This is the thirteenth entry in “It’s the Economy, Stupid” a 15-part series analyzing the local economic news in five swing states.
There are extra votes in Philadelphia, additional fishermen in the rivers and streams, and a gas dispute leaving some towns queasy. All those issues, funding disagreements, and Marcellus Shale define Pennsylvania this week. And so it is to the Keystone State that this entry turns.
More than 80 Philadelphia voting divisions reported more ballots cast than the number of individuals who showed up at the polls last primary election. Although the discrepancies are often concerning just a handful of votes, the issue will surely generate talking points for supporters of the State’s voter ID law that is set to take effect next November. Critics of the law argue that it discriminates against poor, elderly, and minority voters who often lack an acceptable photo identification card – one with an expiration date.
For that reason, the ACLU and the NAACP expressed their intent to challenge the constitutionality of the requirement, last week. And the issue largely breaks along party lines, with Republicans arguing that it is a small step to prevent fraud and Democrats arguing that it is an unnecessary and onerous requirement that will disenfranchise voters. State officials note that free ID cards are available through the Department of Transportation and that voters will be permitted to cast a provisional ballot if they cannot meet the requirement at the polls. Still, those assurances did not stop opponents of the law from protesting outside a Pittsburgh drivers license center – calling it a “poll tax,” on Wednesday.
Protesters may soon take to the streets in Philadelphia too, after The Philadelphia Inquirer discussed generous tax benefits provided to city nonprofits. The Philadelphia Museum of Art – the one that boasted the Rocky statue, is noted for receiving more than $5.4 million annually for facilities maintenance, security, and its utilities bills. The paper contrasts that spending with the Museum’s $360 million endowment, and reveals that at least 50 city nonprofits are compensated for their utilities and other bills. Even as difficult Pennsylvania budget choices have been highlighted throughout this series, the city has yet to develop a comprehensive policy for extending or reviewing the benefits extended to nonprofits. Each is said to be the result of a myriad of policy preferences of past administrations.
Still, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter has appointed a task force to review the spending, and the Department of Parks and Recreation reviews each benefit as they come up for renewal. That may be of little solace to members of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance who claim that the Department is entitled to as much as $8 million more than it received. The self-described “citizens’ voice” for the parks argues that the Department has been underfunded for the last 30 years, and that Mayor Nutter promised that additional revenue raised from a 2008 parking tax would be earmarked to resolve that issue. For its part, the city notes that the economic crash and resulting decline in tax revenues made that promise untenable.
Across the State, Pittsburgh may be dreaming of replacing its woes with those of Philadelphia. The dreaming comes as the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which administers greater Pittsburgh public bus and light rail transit system, announced its largest service cuts in the agency’s 48-year history, on Wednesday. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that 35% of its services will be cut, including 46 of the agency’s 102 bus routes. The only positive news is that a $1 million Federal Transit Administration grant will stave off the elimination of a route to the airport. The Port Authority is the 11th largest public transit system in the country.
As Pittsburgh’s daily ridership diminishes with fewer transit options, an inverse trend is underway at the State Fish and Boat Commission. The already profitable agency is set to earn $3.5 million more this season, due to a 20% increase in the sale of fishing licenses. The spike represents the reversal of a 20 year trend away from outdoor recreation. The Commission cautions that the increase may be a statistical anomaly due to the mild winter, with regular fishermen seeking permits earlier than in years past.
In another tale of millions of dollars, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Brunner Inc. is witnessing a $37 million annual marketing budget for the State Lottery Commission slip away, as procedural errors in the competitive bidding process have forced the contract to be rescinded. Brunner was rated the most expensive of three bidders and had the lowest score for technical expertise, but had received a boost through plans to hire “disadvantaged businesses” – those owned by minorities or women. A one-year contract was extended to the current marketing firm used by the Lottery, which may give Gov. Corbett enough time to push through plans to privatize the management of the agency.
New plans for Marcellus Shale drilling largely took effect this past Saturday. The plans are reflected in An Act Amending Title 58 (Oil and Gas) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes – otherwise known as “Act 13,” which was approved last February. The 174-page Act permits developers to drill for natural gas up to 500 feet away from buildings and water wells, 300 feet from natural water resources, and 1,000 feet from drinking water. It imposes impact fees on drillers for the first time – the last state to do so, which is expected to raise $175 million this year. The most contentious issue addressed by the Act and that which prevented it from taking full effect concerns local zoning ordinances.
The Act requires municipalities to let developers drill in all zoning districts or forfeit rights to impact fees. An injunction issued last week by the Commonwealth Court prevented that provision from taking effect for 120 days, to give towns time to amend their ordinances to meet the Act’s standards. Petitioners in the case include the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network along with seven municipalities. As the suit continues, members of the gas industry and Republican state legislators are seeking the right to join the case. For their part, the petitioners argue that the State Attorney General is already prepared to represent the side of the proposed newcomers.
For a final slice of Marcellus news, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule regulating hydraulic fracturing emissions. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes the rule as the “first comprehensive update in decades” to emission standards, while the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is content to call them the “first-ever national standards.” Semantics aside, the final rule grants two years to the industry to implement emission-capture technology, an allowance from the draft rule which would have had them comply immediately. Those two years start after the rule takes effect in 60 days. Almost 50% of wells are noted for already using the technology.
Florida “Tampa Bay-area projects that made, or got cut, from the state budget” Tampa Bay Times, April 17th
The Tampa Bay-area will receive $3.75 million for projects that include science laboratories at St. Petersburg College and a 13,000-square-foot Boys and Girls club facility. It will lose $15.15 million that would have been spent on temporary housing for the mentally ill, drug addiction programs, and a project designed to improve middle school math scores. However, the lion’s share of the cuts comes from $12.3 million that would have been sent to the Expressway authority – which said that it did not need the money.
Colorado “No drilling at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Barr Lake under oil and gas rules mulled by Commerce City council” The Denver Post, April 17th
The Commerce City council has drafted a template agreement for area oil and gas drilling. The agreement would prohibit drilling in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and Barr Lake State Park, which had become viable due to hydraulic fracturing technology. A variety of other requirements would be imposed too on noise, water quality monitoring, and operation hours, among others. Should the regulations be approved, the particular requirements would be negotiated with individual operators seeking a permit.
Ohio “Qualls: Erase Parking Minimums for Developers” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 17th
Roxanne Qualls, Vice Mayor of Cincinnati, has the support of the majority of city council members to eliminate a city ordinance that requires developers to provide a parking space for every new residence built downtown. She argues that the added cost of providing a surface space or spot in a garage raises prices for consumers and area businesses. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) estimates that a surface spot adds $5,000 and a garage spot adds $25,000 to a developer’s costs. The article notes that Qualls is a real estate agent and lives downtown.
New Mexico “Budget picture improves for city of Santa Fe” Santa Fe New Mexican, April 16th
The proposed $73 million budget for Santa Fe could increase by as much as $800 thousand according to Mayor David Coss. Additional gross-receipts tax revenue, which is assessed on the total revenue of an area business, largely accounts for the difference. The Mayor has suggested hiring additional first responders or providing city employees with a 1% pay increase.
Photo of the Philadelphia Museum of Art provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons