The Amazon outrage (& other notes)

Pennsylvania and Allegheny County officials clearly require emergency medical treatment – to screw their heads back on properly.

The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf revealed late Tuesday that the commonwealth pledged $4.6 billion in financial assistance over 25 years to Internet retailing behemoth Amazon to locate its second headquarters (outside Seattle) in the Keystone State.

Let’s do some math here: Amazon was promising $5 billion in investment over two decades to the “winning” bidder.

Who in their right mind would make such an offer and consider it the keystone of an “exciting venture,” as the commonwealth’s proposal worded it.

Worse, the administration says leaders in the state Legislature signed off on the bid. On what planet do Pennsylvania’s mis-representatives live?

State officials rationalize their bid to Amazon as not being tailored solely to Amazon but as being available to any “qualified business” in Pennsylvania. But the taxpayers should not be subsidizing any business.

Amazon announced Tuesday that is has chosen suburban Washington, D.C., and Long Island City, N.Y., for its “split” second headquarters outside of Seattle.

In defiance of the law – a Pennsylvania Office of Open Records smackdown and court affirmation — local officials steadfastly refused to divulge their part of the Amazon bid.

One judge even chided those officials for setting up a shell organization within the Allegheny Conference on Community Development to “launder” the bid out of public view. A Post-Gazette editorial went so far as to say the conference allowed itself to be “prostituted” in promotion of opaque government.

City and county officials are scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday to reveal details of the local bid. But they’re already rationalizing the bid – no existing city or county tax money or revenue would have been employed, they claim – and are waffling on what exactly will be released.

Officials are citing “nondisclosure agreements” with private parties that apparently will not be made public. Damn the public. And damn the judge who ordered the Amazon bid, in toto, to be made public.

The first casualty of Greater Pittsburgh’s Amazon HQ2 experience has been open government. The fact that public officials used public money to hide from the public the public’s business is a very sad chapter and one the public should not soon forget.

But the other casualty is the continuing ignorance of city, county and state officials who are recidivist perverters of sound economics and anything resembling good public policy.

A+ Schools, the local education and advocacy group, is out with its latest assessment of Pittsburgh Public Schools. And it’s not good.

Among the simply stunning findings, as reported by the Post-Gazette — 46 percent of the district’s high school students miss at least two days of school per month. Shockingly, that’s up 5 percent since 2016.

Furthermore, an astounding 76 percent of students in sixth through eighth grade are not performing at grade level in math. Seventy-six percent.

The Allegheny Institute repeatedly has documented the failings of the Pittsburgh Public Schools over the past two decades. Part and parcel to those failings has been the repeated and flaccid efforts to supposedly fix the district’s chronic problems.

As Jake Haulk, the think tank’s president-emeritus and senior advisor, put in May 2017 (in Policy Brief Vol. 17, No. 21), in response to the district announcing its latest remediation effort:

“The prospect of substantially improving overall student performance while also closing the wide racial achievement gap (between black and white students) is daunting at best.

“But before the (school) board and superintendent do anything they should look at all the failed programs and previous strategies that have been announced with so much fanfare and at a cost of untold millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of employees’ time.”

The Post-Gazette had some harsh words in a Tuesday editorial for Pittsburgh’s Penguins, Pirates and Steelers — heavily subsidized professional sports franchises — that apparently feel so underappreciated that they produced a dubious economic impact study to “prove” their value.

“The sports teams are far from model citizens and bragging about their economic development numbers won’t change that,” the P-G opines.

The study was released as the Allegheny County Regional Asset District board prepares to rubber stamp an $800,000 appropriation for 2019 to augment a fund that can be used for upgrades to PPG Paints Arena, PNC Park and Heinz Field. The appropriation is expected to be approved year after year.

The franchises have been stung by criticism that taxpayers have subsidized the barons of sport enough, what with the public continuing to pay off construction bonds for facilities that voters rejected in 1997.

The editorial notes that “independent experts (have) questioned the accuracy of the numbers.” As has the Allegheny Institute (in Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 42).

Jake Haulk concluded “the study is not convincing” given that no methodology or hard numbers were included and that ancillary disparaging comments made by those associated with the franchises hardly are becoming.

The P-G editorial’s headline notes that “Pittsburgh’s sports teams want respect but could do more to earn it.”

