“This process will be all the more accelerated because those who succeed in any activity will invariably tend to be those who are best at performing it.

“Those who particularly flourish on the free market, therefore, will be those most adept at production and at serving their fellow men; those who succeed in the political struggle for subsidies, on the other hand, will be those most adept at wielding coercion or at winning favors from wielders of coercion.

“Generally, different people will be in the different categories of the successful, in accordance with the universal specialization of skills. Furthermore, for those who are skilled at both, the tax-and-subsidy system will encourage and promote their predatory skills and penalize their productive ones.”

Sadly illuminating, is it not? That so many of our public officials refuse to engage the light, and continue to practice such dark economics, is anathema to sound public policy.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org)

Questioning the ‘urban wealth fund’ concept

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s second-term blueprint, unveiled on Jan. 3, calls for the establishment of an “urban wealth fund,” or a UWF.

But how this might work – or even if it works – is a huge question mark. And the president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy has some serious doubts about such a policy prescription.

“Another blue ribbon panel and several consultant hires would seem to be imminent,” Jake Haulk, the think tank head, wryly notes.

Modeled after programs in Europe and Asia, an “urban wealth fund” would be designed to leverage city assets to, supposedly, give the city a larger bolus of investment income.

Or as Peduto characterized it, “a new holding company to turn liabilities into assets.”

Or as the Post-Gazette explained it:

“Pioneered in Europe, urban wealth funds are government-owned entities that hold publicly owned property, but use private-sector management to ensure taxpayers receive maximum value through leasing or other arrangements.”

It is a way, the P-G continues, citing supporters, to “offer a middle course between full government control and outright privatization – helping taxpayers realize revenue from public assets without forfeiting ownership.”

Some analysts have likened urban wealth funds to sovereign wealth funds, writ small. But, more simply put, it’s more akin to private-public partnerships, more “equalized” to the benefit of taxpayers, observers have said.

And, perhaps, also as a sop to help preserve public sector unions?

Dag Detter has been the darling of the “urban wealth fund” idea since last year when the Brookings Institute published his book “The Public Wealth of Cities: How to Unlock Hidden Assets to Boost Growth and Prosperity.”

From a recent Financial Times commentary that Detter co-authored with Willem Buiter, the chief economist at Citigroup:

“It is often claimed that there is this great wall of money searching for assets – but a dearth of investment opportunities.

“Yet at the same time there are commercial assets owned by the public sector – transportation, airports, ports, water and electric utilities, communications, as well as vast portfolios of real estate that represent a veritable gold mine.

“Unfortunately, much of it is hidden from the public view, without professional management and impaired by rent-seeking activities of the insiders controlling and often mismanaging these assets.”

They write that “urban wealth funds” are “necessary not only to be able to unlock the value hidden in these public commercial asset portfolios but also to avoid giving away public value through the many unsuccessful (and badly designed) attempts to cooperate with the private sector in a variety of public-private partnerships.”

Detter and Buiter say that while public-private partnerships have their place, “Too often they have been no more than vehicles to avoid public sector budgetary and balance sheet constraint, in the process transferring most of the gains to private partners.”

Others see the creation of “urban wealth funds” as a way to keep politics at “arms-length” from the operation of such government functions.

But, exactly what are the mechanics of these UWFs? The Financial Times’ Matt Klein offers this tutorial:

“Ideally, all publicly owned assets in a given city would be placed in the fund regardless of whether they technically belong to the county, the city, the school system, the state or some other entity.

“The local governments would each have shares in the fund proportionate to the value of the assets they contributed. These shares would be reported as assets on the municipal balance sheets.

“Independent managers with experience in real estate and finance would be charged with maximizing the value of the portfolios. Cities would receive dividends from their stakes in these commercial properties and have the option to borrow against or sell their shares if desperate for cash.”

Klein even broaches public officials having to decide whether it makes sense to pay fair market rents to stay in their properties. “Moving offices might be inconvenient for government workers but the potential gains for taxpayers and citizens who depend on government services would be far greater.”

To say the least, it’s an interesting concept. However, there appears to be a dearth of scholarly literature casting any sort of critical eye on UWFs.

And after reading several articles by Detter, the Allegheny Institute’s Haulk says he’s not at all sure how, or if, the UWF can or would work.

