Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is confident Congress will sidestep the looming threat of sequester and stop the nation’s economy from again falling into recession.
“I think we will and I think we must,” Casey said Monday after being asked if he thought a deal was possible. “We’ve got an economy that’s recovered a lot … We’re creating jobs at a good pace now. It could stand to pick up a little bit; but we still need to focus on job creation. If the sequester were in effect for a year, we’d have a recession.”
Pennsylvania’s Democrat senator sat down with the Tribune’s editorial board Monday afternoon to discuss several issues, including gun control and a move in several states to change the way electoral votes are apportioned.
Sequester is the process by which automatic spending cuts, totaling $82 billion in cuts - $55 billion in defense and $27 in discretionary spending, go into effect. Without Congressional action, those cuts are expected to start in March. and according to the Congressional Budget Office, could cost the U.S. economy as much as 1.4 million jobs in the first seven months.
It is the latest in a series of financial deadlines and budget talks that have created a nearly perpetual crisis in Washington D.C. Republican lawmakers have been using sequester as a way to force spending cuts without negotiation.
“I think sequester is going to happen,” Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma recently told the New York Times. “I think people want it to happen.”
“We need spending cuts, but we just shouldn’t do it in the sequester,” he said. “Those spending cuts are indiscriminant and not strategic enough to help our economy grow.”
Pressed to respond to the Republicans’ comments he added, “If they are being truthful; they know.”
The senator noted that, on average about 180,000 jobs were created in the U.S. each month in 2012 - and cuts in spending would jeopardize that growth.
“All of that is put at risk if you have the sequester imposed upon the economy,” he said.
Congress has delayed sequester once, voting in early January to push it back until March 1.
Casey suggested that lawmakers might again delay or draw up another list of cuts to replace those in sequester, or agree to a combination of both.
Sequester looms much the same way the so-called fiscal cliff did at the end of 2012.
Casey said he supports reaching a longer term deal that combines savings and revenue.
Republican leaders have said they are done discussing new revenue after the deal was reached earlier this year.
“The tax issue is finished, over, completed,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, also to the New York Times.
New revenue is likely to come from tax reform, Casey said, which means closing loopholes. For him, that meant closing corporate tax loopholes - not those that affect individuals, he said, emphasizing that he wanted the mortgage deduction to stay in place.
Casey also said he did not support changes in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid rules, but thought savings to help boost funding for all of those programs could be found through greater efficiencies in spending.
He pointed to savings found when the Obama administration was drawing up the health care reform act and said he was sure similar saving could be harnessed again.
Addressing another topic that has seized the headlines recently, Casey said he expected a number of gun reform measures to be put before Congress – including mandated background checks, laws limiting the size of ammunition magazines and other initiatives. He was unable to predict if any of the proposals would be approved.
“We have to ask ourselves: Is there nothing that the United States of America, the most powerful nation in the world can do?” he said. “The answer is a resounding yes. We can do all of those without having any impact at all [on the Second Amendment.]”
Finally, Casey said he would caution Republicans against changing the way electoral votes are apportioned, noting that voter turnout rose after the state legislature passed the voter ID law.
A proposal in Pennsylvania and several other Republican controlled states would allocate electoral votes by congressional district rather than giving all votes to the candidate who carried the majority of popular votes.
“Isn’t it a little strange that when a Democratic president gets elected and re-elected, all of a sudden we’ve got to change the Electoral College? You’ve got to wonder,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of problems in the country. I don’t think too many people voting is one of them.”
Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration has asked a judge to let it force contract terms on Philadelphia’s blue collar workers, ending a four-year standoff with city’s second largest municipal union.
“There were meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, just a few days ago, and they were completely fruitless,” Nutter told reporters Friday morning. “They went nowhere on our key reform issues on pensions and work rules, which we have been consistently advocating for, pushing for and trying to attain from the start of our administration.”
Nutter had set a Wednesday deadline for unions respond to what the administration called its final offer. Unable to reach an agreement, the union forced the administration’s hand, Nutter said at a press conference Friday morning.
“Union leaders rejected our final offer as they have rejected every other proposal that addressed furloughs, pensions and costs related to overtime calculations,” he said.