No longer putting their hands out and grunting “Gimme!” would be the best place to start.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

A public constantly played for suckers

A blistering editorial in Investor’s Business Daily (IBD) takes to task cities that bid for the Internet retailing giant Amazon’s second headquarters.

It notes that government “efforts to bribe businesses” with all manner of public subsidies “don’t do taxpayers, or state economies, any good.”

“A study by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that states offered a total of $45 billion in various types of business incentives, but the incentive deals didn’t correlate with ‘current or past unemployment or income levels, or with future economic growth.’”

Or, more simply, put: “The deals themselves rarely live up to the hype, and typically cost a fortune for each job created.”

IBD also reminds that the “tax-incentive game is … hugely unfair to existing businesses,” noting, as one example, how Michigan spends almost as much in tax incentives as it brings in through corporate income taxes.

“That means that most businesses in the state are, in effect, subsidizing the lucky few,” the business newspaper says.

It all boils down to this fundamental premise that pols and supposed public policy “experts” refuse to accept:

“State governments would do their taxpayers and their economies much better if, instead of offering up special tax breaks for a select few big companies, they cut taxes across the board and created a climate that was welcoming to all business, big and small,” the IBD editorial reiterated.

That is, stopping this inane (if not insane) practice of, with great hubris, insisting they can pick winners but only perverting the marketplace, molesting taxpayer pockets and assaulting with impunity the basic tenets of economics.

Of course, that’s obviously too much to ask of such recidivist manipulators and interventionists. Witness a recent Post-Gazette story detailing another proposed Amazon subsidy that, likely for many, flew under the radar.

The newspaper recounts that in 2016, with Amazon pledging to expand its fulfillment and distribution operations at multiple new sites in Pennsylvania, the commonwealth pledged $22.25 million in taxpayer subsidies.

Amazon had promised 5,000 full-time jobs and investments of at least $150 million over three years.

But as the P-G’s Mark Belko reports, it was a year ago, “just before Amazon would set off an economic development arms race for a second headquarters that Pennsylvania officials have eagerly chased, the Seattle retailer quietly pulled out of an earlier deal to expand distribution space here.”

No taxpayer “incentives” – a combination of a grant, tax credits and employee training funding – ever were disbursed.

But it yet again raises the question why Amazon, an incredibly profitable concern – or any company, for that matter – should be given a leg up by stepping in taxpayer pockets.

Speaking of diving into the public’s pockets, it’s been a year since the Allegheny County Airport Authority cut an incredibly dubious deal to pay Qatar Airways a million dollars-plus to establish cargo service out of Pittsburgh International Airport.

So, where’s the report on first-year results?

At last report, the results had been hilariously bad. But there’s nothing hilarious about this deal – which, incredibly, incentivizes Qatar to fail.

There certainly hasn’t been much happy talk of late; certainly nothing like a year ago when this “deal” first was announced.

“It’s a game-changer for the region,” Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis told the media in September 2017.

“We’re definitely going to use it as a recruiting tool,” she also said. “This benefits the region in a big way.”

“This goes way beyond the airport,” she added 14 months ago.

Well, let’s see the full-year results. Let’s see if it was, as one consultant put it then, a “real coup” for Pittsburgh.

By the way, this same consultant is the same one who, also in September 2017, said the Qatar Airways deal “puts Pittsburgh on the map” and says “someone is pretty savvy in the way they do business (who) thinks this is a good place for international logistics operations.”

“Someone is voting with their feet and pocketbook to do this,” the same consultant said.

If, one supposes, it is savvy for a foreign airline to play Pittsburgh airport officials for suckers. And, indeed, Qatar officials did vote with a pocketbook to do this deal – the public’s.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

Amazon bid secrecy defiles ‘public policy’

A Post-Gazette story wonders if cities such as Pittsburgh – which appears to be out of the running for Amazon’s headquarters expansion plans – “should … feel short-changed.”

After all, the city and Allegheny County, if not the entire region, incurred great expense – in time, labor and money (though the exact amount remains unknown to the public) – to create its Amazon bid.

When it comes to the erstwhile Steel City, at least, the answer should be a resounding “YES! We have been short-changed!”

But it’s certainly not for the reasons the P-G highlighted.

The story is well told (if not growing long in the tooth) how more than 200 American cities pledged public dollars and resources to the extraordinarily wealthy Seattle retailing giant hoping to lure tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment.