“It seems to me the process is aimed at allowing city properties to be leased to private businesses or city services to be sold to other municipalities or private customers,” he says. “How else could the buildings or land generate more revenue than in their current municipal use?”

In that case, Haulk says the city would, in fact, be creating competition for private companies. And, he adds, the notion that city assets are worth far more than the historical cost can only be meaningful if they could be put to a higher use.

“If the city has real estate that it no longer needs, it should sell it—a better way to raise money.  Or as we have recommended for years, outsource services to private firms that can do the work more cheaply.”

But the Ph.D. economist reminds that never happens because it would mean cutting city jobs. Pittsburgh garbage collection, for example, should have been outsourced/privatized years ago, he reminds.

That said, Haulk says he can’t wait to see how the Peduto administration begins assembling the assets to put in the fund and how it will go about entering into a contract with a private manager.

Past being prologue, that likely means yet another “blue ribbon panel” stacked with the usual suspects and lots of paid “consultants,” he says.

To test the usefulness of the “urban wealth fund” idea, Haulk says the mayor should put one of the city’s building or vacant lots up for sale and see how much it will fetch – then hire a private sector manager to operate it to see which works out better.

“Here is the reality,” Haulk says: “The city government spends too much, taxes too much, has too many employees and is absolutely committed to keeping all its employees and running the city as a ‘progressive’ paradise. I just do not see it moving toward a meaningful partnership with the private sector.

“What the city needs is not to engage in some scheme that seems to be very complicated and might come a cropper. The city needs to adopt a much friendlier business climate, cut spending and taxes.

“Can you imagine the constraints and limitations the city will place on a private manager of city assets?  Minimum wage, health care, sick leave, etc.  It’s enough to scare off really entrepreneurial managers.”

And, indeed, human nature being what it is, it’s likely a stretch to think politicians would act any more responsibly or business-like with proceeds from “urban wealth funds” than they would from taxpayer coffers.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: The Great Tractor Hunt

JONES MOUNTAIN, W.Va.

The hunt has begun: Jones Mountain is in need of a tractor.

Oh, there’s an old and sturdy John Deere garden tractor that’s kept the grasses cut for more than a decade atop this Appalachian Mountain foothill. And it has done its job faithfully and well and with only a modicum of maintenance each year.

But there soon will be a bit of old field to plow anew for crops not planted here over several generations. To till soil left fallow for so long will be particularly pleasing to the nose; a sturdy tractor is a must to do justice to this place’s farming history.

And then there’s a woods to thin — not only to build a cache of seasoned firewood for a coming fireplace but to help the more mature trees in that slice of this Mountain State forest be the most majestic they can be.

For a larger tractor surely will come in handy to drag the already fallen timber to a clearing to cut and stack what’s salvageable or to cut, pile and burn the woods’ dregs.

And, oh, the tractor options available and the choices to be made.

On my behalf, brother Shannon is on the hunt for a good used – though refurbished – tractor. He speaks highly of a shop over the river and through the Eastern Ohio woods along a winding road of our youth that has treated him well over the years.  The tractor shop that is, not the road.

But I keep wondering if buying new is the better option, fully knowing what I’m getting – not inheriting someone else’s problem – and the promise of a warranty.

Then you start reading the commentaries online about new tractors delivered with factory-made problems. Leaking gas lines near manifolds. Crimped hydraulic lines. Substandard alternators that don’t keep batteries charged. Attachments that require a contortionist with Goliath strength to install and remove. And on and on and on. Sigh.

That said, tractors, whether new or used, typically are in the same category as sports cars and boats. That is, it seems as if they were designed and built to be worked on – all the time.

Or as local sometimes radio personality and gentleman farmer Scott Paulsen put it a few years ago: “As anyone who owns farm machinery will tell you, the first rule of ownership is that it breaks. The second rule is that whatever part you need is on back-order and will be here in two weeks.”

As Scott also noted: “Attached to most tractors … is a small metal box. When the tractor is new, you will find nothing inside that box, leading many to wonder why it’s there.

“However, soon after the tractor arrives home with its new owner, that person will fill the small metal box with all manner of replacement parts.”