So, the city filed papers in Commonwealth Court asking a judge to allow the city to impose contract terms on 11,000 employees represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council 33.
It’s president, Herman “Pete” Matthews, did not return phone calls Friday afternoon.
However, in an interview last month he called Nutter a “dictator” and said the union would never agree to concessions.
“We aren’t going to make any concessions,” Matthews said. “We will bargain for wages and health and welfare increases.”
Attorney Shannon Farmer said the administration wanted to impose the terms laid out last month, which officials said at the time was the administration’s final offer.
That proposal included a 2.5 percent raise effective 30 days after ratification, and another 2 percent raise in 2014, the final year of the proposed agreement covering the period from 2009.
It did not include any retroactive pay increases.
The proposal would restore step and longevity increments, bringing employees to levels that they would have been at with a contract, again without retroactive provisions.
New overtime rules, increased pension and healthcare contributions were also part of the proposal. Employees would be eligible for overtime only after working 40 hours a week, or taking vacation or education leave. Pension contributions would rise 50 percent, and new employees would be entered in Plan 10, a pension plan similar to a 401(k). Employees’ contributions to health care would jump from $50 per pay to $72 in the first year of the agreement and drop back to $50 in the second year.
Despite the changes, administration officials said it would result in a net pay increase for most employees.
Matthews disputed that assertion.
“It’s not an increase for our membership,” he said. “It was just fuzzy math.”
Friday’s request applied only to members of the city’s blue collar union. The terms of the expired contract would remain in place until a court ruling, Farmer said. Negotiations are still going on with AFSCME, District Council 47, the union that represents the city’s white collar workers, she added.
Farmer spoke to the Tribune after Nutter’s Friday morning announcement of the filing. The city’s lead negotiator, she said it was impossible to predict how the case might proceed. A judge could simply take briefs from both sides then issue a ruling, or hold a hearing on the matter.
The administration and the city’s unions have been in a showdown for years — most city employees have been working without a contract since 2009.
Officials with the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority said last fall that if the administration did not have contracts in place by the summer of 2013, they would be more likely to veto the city’s budget — which requires PICA approval. City council has also expressed its displeasure at the ongoing feud.
Nutter is expected to roll out his new budget in March.
Despite the campaign finance scandal that’s broken over her head, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown seems secure in her leadership position on city council — for the moment.
Earlier this week the city’s Board of Ethics released a settlement agreement with Brown, in which she agreed to pay a record $48,834 fine for financial improprieties — including using campaign funds to repay a personal loan.
The embattled councilwoman — once considered a strong possible candidate for mayor — could be stripped of her leadership post by a vote of council. Published reports have suggested that her council colleagues are discussing the possibility.
But none would say so on the record.
“Not that I know of,” said council President Darrell Clarke, when asked Thursday if there was a movement afoot to remove her as majority whip, a post Clarke once held.
Majority Leader Curtis Jones was among those who declined, on Thursday, to speak on the matter publicly.
Earlier in the week, he told reporters that the Ethics Board report was not grounds to remove Brown.
“I don’t see where her leadership within council, as whip, which is defined as the ability to garner votes, being able to move legislation, is impacted by the findings of the board,” he said Tuesday.
Speaking off the record, another council member said that council might be spurred to action if the report resulted in any more allegations, criminal or civil charges.
Brown admitted that she used campaign funds to pay back a personal loan from Chaka Fattah Jr. — the son of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah — using the money to stave off foreclosure after she fell behind in mortgage payments.
The news prompted almost immediate calls for her to resign from her council seat, and even spawned a website urging Philadelphians to recall her in a special election.
Speaking to reporters after Thursday’s council meeting, Brown said she did not have any indication that her colleagues intended to strip her of her post.
“No,” she replied tersely when pressed by reporters.
Council leaders were aware that she was the subject of an Ethics Board investigation, she said, adding that now everyone on council was aware.
Asked if she was concerned, Brown added, “I feel good that I will be measured on the totality of my work product. I feel good in knowing that consistently, in my 13 years here, I’ve made not good choices but very good choices. I feel good in knowing that I was very honest, I was very forthcoming [with the Ethics Board.]