One general thrust of the Post-Gazette story is that Amazon likely had a pre-ordained short list of new headquarters sites and that areas the size of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area really never stood a chance.

Never mind that “more than 400 stakeholders collaborated in the bidding effort and a new entity – PGHQ2 – was formed to lead the charge … ,” the P-G details.

So, “Was it all an exercise in futility?” the newspaper asks.

For sound public policy it certainly was.

For truth from elected and appointed public leaders it certainly was.

Think of the subterfuges employed by public officials doing the public’s bidding – especially the formation of PGHQ2, a shell entity within the Allegheny Conference on Community Development that at least one judge concluded was created to circumvent the public’s right to know.

Think, too, of the untold thousands of dollars still being expended by “public servants” to abuse the legal system and tie up the courts to appeal multiple rulings that Greater Pittsburgh’s Amazon bid is the definition of a public record.

Surely, those public officials involved in this machination-filled process must believe, as author Alexander Pope wrote in 1732, that “The public is a fool.”

Or is it, as Nicolas Chamfort wrote in 1785: “The public! The public! How many fools are needed to make the public!”

Maybe Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials believe, as William Hazlitt wrote in 1821, that “The public is pusillanimous and cowardly because it is weak. It knows itself to be a great dunce and that it has no opinion but upon suggestion.”

It could be, that in typical government fashion, those who promulgated Greater Pittsburgh’s Amazon bid and seek to hide it still from the public simply don’t think too much of those who, in reality, are their bosses.

Or as H.G. Bohn put it in 1855: “He who serves the public hath but a scurvy master.”

Then there are these pithy assessments:

From John Ruskin in 1865: “The public is just a great baby.”

From W.H. Vanderbilt in 1882: “The public be damned.”

From Oscar Wilde in 1891: “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”

That is, government thinks it knows best and believes it should be the arbiter of what the public should know.

Indeed, “the public” has a never-ending responsibility in promoting good governance. As John Stuart Mill reminded (in “Representative Government” from 1861):

“Government consists of acts done by human beings; and if … those who choose the agents, or those to whom the agents are responsible, or the lookers-on whose opinion ought to influence and check all these, are mere masses of ignorance (and) stupidity, every operation of government will go wrong.”

Consider the continuing actions of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials to keep the Amazon bid secret an attempt to keep the masses ignorant. And that’s nothing more than public policy malpractice – and government gone wrong.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

Another hustle rejected & strong words

Allegheny County voters saw through the hustle that was the “Allegheny County Children’s Fund” in Tuesday’s election.

By a 52-48 percent ratio, the electorate turned back an attempt to raise the property tax by a quarter mill to stock an $18 million to $19 million annual account to pay for loosely defined programs for kids.

The proposed fund was problematic on a number of levels – from no credible study undertaken to establish the success or failure of current programs or to address possible duplication, to the fact that many existing providers weren’t even consulted, to the overriding fact that asking taxpayers to buy a pig in a poke loomed large.

Taxpayers were asked to approve the tax hike now with the promise of responsible enabling legislation later. What on earth could go wrong with that scenario, eh?

And then there’s the abuse of the amendment process of the county Home Rule Charter. As Allegheny Institute scholars noted (in Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 40), “Special funds should be created and funding should be done through the legislative process so they can be deleted or amended without a subsequent charter amendment.”

And there’s another issue that needs a thorough airing in this attempted hustle:

Campaign finance reports show nonprofits raised the bulk of the money used to promote the ballot issues – nearly $1 million all told. As of late October, they had spent more than $856,000, the Post-Gazette reported.

Additionally, PNC Bank contributed $75,000 to the effort.

As more than a few observers have noted, those contributing to the campaign might well have been direct beneficiaries of the proposal had it passed. Backers insisted their organizations would have seen no direct financial gain.

But that doesn’t mean the issue is moot. Those organizations, collectively, now are out nearly $1 million – a million dollars that most assuredly would have been better spent on the children they so professed they wanted to aid with their property tax hike.

As for PNC, no doubt its money would have been better spent donated to one or more of the many existing programs that already help children.

There are a number of powerful lines in a Post-Gazette editorial chastising City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials for their continued perverse efforts to hide from the public the public’s business.

They bear worth repeating here as John and Jane Q. Taxpayer are left to wonder how much of their money these governments hung like carrots from a stick attempting to lure Amazon to the region.

The first:

“This is rotten government that undermines the work so many others are doing to move Pittsburgh forward.”

The second:

“PGHQ2 is nothing but a front through which (Pittsburgh Mayor Bill) Peduto and (Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich) Fitzgerald have attempted to launder public documents out of public view.”

The third:

“It’s shameful that the conference,” that being the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, of which PGHQ2 is an arm, “has prostituted itself for this purpose.”

As noted previously in this space, such collusion in pursuit of such skulduggery isn’t merely a matter of bad public policy, it raises serious ethical questions that warrant an appropriate review by ethics overseers.

For public policy certainly never is served by anyone who works so shamefully to subvert the public’s right to know.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director for the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

 

A court exposes an Amazon collusion

No one should be surprised that City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials say they will appeal a Common Pleas Court ruling that the region’s bid for Amazon’s “HQ2” obviously is a matter of public record.

After all, by means they deem fair — but those repeatedly found to be afoul of the law — these officials long have been hell-bent on keeping from the public how much public money has been pledged to the uber-profitable online retailing behemoth to locate its second headquarters outside of Seattle in Greater Pittsburgh.

And they keep spending ever more public money to keep pressing their dubious defense.

But there’s a whooper of a nugget in Senior Judge W. Terrence O’Brien’s no-punches-pulled ruling from last week that raises serious public policy ethical questions about those seeking to perpetuate this cloak of secrecy.

As the Post-Gazette reminded in a Thursday dispatch, city and county attorneys “also maintained the proposal was exempt from release because it contained confidential proprietary information and trade secrets offered by PGHQ2, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development arm set up to submit the region’s bid.”

But Judge O’Brien proved he’s not the rube who just fell off the turnip truck that city, county and conference leaders believe taxpayers to be.

The judge noted that Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman told the court she did not know if city and county officials approved of PGHQ2’s supposedly independent submission to Amazon.

But O’Brien found that not only Pashman but also Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald signed the cover letter attached to the Amazon bid. In fact, they were the only signatories.

And what might such a finding of fact more than suggest? That Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and Allegheny Conference officials colluded to establish a shell organization in an attempt to circumvent the commonwealth’s Right-To-Know Law.

As the judge also noted, PGHQ2 has no employees, Peduto and Fitzgerald’s chiefs of staff were considered members of the board of managers and attended board meetings during their city/county work hours, the P-G reported.

Most reasonable people would call that what it was – a subterfuge in prosecution of a sham.

Such behavior — which should be ripe for review by city and county ethics overseers, if not the state Attorney General’s Office — has no place in the execution of public policy.

And do remember, the city and county, after the deadline for briefs in the matter had passed, sent a private letter to the judge seeking redactions from its 300-page Amazon bid should he rule as he did Wednesday last. He rejected that request.

It’s pretty clear that city, county and conference officials, in the name of acting for the public benefit, acted against it. And that’s shameful behavior by those claiming to be “public servants.”

Allegheny County voters will be asked to raise their property taxes by a quarter-mill in Tuesday’s election to create the innocuous-sounding “Children’s Fund.”

Never mind that it is ill-conceived, a perversion of the county Home Rule Charter’s amendment process. Never mind that it is ill-defined, filled with generic feel-good programs. And never mind that how the money will be administered and applied would be settled only after voters agree to have their pockets picked.

Even the Post-Gazette has urged, in an editorial, that voters reject this referendum, calling it a “flawed approach.”  But that editorial came with its own public policy flaw.

While it properly derides that the draft enabling legislation prepared by proponents would bar county officials from ever lowering the tax rate, it laments that the measure would not allow those same officials to “reallocate the proceeds for other purposes, such as paving roads.”

History, of course, is instructive in this matter.

Two decades ago, public officials perverted the intent of the Regional Asset District’s piggyback sales tax to serve as the primary financing vehicles for two new North Shore stadiums — despite the electorate’s resounding defeat of “The Stadiums Tax.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Indefensible defense of ‘Government Water’

The provision of “water is far too important to leave to the ups and downs of the marketplace or place in the hands of private investors looking to make a buck,” writes Joseph Sabino Mistick in his weekly Tribune-Review column of Oct. 20.

Really, Joe?

Now, first, in the interest of full disclosure, I edited Joe’s column for nearly 20 years as the Trib’s director of editorial pages. And Joe, a former Pittsburgh deputy mayor under Sophie Masloff, was a joy to edit.