Oh, the joys to come. But let The Great Tractor Hunt continue unabated. For once the back of this winter is broken, there soon will be land to plow, a woods to thin, an owner’s manual to decipher and, of course, parts to order.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Authority games

An arrangement by which an Allegheny County Airport Authority board member has become a non-voting member of an airline that was granted public incentives to fly in and out of Pittsburgh International Airport has sparked the interest of the state auditor general.

Sent a newspaper story outlining the arrangement – involving OneJet and dual board member Bob Lewis – state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale told me in an email that the arrangement “seems to give a private company a huge upper hand against competitors.”

Which could make competitors think twice about doing business at Pittsburgh International – with or without the generous subsidies for which the authority has become so well known.

“If the (state Legislature) bill passes granting me authority on public authorities,” DePasquale says the OneJet-Lewis situation “is worth exploring.”

For, as has been noted here before, and in the least, the optics of such a deal have the appearance of a troubling conflict of interest, if not an actual conflict.

And it raises this question as well: Is the Airport’s Authority’s job to facilitate and oversee air travel at Pittsburgh International or is it to be in the business of helping to run and publicly finance private air transit?

Indeed, there are a number of sound recommendations in a “blue ribbon” panel’s report on how to fix the badly broken Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (though some do appear to be a cut-and-paste job that mimic recommendations already made by DePasquale’s office).

Among them are clear no-brainers, such as no longer providing the city government and certain related parties with free water. Another is to stop overpaying the city for administrative services it provides.

Yet another is to stop subsidizing development projects. The PWSA often is asked to provide water and sewer infrastructure that should be paid for by the developer, the report notes.

“This should cease immediately,” it concludes. “PWSA should be run as a utility, not an economic development agency.”

If only government in general would operate this way, taxpayers would be spared elected and appointed officials’ market-perverting corporate wealthfare schemes that improperly offload capital costs to taxpayers that should be borne solely by developers.

Once upon a more rational time, developers whose projects created demand on the public infrastructure were charged an impact fee to pay for it. Imagine that.

Now, as much positive as there is in the panel’s PWSA report, there remains one giant sore thumb. That would be the half-measures proposed to improve the authority’s governance model.

The authority, as are most Pittsburgh authorities, long has been a political tool for elected leaders. They appoint board members and those members, instead of acting independently, merely do the bidding of their political benefactor.

The “reform” calls for Pittsburgh’s mayor to appoint, at least initially, a “board of nominators” from a list supplied by that “blue ribbon panel” to nominate new PWSA members. The authority would be reorganized as a municipal authority “to make it independent of elective politics and accountable to and trusted by the public,” the report says.

But the panel expressly rejects any hint of privatizing to any degree, leaving ownership in the city’s hands. From the report:

“All of the alternatives that include some degree of privatization were judged to be weak in terms of accountability and the public’s confidence in them,” it said.

But then comes the nub of the rub, so to speak: “These options would also be difficult or impossible to implement politically, and they have uncertain implications for employees.”

Really?

First, never mind that the PWSA, which now also will be forced to answer to the state Public Utility Commission, has, for decades, redefined oversight and operational dysfunction.

Second, never mind that the “blue ribbon panel” demands, supposedly, that “politics” be divorced from the authority, then cowers to it.

And, third, goodness forbid that apolitical and operational efficiencies might lower costs, it appears that the reformers seek to protect PWSA employees, no matter the cost to the public.

All this said, had pols respected the law and allowed the PWSA to operate independently in the first place, there would be no need for adding more layers of political bureaucracy under the guise of protecting the PWSA from pols.

“In efforts to soar above our nature, we invariably fall below it,” once wrote Edgar Allan Poe. “Blue ribbon” PWSA “reformers” certainly resemble that remark.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

 

 

 

Weekend essay: Sowing the new year

The 2018 seed catalogs have begun to arrive en masse. And for gardeners, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Territorial Seed Company’s 160-page catalog was first to arrive in my mailbox a few days before Christmas. Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy – the possibilities!

Indeed, there are dozens of new varieties of the staples to consider, from tomatoes and cucumbers, to green beans and peppers. Then there are the lettuces and other greens from which to choose –  an incredible 11 pages in all.

But one of the great things about seed catalogs is the chance to choose totally new things to grow. Or at least dream as much. Any gardener worth his mulch always tries to sets aside at least some space to boldly go where he has not gone before.

