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Public Enema

When citizen participation gets stuck in too late

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When Joe Preston, Dan Frankel and Jay Costa unveiled their plan to save the city of Pittsburgh on the steps of the City-County Building Aug. 29, they were standing a few feet away from a statue of a weeping dinosaur.

Let's hope it wasn't an omen of the city's future.

But not even the presence of a teary-eyed triceratops dampened their enthusiasm for the new legislation they were extolling. The measure, introduced by Costa in the state Senate and Frankel in the House, would raise the city's annual occupational privilege tax from $10 to $52 a year, and enable the creation of a 0.45 percent "payroll preparation tax" on Pittsburgh employers. It also mandates creating a financial oversight board to ensure the city adheres to sound fiscal practices.

Lauding the bill as "the first time [people] will have a chance to look at a public document," Preston boasted, "this is the start of the legislative process, because nothing means anything until you have a document."

The start of the legislative process? Considering that the legislative process was supposed to be over by the end of June, when Mayor Tom Murphy's 2003 budget anticipated having new taxes in place, a few questions spring to the cynic's mind. If "nothing means anything" until there's a document, were the first eight months of Murphy's efforts to lobby Harrisburg meaningless? Costa noted that public hearings were being scheduled because of "concern" that they hadn't been held to date -- and because hearings are "all part of the normal process." So wouldn't it have been a better time to begin that process six months ago -- before the city laid off hundreds of workers?

The problem with such questions is that they aren't cynical enough. They presume that the "normal process" -- proposing a bill and debating its merits before voting on it -- is how government really works, or at least how the city really hoped it would work this time.

But ask City Council President Gene Ricciardi about the city's prospects for getting help from Harrisburg, for example, and he says this: "I was hopeful and confident -- until I saw us present [those] bills. That really gave me pause."

Why? Because a reasoned public debate about the city's plight is the last thing anyone seems to want -- even the public.

Voting on a bill, see, compels a politician to take a stand one way or the other. And that's something politicians try to avoid, especially on controversial matters like creating new taxes. We may elect politicians to make tough choices, but we usually re-elect them because they make as few of those choices as possible.

So Murphy originally sought to have the measure attached as an amendment to a larger bill, such as the state's budget. Doing so would mean no public hearings about tax fairness or alternate proposals -- none of the things that Frankel and Co. now claim are so important. Everything could be handled in private. But to ensure the ploy's success, Murphy needed the help of Gov. Ed Rendell. And given the Democratic governor's rocky relationship with a Republican-controlled legislature, Rendell can barely help himself, let alone the city.

Those who've witnessed the city's previous high-profile lobbying efforts, like landing state money for new stadiums, surely recognize the trend by now. It's representative democracy, Pittsburgh-style: When every other dodge fails, try playing by the rules and consulting the people who elected you.

The city avoided this tactic as long as it could. Last year, Murphy convened a panel to assess the city's financial plight and to devise some remedies. The "PGH-21" panel proposed its recommendations on a Monday; the next morning, Murphy presented a budget that incorporated many of the panel's key recommendations. Public discussion on those ideas, which included a 10 percent tax on liquor and a more inclusive version of the payroll preparation tax, was limited at best. Despite the sweeping changes in tax structure, public comment on Murphy's budget was solicited only once: during a 10 a.m. council hearing, when many of those who'd be affected by a payroll tax were, well, on the payroll.

Of course no one complained much about being left out. It takes only 25 signatures to demand that council schedule a public hearing on a matter, which is only slightly more signatures than you need to begin impeachment proceedings against the mayor -- an effort that has drawn hundreds of signatures in recent weeks. But if we didn't bother challenging Murphy's budget back then, are we entitled to impeach him over it today? Many voters are willing to fault Murphy for guaranteeing city firefighters job protection during contract negotiations shortly before his re-election in 2001. Fewer are willing to fault themselves for voting Murphy back into office just weeks after that contract was signed, even though that contract has become one of the city's biggest financial headaches. Some of the public outrage seems as conveniently timed as the city's newfound interest in public debate.

Suddenly, though, everybody is consulting the wisdom of the people. Ricciardi is calling for a series of public hearings on next year's budget. It's a noble gesture, even if it would have been nobler had it been proposed a year ago. Ricciardi candidly admits last year's budget vote might have been a mistake. "When the mayor tells you we're going to be OK in June, you say, ‘Wow, does that mean we won't have to make any tough decisions?'" As it turns out, the answer is no, but both the public and its elected officials were willing to delude themselves otherwise.

The new bailout legislation might be just another delusion. Pundits were predicting the plan's demise only hours after Frankel, Costa and Preston announced it. All the big issues that prevented the legislature from considering the city's plight -- debates over gambling and education funding -- still loom over Harrisburg, and there's little sign that Murphy's recent layoffs have made much of an impression in the capital. But at the Aug. 29 press conference, at least, Costa was trying to remain upbeat. "All along, the mayor has been working to get people on board with this," Costa told me reassuringly after the press conference broke up. He pulled out charts showing how the city had made real cuts in personnel and costs, just in case I had any doubts.

He could have gone on for hours, I suspect, if it weren't for a street person who showed up to ask the pols for change. ("Hi, Jay, I'm hungry!" he informed us, repeatedly.) Costa, a nice guy who knows a thing or two about constituent service, dug out a couple bucks, setting in motion an exchange that may be as symbolic of the city's future as a weeping dinosaur sculpture.

"Could I have a twenty?" the street person asked.

"That's all you're getting!" the state legislator told the city dweller.

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