Indeed, his viewpoints were not conservative. But, and backed by the discipline of this law professor’s legal writings, he expressed them in a scholarly fashion and with clarity.

I seldom agreed with his public policy viewpoints. But as Joe would be the first to tell his friends, neither did I ever reject any of his columns. Not one. After all, the Trib’s old Opinion & Commentary section (later redubbed The Review) was designed as a clearinghouse for myriad viewpoints.

But Joe’s nod-nod, wink-wink ode to Government Water (while dismissing privatization) whistles past the graveyard of what the troubled Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) long was – a cesspool of government-enabled corruption, a training ground for the study of political machinations and a textbook case of public dis-service.

Oh, indeed, Mistick refers to the PWSA’s “aging system, customer-relations failures and lead in service lines.” But that skims over the true Tammany Hall nature of what the authority long was.

Mistick sees 2017 legislation that necessarily placed the PWSA under the auspices of the state Public Utility Commission as the right and proper prescription to turn around the authority, a move that should forever discount any talk of a private takeover.

And he also whistles past the facts inconvenient to his defense of Government Water, namely that privatized water is the norm, not the exception, for most Western Pennsylvanians.

But what marketplace “ups and downs” and what “private investors looking to make a buck” have impinged on the ready and affordable provision of water in Greater Pittsburgh?

And do remember, as Mistick appears to conveniently not mention, that even private companies responsible for the provision of “public” water operate under state Public Utility Commission oversight.

Those salient facts unstated, Mistick argues further:

“Basic business practices – charging more and spending less to maximize profits – have been part of our economic growth, and they are legitimate tactics for private companies,” he states. “But, when used to manage essential infrastructure, they can work against us.”

But it’s that very lack of basic business practices – coupled with decades of government schemes, tricks, ruses and wiles that sent the PWSA to the precipice of an astoundingly tall cliff.

And, what, damn the profit motive that gives a private company the incentive to make its infrastructure work and – hold the phone! – serve its customers?

The marketplace quickly, and efficiently, will dispatch with private entities failing in their charge to provide a public service.

That can’t be said for government because “government efficiency” is an oxymoron and too many in government, and acolytes for it, believe markets do not, or should not, apply to government-delivered services.

After all, there’s always a tax trough to which government operatives can belly up.

Mistick opened his defense of Government Water with a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Water is the driving force of all nature.” That’s why he says it’s far too important to be “left to the marketplace” or those nasty purveyors of profit.

But here’s another quote to consider, from Shakespeare: “Honest water ne’er left man in the mire.”

At least as the PWSA experience shows, “honest water” has been difficult to come by. And the “mire” it has left customers in is a sad, sad part of Pittsburgh’s storied history.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Panning another RAD shakedown

The Allegheny County Regional Asset District (RAD) board is expected to formally approve its 2019 budget at the end of November. Part of that budget is to include $800,000 to augment a fund that pays for improvements at Heinz Field, PNC Park, PPG Paints Arena and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

There are indications that this would become a recurring line item year after year for these facilities, owned by the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, supposedly “on behalf” of a public that already has spent millions to build and maintain them.

The additional dive into taxpayer pockets – the money to come from proceeds from the county’s piggyback RAD sales tax — has raised plenty of eyebrows.

After all, multiple millions of public dollars were used to construct these facilities. In the case of the baseball and football stadiums, elected leaders spared no machinations in bypassing taxpayers who, in 1997, rejected the use of tax dollars for such projects. The public continues to pay off the lion’s share of the construction costs.

And the Steelers and the Pirates must be feeling the heat of skeptics – the Allegheny Institute among them – who’ve panned this latest money grab. For the franchises, along with the Penguins, have released summaries of two studies they commissioned that, they say, prove their economic value to Greater Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette reported in a lengthy story/analysis on Sunday.

Summaries, mind you, not the actual studies. And, to that end, apparently based on proprietary information not available to the general public.

Unfortunately for the barons of sport – but fortunately for taxpayers – the studies (or at least the summaries by the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers and GumGum Sports) are roundly rebutted, if not outright refuted, by other experts the P-G had the good sense to contact.

While the story quotes top officials from all three sports franchises touting how the public investments in the stadiums “are paying big dividends,” as Steelers President Art Rooney II put it, the newspaper reminds “it’s not hard to find economists who question the value sports teams truly bring.”

That’s because that value long has been sorely overstated. In fact, University of Chicago sports economist Alan Sanderson tells the newspaper that, in general, 90 percent of the numbers generated by teams and tourism bureaus to show their value are “probably exaggerated.”

Then there’s this simply precious quote from Temple University economics professor Michael Leeds:

“The rule of thumb is that a baseball team is worth” to the economy “what a decent-sized department store is worth. Football and hockey are worth progressively less,” he said, adding a kicker that surely he had no idea is a kicker:

“Would you be willing to spend millions of dollars to keep Macy’s?”

Cue the laugh track. You’ll recall that Pittsburgh officials tried just that 20 years ago with Lazarus and Lord & Taylor. Both, of course, were predictable public policy failures.

The P-G even quotes former PNC Financial Services boss Jim Rohr, who says the presence of the professional sports teams was a big part of the banking giant’s decision to invest heavily in Pittsburgh.

With the help, of course, of a not mentioned $48 million in public subsidies to get the PNC ball rolling.

And the panning of the sports facilities’ economic impact goes on and on in an article that truly is a devastating reiteration of such flawed economic analyses. And, again, that based only on summaries.

Not mentioned in the Post-Gazette’s in-depth look is the Allegheny Institute’s September white paper (Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 34) that documented how the Steelers – and it also applies to the Pirates – paid no rent in the first decade of its lease at Heinz Field. A wide-ranging and ridiculous number of credits were given that offset millions of dollars in lease payments.

Talk about sweetheart deal-making.

Neither is it mentioned how all three franchises were handed development rights to the expanses of property around their taxpayer-funded homes. That has led to architecturally unimaginative, cookie-cutter development between Heinz Field and PNC Park and a long delay in development on the old Civic Arena site.

Back to late November’s RAD board vote:

As Frank Gamrat, this think tank’s executive director, puts it, “It’s a travesty for an organization (such as the Steelers) with an average pay in the millions of dollars that has been a huge beneficiary of taxpayer generosity to be asking for more tax dollars.”

Time and time again, the barons of sport — their bottom lines enriched by public coffers — have overstated their economic impact. We supposedly should thank them for their sparking economic development that they overstate and, oh, they claim, they deserve more public money to keep the smoke machine going.

Stung by public skepticism and scholarly scolding, the barons do so again in advance of what’s expected to be the RAD board’s rubber-stamping of this latest ignoble foray into the public purse.

More truly is the pity.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

Public policy object lessons

Mass-transit expert Christof Spieler gives the Port Authority of Allegheny County “good marks overall,” the Post-Gazette reports.

As the newspaper put it last week:

“Mr. Spieler especially praised the frequency of bus service and the exclusive busways that serve neighborhoods in the east, west and south for getting riders to their destinations quickly. But he urged Port Authority to improve branding for busway trips so riders can identify them easier, something the agency is looking at on a system-wide basis.”

Spieler did pan the authority for riders having to pay for transfers and a confusing system of when and where to pay fares.

But there was no mention of the Port Authority’s extraordinarily high cost to provide bus service (second only to New York City) or the dubious North Short Connector – from its serious cost-overruns during construction to the fact that to entice commuters to use it, it could not charge fares on that leg and, at last report, doesn’t even bother to measure ridership.

Turns out “good marks overall” is a far more subjective measure for this expert than one objective.

Another transit guru, Jarrett Walker (speaking in Pittsburgh last week during a transit conference, as did Spieler), calls “cars ‘an instrument of tyranny’ in cities because they create traffic jams that limit freedom,” the P-G also reports.

Apparently, Walker’s never been stuck behind a long line of buses in downtown Pittsburgh during rush hour. Ahem.

Further, Walker offers:

“There are only so many cars that fit in the street. Transportation planning is freedom planning. If you can’t go places, you can’t do things. It’s about what you will be able to do with your life.”

But there also are only so many buses that fit in the street, no matter if they are packed, partially populated or empty.

Walker added that a rigid, fixed-route transit system still is best:

“It’s a good thing it is rigid,” he said. “We can learn it and navigate it.”

Never mind that those “tyrannical” cars can go places that many buses don’t – such as getting people to the grocery store or, imagine this, to work.

Or, as Walker put it: “If you can’t go places, you can’t do things. It’s about what you will be able to do with your life.”

Can we get a double “ahem”?

