Back in the early 1990s the state Legislature granted Allegheny County authority to establish a Regional Asset District (RAD) and to impose a one percent County add-on sales tax to fund the district. The County Commissioners quickly voted to do so. There was no referendum asking the voters to approve the tax. This outrage was not repeated when it came to the plans to impose a sales tax for stadiums in 1997. That tax was roundly defeated by the voters and in all likelihood so would the RAD tax have been if it had been put to the voters.
But it is the law and the RAD tax has been collected for 18 years funding all sorts of things including new stadiums and propping up the Civic Arena. It was used to fund the Pittsburgh Development Fund that helped underwrite such memorable debacles as the Lazarus Department store. The Pittsburgh Schools also received a dollop of the tax revenue but that is now being sent to the City.
Now we have the spectacle of the RAD board approving $3 million for the Port Authority (PAT) to help fund the County’s matching contribution in order to receive additional state funds to fill a $64 million dollar deficit at PAT. Note that reserves had to be tapped to get the $3 million. Of course that means some other applicants or potential applicants could have gotten more money if the dollars were not going to PAT.
And why does PAT need the RAD money in the first place? In brief, because the state Legislature and the Governors over the years have done a remarkably inept job at controlling PAT by giving it a monopoly in the County and then giving the union employees the right to strike-something only three states permit. The right to strike a mass transit system is the most powerful bargaining chip any union can hold. Just the threat of a strike sends management into flights of terror and riders into paroxysms of anxiety about they will get to work. Businesses then join the chorus of pleading to give the union what it wants. Anything but a strike. So using the kryptonite equivalent of a bargaining advantage the unions have been able to extract one of the best, if not the best, compensation package and union favoring work rules in the nation.
Thus it was that PAT became an extraordinarily expensive transit operation, inefficient and destined to go bankrupt. If only state law would permit bankruptcy of PAT-which unfortunately it does not. So for a decade or more PAT kept sliding deeper into the ravine of financial chaos only to be temporarily bailed out again and again by the Governor riding to the rescue with highway money to fill the budget holes. Only this time, the hole was too big for the state to fill by itself. After all, the state is not flush with cash lying around to be redirected to PAT. Moreover, there are many in the Legislature from other parts of the state who are repulsed by the idea of tossing more of their constituents’ tax dollars at the outrageously expensive and inefficient PAT.
In this latest iteration of asking for state money, the Governor was far less generous than previous Governors and forced the County, the unions and the management to come up with a big chunk of the $64 million projected deficit. Of course the union share was a pittance relative to their share of the cost structure. The County, to raise its share, went immediately to the pot of money at RAD, asking for $3 million a year for ten years. The argument being that transit is too important to allow the major cuts that could be required if the state money is not forthcoming.
Dutifully, the RAD board agreed to hand over $3 million, no doubt under enormous pressure from the County Exec, PAT board members and the business community.
There it is. In short, the Legislature allows the County to create a revenue stream with one hand and then gives a "take all you want card" to the transit workers union with the other hand. Guess what was inevitable as the robins in spring? Eventually, the RAD money bags would be tapped for PAT. And so it goes.
At the very least the Legislature should have prohibited RAD money from being used to fund entities other than educational, recreational or cultural. There are some who will say this grab of RAD dollars for PAT could not have been foreseen. But they would be wrong.