She referred reporters with more questions back to a statement her office released Tuesday.
“I will do everything in my power to make amends,” she said in a statement released by her chief of staff David Forde.
In a statement, the councilwoman admitted to a number of “errors.”
“It is clear that there were a number of errors that occurred during the last campaign,” she said in the statement.” I take full responsibility for the conduct of my campaign and have taken corrective steps to ensure that future reporting is clear and accurate.”
The headline grabber was the loan from Fattah Jr. — known as Chip — which came in December 2010, just after Brown made a phone call to his congressman father seeking assistance in the effort to save her home. Shortly after the phone call, Fattah Jr. loaned Brown $3,300 — the final chunk of money she needed to stall bank action against her home. The loan was later repaid by the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown committee.
In campaign filings, the settlement found, Brown lied about the repayment, listing it as a payment for printing services. Additionally, the report noted that Fattah Jr. was employed by a for-profit school that relied on city council approval for its funding, which came through the school district. At the time, the school had a $4.5 million contract with the district.
“I … must take full responsibility for an error in judgment regarding the repayment of a loan, through campaign funds, for a personal matter,” Brown said in the statement. “I have subsequently made the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown whole through reimbursing that amount with my personal funds.”
Fattah Jr.’s phone number was no longer active. The congressman did not respond to requests for comment.
The loan from Fattah Jr. was not the only mistake Brown made.
Documents released by the Ethics Board — 25 pages in all — showed Brown’s campaign finance reports contained more than 170 “errors,” which the board broke down into 165 “material omissions” and six “material misstatements.”
A cursory accounting of the omissions and misstatements showed that Brown collected but failed to properly account for at least $46,600. She also inflated account balances for campaign accounts.
Among the omissions outlined by the settlement was a $4,000 donation from the Friends of Marian Tasco, and in the next reporting cycle a $4,000 debt to the Friends of Marian Tasco. A $2,500 gift from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was also on the list of donations that were not reported. Brown also failed to report a $150 donation from former SRC chairman Robert Archie and $250 from Evelyn Smalls, the president and CEO of United Bank.
The settlement, announced late Monday, also included a number of other incidents where Brown admitted to playing fast and loose with campaign funds. In several instances, she pocketed campaign contributions; in others, her campaign took amounts over the legal limit from a campaign related political action committee.
In one example, Brown took a signed, blank check from entrepreneur Sid Booker, then made it out for a $1,000 and deposited it in her personal bank account. Similar incidents, where Brown took campaign money and put it in her personal account, happened on four different occasions netting her $1,400.
Ethics officials noted that Brown voluntarily disclosed some of the transactions.
The report has already resulted in the firing of one city employee named in the settlement documents. John D. McDaniel was fired Tuesday from his job at the airport, where he was employed as an assistant director with a salary of more than $87,000. In 2010, he was Brown’s campaign manager.
McDaniel had also worked for Mayor Michael Nutter, who, after firing him, issued this statement.
“I have known John McDaniel for a long time, and certainly I’m disappointed by his actions and admissions as outlined in the Ethics Board report,” said the mayor. “The dismissal was “imperative to ensure the integrity of our government and our personnel,” he said.
Gun violence will be the subject of upcoming City Council hearings, after members, on Thursday, agreed to take a look at how the city deals with the problem and considers spending more to combat it.
Congress is in the middle of a debate on whether or not to ban assault weapons as the nation debates gun control in broader terms. Philadelphia cannot afford to wait, said Councilman Jim Kenney, who called for the hearings.
“While we wait for the national debate over how to control assault weapons, multi-clip magazines, background checks, mental health issues and the like, we still have resources here,” Kenney said. “While we’re waiting, we need to examine what’s successful.”
Council stood behind Kenney’s call for hearings with a unanimous vote.
Kenney said the city could not count on help from the state level adding, “We always hold out hope on that.”
He said he hoped to hold the hearings as the administration and council started budget talks, and that if needed, more could be allocated to fight the epidemic of violence.
Gun violence, which has long plagued Philadelphia, has again taken center stage in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December. Everyone from Mayor Michael Nutter to President Barack Obama has called for tightening gun laws.
However, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson pointed out that though Philadelphia has plenty of gun violence, it does not resemble the situation in Connecticut. Here, most incidents involve handguns, not assault rifles.
“Philadelphia is among the top three [cities in the nation] in terms of African-American, young men being murdered,” he said. “So, I’m looking forward to this discussion — but the majority of shootings in the city of Philadelphia are by handguns.”
Last year, 331 people were murdered in Philadelphia, up from 2011 when police department statistics reported 324. The city’s totals have topped 300 for the last five years.
Nineteen people have been murdered so far this year.
The vast majority are Black.
Police department data showed that in 2011, 84 percent of Philadelphia’s victims were African-American, compared to 13 percent who were white. Complete statistics were not available for 2012, but in an analysis of the first quarter, 68 percent of those murdered were Black.
In both years, roughly 90 percent of victims were men, and in both years nearly all of the victims were shot — 75 percent in 2011 and 81 percent in 2012. The department report did not indicate what types of guns were used.
Johnson said he hoped hearings would reveal what happened to guns confiscated during police investigations.
“What happens after the department confiscates a gun in a homicide or shooting?” he asked. “Do they do CSI work and trace where the gun comes from, or is it just a shooting and nothing happens? I’m concerned with choking off the pipelines that come through the neighborhoods.”
Freshman state Rep. Jordan Harris — in office just 32 days — has hit the ground running, already fleshing out two bills he hopes will help Philadelphia’s large population of ex-offenders.
“Philadelphia has a large population of folks who have found themselves on the wrong path and have since been on the right path,” he said, recounting the story of registered nurse he knew who was unable to get a job because of a non-violent offense she had committed more than 20 years ago. “While the good Lord may be forgiving, the criminal justice system isn’t.”
Harris would like to inject a little forgiveness into the system.
His first proposal, a bill that he has not quite finished drafting, would automatically expunge an individual’s arrest record if they were not convicted after their arrest. The second, also incomplete, would give individuals convicted of non-violent crimes the opportunity to have their records expunged after a seven-year period and an appearance before a judge who would ultimately make the decision.
“Folks, in my opinion, deserve a second chance after they’ve proven themselves,” he said. “This is not a Black issue. It’s not a white issue. It’s not a male issue. It’s not a female issue. It’s an issue that affects lots of Pennsylvanians.”
Harris sat down with the Tribune to discuss his agenda for the upcoming term.
A freshman, elected in November to represent the 186th Legislative District, Harris, who took his seat last month, said he plans to be very active in his inaugural session.
The 186th is made up of Point Breeze, Gray’s Ferry and a large swath of Southwest Philadelphia, several of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. The area is plagued by drugs, crime and unemployment. Solving those deeply entrenched problems will take time and a nuanced approach on many policy issues, Harris said.
“They’re all intertwined,” he said. “I think we need to take a smarter approach on how we address things.”
But, he’s dug in, and hopes the two bills he’s working on will help. Beyond those two initiatives, Harris was reluctant to discuss specifics except to say that he has plans for more legislation.
Among them is a bill that would ensure that parents are permanently represented on the School Reform Commission.
“Their voice needs to be more permanent — a parental voice — it shouldn’t be happenstance,” he said.
Also in the works are several proposals, Harris hoped would be “revenue generators” for the city.
Working, even briefly, as a state legislator has forced Harris to consider a broader perspective as he works in and for his native city.
“Relationships are key. To be an effective legislator you have to be able to get somebody from a different part of the state, sometimes from a different party, whose district has different circumstances to see why it’s important to give you a vote,” he said. “And to do that you have learn issues that don’t necessarily affect your community. Anybody that wants to affective in Harrisburg, they have to be able to do that.”
The freshman representative recently opened a district office on Point Breeze Avenue at Wharton Street. He has plans for two more.
Harris succeeded former state Rep. Harold James who represented the 186th from 1989 to 2008. James was replaced by city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson but then retook the seat after Johnson resigned to take his place on council.
Harris and Johnson, whose districts overlap in many areas, are closely tied to state Sen. Anthony Williams, a political mentor, whose district in many areas overlaps theirs. Prior to his election to the state House, Harris served as the city’s youth commissioner.