Tis the season I (sorta) feel sorry for many Philly lawmakers | John Baer
Those representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg are feeling frustration once again as the legislature works toward resolution of the annual state budget.
This might surprise you.
At this time of year, I find myself feeling sorry for Philadelphia pols, specifically those representing the City of Brotherly Love in Harrisburg.
Fact is, they don’t get much love. Or much of anything beyond frustration.
And, yes, I’ve used broad-brush strokes to paint a picture of ineffectiveness when it comes to their delivering for those they’re well paid and perked to serve.
Especially given their numbers: 26 House members, seven senators, the largest delegation in an over-large legislature.
One would think proportional results. But there’s a problem. Political reality.
They’re Democrats in a Republican world.
Except for Northeast Philly Republican Rep. Martina White, and Montgomery County GOP Rep. Tom Murt, who also represents a slice of the city’s Fox Chase neighborhood, 31 of 33 city lawmakers in Harrisburg are in the minority party.
You know the saying: The minority may have its say, but the majority has its way.
So, as the legislature moves to adopt a new state budget as soon as next week, familiar issues pushed for Philly remain, at best, in the margins.
Such as hiking the minimum wage.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” says Sen. Tina Tartaglione, a 24-year incumbent, head of the city’s Senate delegation, who’s sought wage hikes for years.
“Look at the map,” she says. “Every state around us has increased the wage while we’ve got people working three jobs.”
Our $7.25-an-hour rate is the federal minimum. Static for a decade. As I’ve noted, city data show 63,000 Philadelphians with jobs living in or near poverty.
Tartaglione says the GOP Senate seems willing to up the rate, though not to the $12 an hour that Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, seek.
The House, however, shows no appetite for any hike.
“It’s unfortunate if one caucus (House Republican) resists something every other caucus and the governor wants,” she says. Yet she’s hopeful a hike can happen.
Then there are school and poverty issues.
“Of course, it gets frustrating,” says Sen. Vincent Hughes, a 32-year lawmaker, top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and constant advocate for Philly schools and anti-poverty efforts.
“There’s a growing reality,” he says, “The Republican mind-set is pushing further right.”
Not good for a Democratic city.
Hughes seeks $85 million in “emergency” funding for structural repairs and environmental cleanup in Philadelphia schools.
Last year, city schools got $8 million for such efforts. Hughes says this year’s ask is “much more ambitious, but if we don’t put it in, nothing will happen.”
Then there’s the fight for a General Assistance program providing monthly cash grants of $200 to help mostly disabled folks who can’t work pay for necessities from soap to bus fare.
Republicans don’t like it. Democrats call it a lifeline.
“People don’t see the reality of poverty,” Hughes tells me. “Like a woman I met in Germantown, in a wheelchair, living in her car with her adult autistic son.”
Pew Trusts last year reported that 400,000 Philadelphians live below the poverty line.
Struggles for Philly lawmakers aren’t new. There have long been anti-Philly views in Harrisburg. Waste, too much welfare, crime, corruption.
But in the past, there were more moderate Republicans in the legislature, more Republicans from the city. And Philly lawmakers held leadership posts allowing them to score wins for the city or mitigate damage to it.
Ironically, two of the best at this, former Democratic Sen. Vince Fumo and former GOP House Speaker John Perzel, went to prison for, well, crime and corruption.
But U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans also was a key budget negotiator. He spent 35 years in the state House, partly as majority chairman of the Appropriations Committee, before being elected to Congress in 2016.
Evans says today’s city lawmakers are “in a very tough position … until they get the majority [of at least one chamber], the key is preventing harm” to Philly.
For now, that largely depends on Wolf and budget negotiations.
For example, Wolf says he wants to keep the General Assistance that Republicans want to kill. When I ask whether he’d veto a budget without it, he says, “We’re still talking.”
Democrats haven’t held the House since 2010. They haven’t controlled the Senate and House since 1994.
They made gains in 2018. They’re currently nine seats short of a House majority, three seats short of Senate control. They hope 2020 brings more gains.
Just as they hope for a wage hike, more for schools, and General Assistance funding.
But, as Philly Rep. Angel Cruz, an 18-year incumbent, told me in a brief Capitol hallway chat, “The only real way to get hope is to win back the majority.”
Meanwhile, I tend to feel sorry for Philly lawmakers. And, more important, for their constituents in need. Maybe a one-party city isn’t such a good idea.