How Jim Kenney’s Big Soda Tax Victory Is Upending City Hall

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

For years, Philadelphians saw government dysfunction everywhere they looked. In City Hall, former Mayor Michael Nutter was so impotent that he couldn’t persuade a single Council member to introduce his bill to privatize Philadelphia Gas Works, let alone hold a hearing on the plan or (gasp!) approve it. And in Harrisburg, it took Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican legislature nine months to do their most basic job, i.e. agree on a budget.

It’s almost sadly poetic: The same place where American democracy was born was where you could best see it falling apart.

That’s why it’s so extraordinary that Philadelphia City Council is expected to pass a soda tax this week in order to fund Mayor Jim Kenney’s major initiatives: expanded pre-K, community schools, and an overhaul of the parks system. The soda industry spent nearly $3 million to defeat Kenney’s proposed levy on soda, flooding the airwaves with anti-tax ads and stuffing politicians’ campaign coffers with cash. Council President Darrell Clarke did Kenney no favors throughout the last few months, calling a 3-cents-per-ounce tax “ridiculous” and “divisive.” History was also working against Kenney: Council had twice crushed plans by Nutter to create a soda tax, and the beverage lobby had a 45-1 record of killing proposed soda taxes throughout the country.

But in the end, Council hammered out a landmark deal with the Kenney administration, giving preliminary approval to a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks and diet soda. The fact that Kenney took on one of the strongest lobbies in the United States and won — and that the once all-powerful Clarke was, at times, working against him — shows that the mayor is a skilled politician who has enough votes on Council to pass ambitious, controversial proposals. This means Kenney could potentially get a lot done over the next three-and-a-half years. His victory also serves as a reminder of the unsavory things that are sometimes required to make government work: arm-twisting, special interests, and, of course, lots of money. Read more »

Activists: Uber and Lyft Tax Should Fund Philly Schools, Not the PPA

Hannah Sassaman of the Media Mobilizing Project address the Parking Authority. Photo by Jared Brey.

Hannah Sassaman of the Media Mobilizing Project addresses the Parking Authority. | Photo by Jared Brey

Public school advocates packed the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s monthly board meeting on Tuesday to question a change in a state bill that would allow ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to operate in Philadelphia — and drive a guaranteed fee to the PPA with little or nothing left for the school district.

Philly Mag reported on Monday that the state bill was initially written so that the school district and PPA would share a 1 percent tax on ride-sharing revenues, with two-thirds going to the district and one-third to the PPA. But a version approved by a state House committee earlier in May changed those provisions so that the PPA would be guaranteed a $2 million yearly fee from each of the largest ride-sharing companies, while the schools would get a portion of what’s left over. According to current estimates of how much revenue the tax would generate, it’s unlikely that there would be much, if any, money left for the schools.

“There is no place in this world wherein a new revenue stream should go to the Parking Authority ahead of the school district,” Councilwoman Helen Gym told the board Tuesday morning. Read more »

“Tax” on Uber and Lyft Would Actually Be a $4 Million Windfall to the PPA

uber-PPA-940x540First it looked like it was for the kids, and now it looks like it’s for the Parking Authority.

A bill in the state Senate that would allow alternative taxi services like Uber and Lyft to operate legally was initially written so that the tax revenue the services generated in Philly would be split between the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Philadelphia School District, with two thirds of the money going to education. But the bill, which was approved by the state House Committee on Consumer Affairs earlier this month, has undergone an obscure but meaningful change. In the current version, PPA is guaranteed $4 million in revenue from Uber and Lyft before the schools can collect a dime. Read more »

Helen Gym Calls for Investigation of School Police Use of Force

Stills from the original video posted on Facebook by the Philadelphia Student Union.

Stills from the original video posted on Facebook by the Philadelphia Student Union.

Councilwoman Helen Gym sent a letter on Tuesday to the School District and the School Reform Commission calling for an investigation of an incident at Benjamin Franklin High School last week in which a student accused a school police officer of assault. The officer was filmed restraining the student, sparking condemnation on social media. A spokesman for the District told Philly Mag last week that the incident is being investigated, and that the officer had been reassigned.  Read more »

Council: Why Did $1.3 Million for School Nurses Go Unspent?

