Tom Murphy’s ‘rehabilitation’?
“I’ve been rehabilitated,” Tom Murphy quipped, wryly, on Thursday after receiving the ceremonial “key to the city,” considered the highest civilian honor that Pittsburgh government can bestow.
The question, of course, is: Why?
Murphy, the city’s 57th mayor, left office 13 years ago after serving for a dozen years (1994-2006). But he left a public policy “legacy” that, overall, is neither worthy of praise nor emulation.
During the key presentation ceremony (the oversized key in a box given by Mayor Bill Peduto), Murphy lamented that “Virtually everything we tried do to, people opposed.”
As if that opposition, based on sound economics (if not economics morality) wasn’t warranted. For so many of Murphy’s proposals were the exemplar of poor, bad and simply lousy public policy.
When, in 1997, voters in 11 Southwestern Pennsylvania counties overwhelmingly rejected “The Stadiums Tax,” it was Murphy who thumbed his nose at the “people.” He hatched the plan that packed the Regional Asset District (RAD) board to divert multiple millions of taxpayer dollars to build the barons of sport new play palaces.
Between the thumping at the polls and the RAD end-around, Murphy mocked the public over stealth legislation in Harrisburg that would have funded the projects. The same “people” he derided did what thinking people do best – they demanded the measure be killed. And it was.
Nonetheless, the public continues to pay to this day. And in ways it never imagined. As the Allegheny Institute recently noted, sweetheart leases allow the Pirates and Steelers to offset lease payments for a litany of “deductions” that defy credulity.
Murphy also fancied himself as a command economist – waving a magic wand that dispensed taxpayer gold to “rebuild” downtown Pittsburgh as only a hubris-filled pol could. His marquee failure — $50 million in public dollars to build Lazarus a new Downtown department store. It went belly-up in five years.
Another Murphy scheme, to effectively bulldoze a large swath of Downtown for a publicly funded retail Mecca, never got off the ground. Thank goodness.
And all of this only scratches the surface of Murphy’s temerity.
Yet, in Thursday’s ceremony, Murphy’s trademark hubris again got the best of him, intimating that the majority of those who opposed his schemes, his end-arounds and his subterfuges of 20 years ago now have come to see the proverbial light.
“What happens after 12 years or 10 years or whatever it is, is that people sort of see the results. If they connect me to it at all, they sort of give me some credit for starting it.”
It’s further proof that hubris, fueled by ignorance, leads to historical impudence.
Indeed, Tom Murphy’s entire record is not cringe-worthy. After all, he did begin to take steps to address Pittsburgh’s chronic fiscal mess (though some would argue he had no choice). And he did take the long overdue step of slashing the city’s payroll.
But, on net, the Murphy years should serve as an object lesson in how not to devise or prosecute public policy. And in how not to disrespect the public’s intelligence. Those who seek to “rehabilitate” Murphy’s image only prove that they have failed to learn the lessons that Murphy’s mayoralty should have taught them.
That Murphy actually believes he has been “rehabilitated” more than suggests he still doesn’t get it – and that he likely never will.
Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (firstname.lastname@example.org).