As Harrisburg Readies for Budget Brawl, Philly Sends Its C-Team

Gov. Wolf and Statehouse Republicans are about to begin an ultra-high stakes fight over education and taxes that could shape the direction of the state for years to come. Will Philadelphia even be a factor?

The opening moves are now being made in what will likely be a fierce, months-long battle between newly-elected Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican leaders in the State Capitol.

The stakes are immense. Wolf’s audacious freshman year budget seeks nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of the state tax system and $1 billion in new education spending. It’s an agenda that — win or lose — will have enormous consequences for the state in general, and for Philadelphia in particular. Should Wolf’s vision, or a significant chunk of it, win out, Philadelphia will get a big, badly-needed cash infusion for city schools and a new tax structure that would make it far more competitive with the suburbs and big cities elsewhere.

It sure would help Wolf, and by extension, Philadelphia, if the city’s delegation in Harrisburg featured an array of powerful pols working in unison to help the new governor’s boundary-pushing budget get passed.

But that’s not the delegation Philadelphia has. Not by a long shot.

Ever since the Feds indicted Vince Fumo and the state tagged John Perzel with corruption charges, Philadelphia’s clout in Harrisburg has been diminished. The city has punched way below its weight for years now, and not just because Republicans control the Statehouse and the delegation is very nearly 100 percent Democrat (though that hasn’t helped). Also not helping 1) Rifts within the delegation, as Philly rivalries have spilled over into differences in Harrisburg; 2) A surfeit of overmatched, newly-elected representatives and checked-out clock-punchers; 3) The tenacious stench of scandal.

All of that still applies now, only more so. Consider:

  • Philadelphia State Senators Anthony Williams and Vincent Hughes — the city’s two highest-profile delegates in Harrisburg — are in open conflict, with Williams smarting over Hughes’s endorsement of Jim Kenney in the mayoral primary. The Williams and Hughes relationship had always included some tension, but this rift looks like a big one, and it comes at an awful time. Can they possibly work together on the city’s behalf this summer?
  • State Rep. Cherelle Parker — chair of the Philadelphia delegation to Harrisburg and one of the city’s few young high-impact players in the capitol — is leaving office. She’s replacing Councilwoman Marian Tasco as the Ninth District Councilwoman. That’s good for Parker, but it means the delegation must pick a new chair right as the budget battle begins, or field a lame duck in Parker.
  • On Monday, Philly State Rep. Ron Waters pled guilty to corruption charges. He resigned his seat the same day. Former Philly State Rep. Harold James had already left office, but he pled as well. Philly State Rep. Vanessa Brown didn’t plead guilty, as expected, but she’s already signed a plea deal. That shoe will drop sometime soon. The timing, and the message (Philly pols are venal and self-interested) couldn’t be worse.
  • Philadelphia’s House delegation has a dubiously large number of untested new Representatives (seven have served for two years or less) and long-in-the-tooth lifers (eight have served over 20 years). There are such things as high-impact freshmen and agenda-setting veterans, of course, but Philly’s delegation has too few of both.
  • Williams, one of the few members of the Philadelphia delegation inclined to cut deals with the GOP, has been weakened by his underwhelming showing in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary. It’s not clear how engaged Williams can or will be in negotiations. It’s even less clear that Philly’s delegation would support a deal he helped orchestrate.
  • Mayor Nutter isn’t a member of the delegation of course, but he’s been a dogged champion for the city in Harrisburg, making trip after trip to the State Capitol, partly to compensate for the weakness and division in the delegation. No doubt he’ll do the same this summer, but he’s a lame duck, and people tend to pay less attention when lame ducks are talking.

So, is Philadelphia destined to get screwed? How worried should the city be?

Concerned, but not panicked.

As weak as the delegation is, the city has something big going for it now that it didn’t have the past four years: a Democratic governor. Republicans and Wolf are going to have to reach some sort of compromise on this spending plan, and Wolf’s leverage will likely protect Philadelphia from getting worked over too badly.

And there are some bright spots in the delegation, such as the partial political revival of State Rep. Dwight Evans. His political humbling in 2010, when he was stripped of his post as chairman of the all-powerful appropriations committee, was one of the most vivid examples of the city’s declining influence in the Capitol. But Evans made a shrewd bet and backed Tom Wolf for governor long before he emerged as the Democratic front-runner. Evans now has a hotline to the Governor’s office, and you can expect he’ll burn that up this summer.

Also comforting: Republican State Rep. John Taylor, one of just two GOP members of the city’s delegation, will be on the job. He played a pivotal (and controversial) role in getting the city’s cigarette tax approved in Harrisburg last year. There’s a good chance he’ll be in the middle of the mix again this summer.

In the Senate, Williams’ stinging defeat could let State Senator Vincent Hughes emerge as the clear leader of the Philadelphia Senate delegation. It remains to be seen if Hughes, the minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, will play a role in actually cutting a deal with the GOP.

A wild card is City Council President Darrell Clarke, who’s made relations with Harrisburg a central part of his portfolio. Clarke made countless trips to the State Capitol last summer, and he hired a lobbyist to work state lawmakers on Council’s behalf. He doesn’t have a vote, of course, but he is quickly becoming one of the city’s most important emissaries in Harrisburg.

What about Jim Kenney? You can expect the Democratic mayoral nominee will be consulted and in the loop, but he’s unlikely to drive much of anything. It’s premature.