One crop that definitely will be given some space this year is a very interesting variety of Romanesco known as “Veronica.” It’s described as “a somewhat nuttier cross between broccoli and cauliflower.”

A bit too odd? A bit too prehistoric-looking to eat? Perhaps. But something new for the new year should be an adventure.

Then there’s the “Red Samurai” carrot that is supposed to add “panache to salads and even retains its distinctive color when steamed.”

Who would disavow salad “panache”? And isn’t finding bold colors in “plating” an art unto itself?

Unique shallots anyone? One French variety is touted as having been “considered sacred by Persians and Egyptians” and is valued by “gourmets for the smooth, rich onion flavor they possess.”

Sounds enticing. But at $21.50 a pound, well, that’s just a tad pricey. Alas, other, more economical, options will be considered – no doubt more highly valued by my wallet.

Back to those lettuces. Why go with the same-old, same-old when scores of alternatives, some curiously named, abound?

Such as the heat-tolerant 50-day “Green Deer
Tongue.” Or the 55-day “Italienischer.” And, believe it or not, there’s even a 55-day butterhead variety dubbed the “Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed.”

The catalog’s writers declined to “hypothesize where the ‘drunken woman’ part of the name” came from. ‘Twas a wise show of discretion in these overtly sensitive times, one can only assume.

That said, a romaine variety called “Flashy Trout’s Back,” another 55-day green, might be the safer choice when talking seed prospects in mixed company.  Ahem.

Alas, it’s just about time to start preparing that seed order — to think about what to plant, where and when. How to sow the new year, so to speak, is a particularly nice thought as the bitter cold of winter barks and bites ever deeper.

A garden writer once reminded that the gardening season officially ends on Dec. 31 and begins on Jan. 1. So here’s to the end of one season and the beginning of another – all packed rather conveniently into two consecutive days.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Out with the old — please!

The year ends on a sour note for Pittsburghers pining for good governance that leads to sound public policy. To wit:

City Council has passed a bill that outlaws the use of tools commonly used – and according to many experts, commonly required by federal and insurance regulators to ensure public safety – to guide and control wild animals used in circus and zoo settings.

The measure, because it is so broad, essentially serves as a de facto ban of circuses in the city while making zoo handlers, employees and visitors less safe.

Particularly galling is that, if signed into law by the mayor – and he is expected to do so this week — it very well could mean the end the nearly 70-year run of the Shrine Circus in Pittsburgh, a charity that has done so very much to aid ill children.

Animal rights activists pushed for the legislation. But circus and zoo officials said that advocacy, and the council’s acquiescence to them, was based on “outdated bias and untrue statements” regarding treatment of animals.

What’s next, legislation to ban zoos?

Or perhaps the city council will attempt to “redeem” itself by creating a new tax to make up for the Shriners’ losses? Ahem.

Speaking of taxes, Pittsburgh City Council has passed a bill that raises, in two phases, the realty transfer tax by 25 percent by January 2020.

The “rationale” employed for the hike – from 4 percent to 4.5 percent effective Feb. 1, then to 5 percent come 2020 – is that the proceeds would be used to for “affordable housing.”

While making housing less affordable?

“This is about permanently changing the lives of Pittsburgh families,” said Celeste Scott, described by the Post-Gazette as “the housing justice organizer at Pittsburgh United,” an “activist coalition.”

She can say that again.

Ah, there seems to be a common thread emerging in city governance – “progressives” are more and more running the city show, winning the day with regressive policies that make the city more and more expensive and less and less attractive to existing residents and potential newcomers.

In a most cogent email to the council last week, City Controller Michael Lamb panned the move for the bad idea it is:

“You continue to make home ownership more expensive and living in Pittsburgh more difficult and somehow act surprised when Census data shows (sic) continued drops in city population.”

Continued the controller, “Your actions will only serve to worsen an already-existing housing glut in the city while doing very little, if anything, to improve affordable housing options.”

Bingo.

Once fully implemented, real estate-types lament that Pittsburgh will have the highest realty-transfer tax in Pennsylvania. It’s pretty doubtful that such a statistic will be much of a selling point for newcomers.