From the email inbox:

A letter writer sees the Nov. 6 ballot referendum asking Allegheny County taxpayers to create a “Children’s Fund,” paid for by an increase in property taxes. “as being very ill advised.”

So does the Allegheny Institute (in Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 40).

“Raising taxes in Allegheny County will be just one more reason for people to leave Allegheny County,” he continued.

“It boils down to establishing a fund of approximately $18 million per year and my reaction to this is: ‘And what could possibly go wrong with this?’”

Considering voters will be asked to first raise their taxes with absolutely no idea how such an ill-conceived fund will be administered, plenty could go wrong.

For as another letter-writer put it, this time in the Tribune-Review:

“Once again, taxpayers are being asked to finance another government-sanctioned program. It is difficult to identify any cost-efficient and performance-correlated government program, especially one where the funding is guaranteed and non-reversible” (as per one proposed version of the enabling legislation that would be required to implement the ‘Children’s Fund’).

“Therefore, it is the best interest of those being tasked with paying the bill … to vote ‘no’ on this (home rule charter) amendment.”

The letter-writer proffers quite sound advice.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

‘The Children’s Fund’: A dubious ballot question

Allegheny County voters will be asked to buy a pig in a poke on Nov. 6, one that very well could end up subsidizing pigs in clover.

Now, just in case some of you aren’t familiar with the double pig reference:

A “pig in a poke” is a blind “bargain” that’s no bargain at all – the product of sleights of rhetoric that underlie an overriding deception.

“Pigs in clover” is, in the macro, a reference to people who have money but don’t know how to behave decently. Or, in the micro sense of when it comes to public servants given ill-defined or carte blanche charge over a bolus of public money, acting with plenty of subterfuge.

Which brings us back to next month’s ballot issue asking county voters to adopt something called the “Children’s Fund.” As expected, it has come with a slick sales pitch — the proverbial being “for the children.”

Here’s the question Allegheny County voters will see (brought to the ballot by voter petition):

“Shall the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter be amended to establish the Allegheny County Children’s Fund, funded by Allegheny County levying and collecting an additional 0.25 mills, the equivalent of $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value, on all taxable real estate, beginning in January 2019, and thereafter, to be used to improve the well-being of children through the provision of services throughout the County to include early childhood learning, after-school programs and nutritious meals?”

The primary problem with this ballot question is two-fold:

First, the verbiage is so expansive as to be corruptible. Consider the phrase “well-being of children.” That, in and of itself, could be hijacked to mean virtually anything. (Think of how federal lawmakers routinely have employed the phrase “general welfare” to promulgate all manner of unjustified spending.)

But, second, even when “well-being of children” is paired with “to include early childhood learning, after-school programs and nutritious meals,” serious questions arise.

Given that “early childhood learning” has a notorious reputation for being benefit-less, will this effort be anything more than glorified, taxpayer-funded babysitting? Whose “after-school programs”? New ones? In augmentation of existing ones? Styled how?

Then there are those “nutritious meals.” Breakfasts? Lunches? Dinners? All three? New, and possibly duplicative, programs or in concert with the many existing efforts?

That said, the ballot issue allows for the inclusion of the aforementioned loosely defined programs while excluding, well, nothing.

Proponents of the “Children’s Fund” say all that will begin to be addressed with enabling legislation that Allegheny County Council must pass – if, that is, voters adopt what, boiled down, is pretty much a blank check for abuse.

But even sample enabling legislation proffered by proponents is unclear about who really will run this thing. It calls for the county manager to “supervise” the fund with, by ordinance, an “advisory commission” to be chosen – by whom, their number, their terms to be decided – to make program recommendations.

Additionally, the prototype enabling legislation bars, among others, anyone serving on the advisory board from having contracts with the fund.

But shouldn’t there also be a prohibition of the covey of nonprofit organizations who bankrolled this initiative from receiving contracts? If there’s not, it’s a horrible conflict of interest, as one blogger notes.

As others have noted, voters are, based on the referendum language, being asked to approve a property tax hike that will create an annual fund of between $18 million and $19 million to support generic feel-good efforts.

Trust us, the proponents are saying; details to come. No thanks.

Elected county and city public officials haven’t exactly been falling over themselves campaigning for this referendum. In fact, county Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald has expressly criticized the attempt to raise property taxes to do so.

