Mayoral hopeful and state Sen. Anthony Williams defended a controversial educational tax credit program during a radio appearance Tuesday morning on 900AM-WURD, though he also distanced himself from the program he has previously touted as a hallmark of his public service.
The tax credit program was the subject of both a Philly.com investigation published last week and a Daily News editorial in Tuesday's paper that examined the political connections and the lack of transparency surrounding the program. The credits give companies a tax break in exchange for donations to private and charter schools and educational charities of their choosing.
The Philly.com investigation found that Williams' biggest political backers, the billionaire partners at Main Line financial trading firm Susquehanna International Group, had also become the biggest users of the program. The partners, Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, who are major school choice advocates, received nearly $1.2 million in tax credits for donating $1.3 million to a charity run by Williams' campaign manager, Dawn Chavous, in 2012.
On Solomon Jones' Wake Up With WURD radio show, however, Williams dismissed the notion that politics played any role in the program.
"For [Philly.com] to say that person, Dawn Chavous, is doing something in a connected, conspiratorial way ... instead of doing it for children or for the betterment of what they believe is important, is wrong also," he said. "It has nothing to do with 'insider activity' and everything to do with the belief that all children matter."
In the interview, the senator distanced himself from the program, saying more than once that other legislators had also supported the credits. Williams then said that state tax money was not really diverted by the tax credits because companies could also participate in other state tax credit programs.
"When somebody says to me, 'Well, that money could have gone someplace,' no, it actually will not go someplace because [businesses] will find protections under another tax credit," he said. "I don't know if there's any actual company that says, 'I have a million-dollar liability' that they don't find cover for under a tax credit program."
Asked if the educational tax credits gave a larger tax credit than other state programs, Williams said "absolutely not."
The state does run tax credit programs to incentivize a variety of fields, like art, historic preservation, science and industrial development. However, most offer a 20 to 60 percent credit — few, if any, of the other programs are as generous as the educational tax credit, which provides a 75 to 90 percent rebate on taxes.
Williams went on to say that if the state's tax credit programs did indeed divert money away from government funding, which he disputed, then the state should shut down "every tax credit program in Pennsylvania."
He also disparaged the Philly.com report itself — which ran in the Friday print edition of the Daily News — saying it was authored by a "blogger or string-along person" and not an actual reporter.
He implied that he had not had an opportunity to directly respond to the criticisms of the program outlined in the Philly.com articles. However, Williams' campaign and Chavous were contacted multiple times.
Early in the interview, the senator slid in a critique of mayoral opponent Jim Kenney, who Williams said quietly approved of the tax credits because they supported parochial schools like those Kenney attended.
Indeed, the credits have provided millions to the city's ailing Catholic schools, but Kenney said he had a more nuanced view of the programs.
"It's clear that at an absolute minimum the OSTC needs more oversight and accountability," he said in an e-mail today. "The Susquehanna Group used their subsidiaries to maximize their tax credits and then appear to have collaborated with Anthony Williams' campaign manager to create a scholarship distribution program that has not filed required tax returns, and cannot account for hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars."