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Bratting Practice

Falling populations, falling mascots, and other random thoughts

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Tell you what: If you don't ask me to write an entire column devoted to a coherent theme, I won't ask you to read one. Then we can both go out for drinks instead. Deal?

• According to the Census Bureau, Pittsburgh lost an estimated 6,665 people between 2000 and 2002. That's a drop of nearly 2 percent of its population in just two years. To put that figure in some context, Erie is doing a better job of holding onto people than Pittsburgh is: The Tool City has lost only 1.5 percent of its population since 2000. Maybe instead of building new department stores Downtown, Mayor Tom Murphy should have been copying the amenities Erie has. By spawning zebra mussels in the rivers, perhaps.

• Not coincidentally, Pittsburgh is facing a $60 million deficit, and for a while it looked like the gap might be closed by raising the occupational privilege tax from $10 to $100 a year. Among those stridently lobbying for such a hike in Harrisburg was Mellon Financial CEO Marty McGuinn. Apparently, legislators weren't swayed: Pittsburgh is now reportedly seeking a mere $52, or just one dollar per week. (It seems we're using the same fund-raising formula that CARE used in those Sally Struthers TV ads for starving Guatemalans.) That seems fair: When adjusted for inflation, $52 actually takes less of a bite than the $10 did when the tax was originally levied 40 years ago. Plus, it will raise an extra $15 million. Some say the hike will drive more jobs from the city, and they might be right. But I've come up with a solution: Raise the tax to $15 million, and then all you need is one person working in the city to pay it.
That one person, naturally, should be Mellon Financial CEO Marty McGuinn.

• One population-related problem that Pittsburgh, and the state as a whole, faces is teen pregnancy. There simply isn't enough of it. The state's Department of Health reports that in 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, birth rates among teens have dropped by more than a third since 1990. Rates now are at "an all-time low," the health agency says. That's an ominous trend: Not only do we have fewer young people than many other states, but the ones we have aren't reproducing as quickly as they once did. Gov. Ed Rendell is trying to expand gambling to replenish our state's dwindling coffers; maybe we should consider encouraging other forms of socially damaging behavior to reverse our dwindling population.
So quit playing that Nintendo and get busy, kids.

• Since Pirates first baseman Randall Simon was arrested after knocking over a Milwaukee Brewers mascot wearing a sausage costume during a July 9 game, the Bucs have two wins and two losses. That's not bad, compared to the past decade of losing seasons. By belting a foam-rubber wiener with a baseball bat, Simon -- who already had a reputation as a clutch hitter -- might just have given the Pirates the lift they've been looking for. At the very least, he's gotten the Pirates more national attention than anything else the team has done all season.

• Among the few cities that have lost people at the same rate Pittsburgh has are Baltimore and Cleveland. Out of nearly 250 large American cities, Pittsburgh's population growth ranked 232nd, while Baltimore finished 231st and Cleveland 233rd. You may recall that Mayor Tom Murphy and others cited these two towns when trying to sell us on building new stadiums and other components of the 1990s "Renaissance III." If we built new sports facilities and spruced up Downtown like Baltimore and Cleveland did, they assured us, we'd enjoy the same success those cities had.
Looks like they were right.

• Much like the state itself, the Pittsburgh Penguins are counting on gambling to solve their problems. To finance the construction of a new arena, the team has an agreement with a local gambling promoter who's pledged to use 2 percent of his profits to finance $60 million of arena construction -- if the state allows him to build a racetrack with slot machines in nearby Harmarville. If the gambling expansion doesn't pan out, maybe the Pens could cut out the middleman. If you're going to use gambling as a fundraiser, why not take a page from the Catholic Church's book and raise money by holding bingo games instead?

• Back during the recession of the 1980s, the borough of West Homestead was so financially strapped that its mayor took to buying lottery tickets in hopes of hitting a jackpot. But even they might have balked at Pittsburgh's run of bad luck. On July 9, for example, a Post-Gazette editorial about the city's financial plight noted, "If [Pittsburgh] could hit tonight's Powerball drawing and cop the $250 million jackpot, it would be on easy street." That very night, one of two winning tickets was in fact sold right here in western Pennsylvania ... in the sprawling suburb of Cranberry. If that doesn't sum up the region's recent history, what does?

• Ever since the state legislature passed, and Gov. Ed Rendell signed, a measure allowing motorcyclists to not wear helmets on the highways, people have been asking the same question. How can Harrisburg allow bikers to go without helmets but still punish car drivers for not wearing seat belts? I think the answer is simple -- the politicians are afraid of bikers -- but perhaps state politicians simply believe in the inalienable right of Pennsylvanians to inflict massive brain damage on themselves. That's what America is all about, it seems.
And remember: The more cognitively impaired Pennsylvanians there are, the more people we have who are suited to be state legislators.

• Who are the winners in the political debate over how to bail out Pittsburgh? So far, it's heavy drinkers. Originally, the city planned to raise $10 million through a 10 percent levy on alcohol poured in city limits. When bar and restaurant owners killed that proposal in Harrisburg, increasing the occupational privilege tax became a popular alternative. As a result, you might not have to pay more for beer; you'll just have a little less money to buy it with. Even so, alcoholics come out ahead: The extra $42 you'll be paying in occupational privilege tax is equal to the additional tax you would have paid on 210 draft beers at $2 each under the old system. So if you drink more than four beers a week each year, the new proposal works in your favor.
Let's start taking advantage of it now.

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