(That said, he did tell KDKA-TV that an extraction tax on shale gas would be a better funding source. Sorry, but no.)

Other public officials have questioned the vacuum in which the proposal was hatched, with little or no consultation and with little or no regard for existing local, state and federal efforts.

Other critics have assailed the proposed tax hike as hardly being the “grassroots effort” portrayed by proponents but rather the work of paid, professional signature-gatherers doing the bidding of those looking to increase their power base.

Here’s the bottom line:

On Nov. 6, Allegheny County voters will be asked to raise their property taxes to produce a multimillion-dollar kitty of money to pay for programs inadequately defined and with no need documented by any kind of credible study.

It is the definition of a pig in a poke. And, as presented, taxpayers have no business financing such clover for the poke’s pigs.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Shameless & sad

Not content with using the basic appeal process in an attempt to further delay the public release of Greater Pittsburgh’s “incentive” bid to secure Amazon’s second headquarters outside of Seattle, the Post-Gazette reports on some squirrelly legal machinations by the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials to keep clearly public information hush-hush.

An attorney for WTAE-TV – which previously secured a ruling from the state Office of Open Records that the bid for “HQ2” should be made public – tells the newspaper that city and county officials sent a private letter to the judge considering the appeal seeking certain redactions should he affirm the agency’s ruling.

As WTAE attorney Ravi V. Sitwala tells it, public officials sent the private letter to Judge W. Terrence O’Brien after the deadline had passed for briefs to be filed in the matter – thus, unfairly denying the TV station and others involved in the case the ability to respond.

Sitwala, in a letter of his own to O’Brien complaining of the tactic, reminded that the city and county had “consistently refused to identify particular information in the proposal as subject to redaction.”

“Petitioners should not now be permitted to change their legal position – should the court find, consistent with the evidence, that the proposal is not covered by any of the cited [right-to-know law] exemptions in its entirety, it should order the entire proposal disclosed consistent with the petitioners’ chosen all-or-nothing approach,” the attorney wrote to the judge.

And the public, of course, is paying for all this nonsense.

This by-hook-or-by-crook behavior by public officials is shameless. It more than suggests they believe the odds are that the judge will reject their secrecy and affirm the initial state Office of Open Records ruling.

And their Hail Mary tactic should leave a very bad taste in the mouths of taxpayers into whose pockets these officials always are eager to dive – the very same taxpayers who have the audacity to demand transparency.

An interesting correspondence from reader Karen M. Johnson, a former Pennsylvania educator now living in Nebraska:

“I read your article this morning on school consolidation. Pennsylvania was my home for 30 years and where I was educated in the public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“I am now a retired educator (teacher, counselor, principal, superintendent) and have worked in several states across the country, most recently in Western Nebraska. Having lived through consolidation in Nebraska, my experience and opinion is that most legislative movements toward efficiency, when dealing with such a people-centric business as education, do not work.

“Efficiency as a solution just does not work well with people business. The farther one gets from local control and partnership (the ideal would be individual school building control), the more disengaged one gets and loss of quality usually follows.

“If one thinks of schools as an extension of parenting, does it make sense for the “school parents” to be in a centralized location and distanced from the actual parent and family?

“Children do best when they know and feel that their family and teachers are working closely together to support them. Decisions made in the interest of the child become less possible and certainly more bureaucratically entangled when they are made from a consolidated location and not at the building or district level.

“I would love for the U.S. Department of Education to be dissolved. Things have gone downhill under (its) guidance since the 1970s.”

In a follow-up email, Johnson — who grew up in Malvern, Pa., a village west of Valley Forge (and with family still in Harrisburg) — noted that her teaching “career spanned Ohio, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Nebraska in public and private schools.”

“When we were fighting the state of Nebraska against closing the state’s small, country schools (at the time Nebraska had more small, one-to-three-room schoolhouses than any state in the country), I was told by a friend in the Legislature that their interest was in having every school district a certain number of miles from I-80 (highway which runs east-west through Nebraska) for the sake of efficiency.

“Sigh,” Johnson concluded.

But one respectful point of order is required here:

In loco parentis, the long-recognized legal doctrine that educators have, by proxy, certain responsibilities for students in their charge, is one thing.

But what a sad commentary it is that such a proviso rooted in English common law has been so bent, folded, stapled and mutilated that too many believe schools, as a matter of sound public policy, should be an “extension of parenting.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).