Uh-oh. Astute people are starting to get a queasy stomach about what Greater Pittsburgh’s super-duper, hush-hush, none-of-your-business and top-secret bid to lure Amazon’s second headquarters might be.

A business newspaper in Detroit got its hands on part of the Motor City’s bid (which appears to be a quasi-joint bid with adjacent Windsor, Ontario, in Canada).

While the total value of the bid – tax credits and incentives – was redacted, Crain’s Detroit reports Amazon would be eligible to keep all of the state income taxes generated by its employees for 10 years and 50 percent for the following decade.

Additionally, Amazon would not pay real estate taxes for 30 years, in addition to not paying some other city taxes.

The bid of at least one other city had very similar tax-forgiveness provisions. And if it is part and parcel to others, it’s a good bet such forgiveness was part of Amazon’s demands.

There’s a highly technical term for this – giving away the store.

Regional Sky says it will begin nonstop flights between Pittsburgh International Airport and Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport in April.

The airline cites demand for the service.

The Allegheny County Airport Authority, which has made a rather large cottage industry out of paying airlines a public-money premium to entice such “progress,” says it has yet to discuss whether it will pay Regional Sky anything.

Consider that a true Christmas miracle.

That said, if there’s a true demand, public tax dollars should not be part of the equation.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: The chemistry of Christmas

“I asked Santa to bring me a chemistry set this year,” I told my third-grade best friend at Hilltop Elementary School in rural Colerain, Ohio, a few weeks before Christmas 1966.

 

He, the suave-beyond-his-8-years buddy who lived over the hill from me on Sharon Road, flashed a quizzical look but remained silent.

 

“What, you think I’m too little for a chemistry set, don’t you?” retorted I, who also fancied Superman and Davy Crockett outfits that year and more than a few new Matchbox cars.

 

“No, I want one, too,” he said, confessing his equal admiration for the Skil Craft set (but only in the trifold metal case, mind you) that I had found in a catalog. His voice trailed off as he measured carefully in his young mind what his developing reason would force him to blurt out next:

 

“You don’t still believe in Santa Claus, do you?” he asked, getting to the nub of the rub, throwing the niceties of the season (if not my very belief foundation) out the window of the classroom, freshly decorated with paper chains, their links made of alternating green and red construction paper.

 

“Of course I do,” I shot back, with just enough lack of conviction to give me wiggle room if — somehow, some way, O Holy Night — he happened to be right.

 

“So, who do you think brings all those presents?” I asked, in a tone that was a combination of bluff-calling and pumping for the supposed real skinny.

 

“Who do you think?” he mocked what he saw as my naiveté. “It’s your mom and dad and your grandparents and aunts and uncles,” he said with an air of authority trumped only by the real authority, our teacher, calling for all to clean up their desks in advance of the day-ending bell.

 

It was a short but soul-searching bus ride home that afternoon. The coolest kid in the class and my best friend had just shattered my world. No Santa Claus?

 

“Impossible,” I muttered to myself. The proof was everywhere. There was the Santa at the Stone & Thomas department store in nearby Wheeling, W.Va., every Christmas.

 

Most of the things I asked him for were found under the tree every Christmas. Heck, he was even on the local TV channel every Saturday morning and called me — me, personally — his “little apple dumpling.”

 

I called my buddy that night, just after dinner on the red rotary-dial phone that hung on the wall over the desk just off the kitchen, to confront him with the evidence. Mom, finishing the dishes, heard my proofs but also my doubts when, one by one, my friend rebutted my Santa testimonial.

 

“Well, maybe there really isn’t a Santa Claus,” I conceded as the phone call ended.
“You know,” Mom said, “Santa knows where we keep our coal and there’s always a bucket of clinkers next to the furnace … .”

 

Christmas Eve was the longest longest night of the year in 1966. The manger light, left on all night, was brighter than ever. The room was hotter than ever. Sleep, when it came, was fitful. Doubts raged.

 

But morning indeed dawned and, as per usual, the living room was packed with presents. There even was the Skil Craft chemistry set (in the trifold metal box, of course) with a “From Santa” on the name tag.

 

Still, I was skeptical. Until I called my buddy to see what he got for Christmas, that is.
No chemistry set.

 

Proof positive, my 8-year-old mind confidently concluded, that there must be a Santa Claus.

 

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).