Photo | It's Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo | It’s Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

The Philadelphia School District has a modest fund balance this year, meaning for the first time in recent memory it spent less money than it budgeted.

But that’s the result of “bad savings,” Councilwoman Helen Gym said during City Council’s hearings on the District’s budget Tuesday. It’s not that the district just managed its money well; instead, it failed to spend budgeted money on basic services, Gym said. That includes a gap of $1.3 million budgeted but not spent on school nurses, $4 million on maintenance and repair, and $2 million on special education bus attendants. In all, the district saved $65 million through staff vacancies and deferred maintenance, Gym pointed out. Read more »

Councilwomen Slam DA Williams Over Porngate Prosecutors

AP-seth-williams-frank-fina-photo-matt-burke-940x540

L to R: District Attorney Seth Williams and prosecutor Frank Fina | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

It was a pretty weak showing, said Councilwoman Cindy Bass, when District Attorney Seth Williams announced late on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend that three of his staff members who were caught up in the Porngate scandal would be given sensitivity training.

“I’m offended by these emails,” Bass said, describing a few of the blatantly racist email chains that were passed around the office. “If somebody sends me something that I’m offended by, I will email them back and say, ‘Don’t send me this anymore.’”

The exchange took place during budget hearings in City Council on Wednesday. Read more »

Officials: Philly’s Water Is Safe

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

Philadelphia’s water is safe, city officials said Monday at a Council committee hearing on lead poisoning.

Water Department Commissioner Debra McCarty said that Philadelphia is not experiencing, and will not experience, a water contamination crisis like Flint, Michigan.

“Philadelphia’s drinking water is lead-free, and there are clear differences between Flint and Philadelphia,” McCarty said. She blamed Flint’s catastrophe on the fact that the city changed its water supply, which Philly has not done. Read more »

Lawmakers Fight for Muslim Holidays to Be Recognized in Philly

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

A group of activists erupted in applause at City Hall Thursday when lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution calling on the city and school district to recognize two Muslim holidays: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. “When we submitted this, the question that came from some good, well-intentioned people was, ‘Well, why now? And should we do this now?'” said Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who sponsored the legislation. “The best time to dispel myths, the best time to find good-spirited people, is in the height of controversy.”

The Philadelphia Eid Coalition has been fighting since last year to convince officials to observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The School District of Philadelphia currently closes schools on Christmas, Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and even Columbus Day, but not on those two Muslim holidays. The city government, meanwhile, does not officially recognize either Muslim or Jewish holy days.

Jones, who practices Islam, says it is more important than ever to make Muslim people feel included in Philadelphia.

“Young people needed to know that they’re welcome in this building and in this city,” he said, “so that nobody can come along and lead them astray to some anti-American kind of environment.” Read more »

Helen Gym Draws National Attention in New Role

helen-gym

Helen Gym, the longtime education activist, is drawing national attention this week: She joined City Council as an at-large member on Monday, the first Asian-American woman elected to that body.

NBCNews.com featured an interview with Gym on its “Asian America” site Monday, highlighting her new role and interviewing her about her history of activism. If she continues to receive national attention — she was honored by the White House in 2014, and received support from the American Federation of Teachers during the City Council race — that could help her raise campaign funds in the future.

Some highlights from the NBC article: Read more »

Does “Bullet Voting” Really Work?

Election Day in Philadelphia | Photo by AP/Matt Rourke

Election Day in Philadelphia | Photo by AP/Matt Rourke

If you want to shake up City Council, many political insiders will tell you to vote for one at-large candidate and one at-large candidate only. This tactic is known as “bullet voting,” and the idea behind it is that by voting for just one candidate, you don’t run the risk of elevating another candidate who could beat your No. 1 choice.

Until now, we didn’t know very much about the prevalence of bullet voting, or how effective it is, in Philadelphia. That changed when City Commissioner Al Schmidt on Tuesday released a study about bullet voting in the primary election. “This was a massive undertaking,” he said in a press release, “and has never been done before.”

Here are seven takeaways from his analysis: Read more »

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