Tom Corbett Is Mugging Philadelphia and Its Schools

“It’s in their hands,” is what the governor actually said about a deal that’s no deal at all.

Tom Corbett

The city of Philadelphia was the victim of an attempted mugging last night.

I don’t resort to that sort of language lightly. But I’m not sure how else to describe the staggering gall and grotesque irresponsibility now being showcased by the nation’s least popular governor and a radical Republican state House.

If you’re not familiar with the backstory, here’s a summary.

  • The state and the feds eviscerate school funding, particularly for Philadelphia schools.
  • The state largely ignores desperate pleas from the city and School District for more state funding for the state-run school district, even as City Council and the mayor raise local taxes, borrow money and antagonize their own voters in order to keep the schools functioning (and just barely, at that).
  • School kids and parents, meanwhile, face the prospect of a district that very well may be too underfunded even to open in the fall.

Until Sunday night, that’s where things stood. And then the attempted robbery.

Corbett and House Republicans summoned reporters, and demanded that city Democrats vote for pension reforms they deeply oppose, if they would see the school district funded this fall.

That would be hardball even if Corbett and the GOP were offering state funds in exchange for fulfilling their constitutional duty to fund education. But there is no new state money in play here.

All Corbett and House Republicans are offering in exchange for Democratic buckling on pensions is state authorization for the city to tax its own citizens more for cigarettes.

“If there is a positive pension reform vote there will be a cigarette tax for Philadelphia,” Corbett told reporters yesterday.

And then he actually said this, referring to the city’s delegation. “It’s in their hands.”

Really. He said that. Corbett. The same governor who presided over the fiscal meltdown of the city’s schools, the governor who appoints three out of five School Reform Commission members, the governor whose dismal approval ratings are inextricably tied to the financial struggles of districts across the state …

Now look, it’s true that Philadelphia’s delegation to Harrisburg is pretty much a mess right now. There are too many factions, too much corruption, too few Republicans (which makes the city far less powerful when the GOP controls Harrisburg) and the delegation’s leadership is still finding its way after losing the likes of Vince Fumo and John Perzel.

And city Democrats should be willing to compromise on pension reform and liquor privatization in exchange for meaningful and dependable new state investment in city schools. GOP leaders in the Senate, namely Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, have been pursuing just that sort of compromise with senior Philadelphia Democrats.

Corbett and House Republicans argue, accurately, that the state is short on cash, and the demands on the treasury intense. But the shortage could be eased, if not eliminated. Indeed, the GOP Senate was clearly willing to accept some new taxes and fees.

There’s the potential here for a grand deal, one that offers a lot to all sides. Republicans would get liquor privatization and meaningful pension reform, city Democrats would get more state and local funding for schools, as well as more state revenue overall.

Judging by yesterday’s press conference, Corbett has abandoned that course and sided with House Majority Leaders Mike Turzai.

So instead of a bargain that could have chipped away at some of the state’s bigger problems, we have the farce of a deal offered yesterday.

The state has set city schools on fire, and now — after the state-run district has half burned to the ground — graciously told the city it can put the fire out with the city’s own hose, so long as city Democrats give their nemesis Corbett a desperately needed victory ahead of the November election.

I wonder, are legislators from York and Franklin counties being held hostage to the same deal? Because the Senate is briskly moving a bill to give those communities the right to levy a hotel tax.

I wonder as well where Pileggi is. This isn’t his work, and he was conspicuously absent from the Corbett / House shakedown yesterday. But Pileggi so far is not publicly resisting the governor or the House, and Democrats in the Senate say he’s pulling bills that would give Democrats a chance to force an amendment vote on the cigarette tax. That’s not the sort of leadership you’d hope to see from a legislator who understands Philadelphia’s struggles better than most.

I have no idea what Philadelphia Democrats should do now. They can get rolled on pensions, and let the district scrape by with the least amount of funding possible to open in the fall. Or they can reject Corbett and Turzai’s offer, and, well, what exactly? Screw the kids?

Mayor Nutter and City Council are not the villains in this drama, but I hope if nothing else they have learned again the folly of tying local funding (the cigarette tax) for schools to approval from Harrisburg. When the schools need money again — and they will — the city should dip into sources that Harrisburg has no say over. Property taxes, for instance. Or cut the city’s own budget, and shift the savings to schools.

But it’s too late for that this year. And city Democrats must decide if it’s better to cave to Corbett and Turzai, or watch as Philadelphia schools continue to burn.

Follow @pkerkstra on Twitter.