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Perzel pontificates

Feb. 19, 2008

Philadelphia Republican state Rep. John Perzel may no longer be speaker of the House, but that hasn't stopped him from speaking his mind of get his name in the news.

Mr. Perzel stopped by the Post-Gazette today to meet with the editorial board and shot from the lip on a number of issues. Among them:

• Democrats deep-sixed his attempt to eliminate school property taxes for low-income senior citizens because of a fundamental philosophical difference. He wanted to give significant tax relief to one needy group while they wanted to give increase relief a little bit for everybody. He tried to amend his proposal into a bill by state Democratic Rep. David Levdansky that would have reduced school property taxes for all by even more than they would have gone down as a result money from slot parlors.

Mr. Perzel claims the Democrats looked at the amount taxpayers would receive as a result slots -- usually $100 to $300 -- and decided that relatively small amount would anger taxpayers expecting more help. So Mr. Levdansky -- and Majority Leader Bill DeWeese in a separate bill -- proposed tax shifting to reduce school property taxes even more. They would have used increases in the state income tax and sales tax to offset a greater reduction in school taxes.

"They know the checks they are sending out are going to be in the $100, $200, $300 range and people aren't going to be very happy with that," he said. "What I was trying to do was take a whole class of people and have they pay no school property taxes."

He's upset that after his amendment to the Levdansky bill was approved, 157-36, the bill was sent to the committee version of Siberia, never to be heard from again. He feels the House's voice is being stifled despite the overwhelming support for his measure.

"The governor ran on [tax relief for everyone]. Mike Fisher [former GOP candidate for governor] ran on that, but I didn't run on that."

• Although Democrats hold a slim majority in the state House, he expects fewer than 30 of the 203 seats to have competitive races in this year's election. His opinion is that most seats are in traditionally Democratic or Republican areas and it takes a near-miracle for a seat to change party hands; our opinion is gerrymandering over the years to protect incumbents and party dominance also plays a big role.

He also doesn't expect the mostly Democratic controversy over House staff bonuses to play much of a role in the elections unless the state grand jury recommends charges against top officials.

• Mr. Rendell probably won't break his streak of not having a budget approved by the June 30 deadline.

Mr. Perzel said the governor seems to have drawn lines even deeper in the sand over proposals such as the Jonas Salk research fund; Cover All Pennsylvanians; tax rebates for low-income people; and rebuilding more deficient bridges. Since some of those items involve increasing fees or taxes, he expects little interest in them during an election year.

"He's got proposal after proposal after proposal that he wants approved and he doesn't want to move," Mr. Perzel said. "He's going to tie everything to the budget and I don't blame him because that's the only way he has any leverage."

Last year, the budget battle dragged into July and ended only after so-called non-essential employees were laid off for one day.

Public snow job

Pittsburgh City Council was still steamed about snow today, with one member calling for a special council meeting on street clearing and salting and another taking the media to task for suggesting that there's "political plowing" going on.

Councilman Bruce Kraus said that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to rework the salting routes by December is nice, but not speedy enough. "With six more weeks of winter left, and the possibility of another snowstorm," Mr. Kraus told council, "it would be prudent of us to assemble members of the administration and council" to map out plans for prompt improvements.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris then plowed straight into this report by KDKA-TV investigative reporter Marty Griffin that found that she and Mr. Ravenstahl got their streets plowed early in the process last week.

She said that as council's Public Works Committee chair, she does try to influence salting schedules, but only to ensure that "we have two entrances into each of the hill communities in my district" and citywide. It so happens Buente Street, on which she lives, is one of the means in and out of Spring Hill. "It is a street half of the residents of Spring Hill use."

Ms. Harris took a thinly veiled shot at Public Works Director Guy Costa, saying that employees of that department should be plowing, instead of "out there on the news talking about something that doesn't exist." Mr. Costa copped to "a little bit" of political influence over salting in Mr. Griffin's report.

Early Returns sure wouldn't want to be Mr. Costa next time he's scheduled to go before council, hat in hand, for funds.

Agenda insurance

Remember the joint mayor-council agenda unveiled last week? Cynics muttered that it was just fluff. Councilman Patrick Dowd is apparently out to ensure that it isn't.

Today Mr. Dowd introduced a measure to create a Task Force for Intergovernmental Cooperation, which is one of the planks in the agenda. Its members: representatives of the mayor, council, and city controller. Its job: investigating "all opportunities for realizing operational efficiencies" in governing the city, school district, and Allegheny County. Its tools: public hearings. (Yes, that means more meetings fpr Early Returns to cover.) Its end date: when "all possible efficiencies have been fully realized for the citizens and taxpayers of Pittsburgh and the surrounding region or until such time as City Council deems its work complete."

We're guessing this one will be with us for some time.

On a related note, Councilwoman Tonya Payne took public umbrage at the following line from our Feb. 14 offering on the agenda-signing ceremony: "And then there were seven, when Councilwoman Tonya Payne oddly left the event as soon as Councilman Doug Shields started talking, and before everybody ceremonially signed the proclamation." She said she left because she had another commitment, and not to avoid Mr. Shields' speech.

Who, after all, would want to miss that?

City campaign finance reform

Speaking of meetings and speeches, council's public hearing on member William Peduto's campaign finance reform legislation is set for 2 p.m. next Tuesday.

For those of you who can't wait for an earnest discussion of campaign donation caps and pre-campaign contribution limits, here's a neat idea former council candidate Mark Rauterkus dropped on Early Returns today:

Why not convince a bank to set up special political campaign accounts that anyone with an Internet browser can check in on whenever they want? The city could then compel all candidates for its offices to use such accounts for all of their campaign activity, making all contributions and expenses public instantly, rather than disclosing them only a few times a year in paper records filed on the sixth floor of the County Office Building.

Mr. Rauterkus said he presented the idea to a citizens committee on campaign finance that Mr. Peduto convened, and you can bet he'll be back at the public hearing.

This blog was written by Post-Gazette Staff Writers Rich Lord and Ed Blazina.