Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Kudos to John Street

I am not one to pull punches when I disagree with someone, as should be pretty self-evident for most of our readers. That said, when a politican does something that deserves credit, I try and note that too.

In that vein, I just want to say congratulations to Mayor Street for the 4th of July weekend. First, Live 8 went off without a hitch. (Unless, you, like me, think Rob Thomas, Josh Groban and Keith Urban are big hitches. But that ain't Mayor Street's fault.) The City, and all City workers, did one hell of a job getting the Parkway ready, keeping the peace, and cleaning up when it was done.

And, while I doubt that the City truly broke even on the event, I think it was certainly worth it. First of all, it was simply a big showcase for a City that can use a little publicity to our friends around the Country and around the world. But, more fundamentally, it was worth it because Philly played host to an event, that trying or not, probabaly did more to raise awareness about Africa than anything else this side of Blackhawk Down. Having Will Smith, with an audience of millions, snapping his fingers every three seconds to symbolize a child dying from poverty, is an unmeasurable good, and I am proud that Philly hosted it. Could it have done better? Yeah. Hyde Park, all singing along to U2, and Paul McCartney seemed to "get it" more. But, strictly in terms of the city itself, I am happy with our contribution.

Secondly, a few lines from this article, which was pretty useless, caught my eye:

The gala and concert's goal was $2 million - $1 million guaranteed to John's AIDS foundation, and $1 million to stay locally for AIDS education.

Tickets for the ball cost from $500 to $2,500.

About 600 guests ate pasta, poached salmon, turkey breast and grilled vegetables, and drank from an open bar. Singer Rufus Wainwright warmed up for John, who stood with tennis great Billie Jean King and acknowledged Mayor Street, Segal and Fumo. "This is an incredible step for a city to go through," John said. The city in effect turned over its annual July Fourth Parkway festivities to an AIDS benefit.
So, again, forgetting the party, the parade and fireworks, etc, Mayor Street turned July 4th into one huge benefit for AIDS charities.

Cheers, Mr. Mayor.


At 10:28 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

Philadelphia has come a long way since Mayor Rizzo scared almost everyone from coming to Philadelphia in 1976 on the basis of erroneous reports of violent radicals.

Positive new things seem to be happening in Philadelphia virtually every day, and this year's fourth of July celebrations were another high.

The traditional fourth of July activities aren't even finished: this year's Liberty Bell Medal will be presented on September 17 to the President of Ukraine.

At 5:52 PM, Blogger TheYPP said...

Congratulations on your new pay raise Rep. Cohen. Must be nice to sit on your butt and make $80k a year.

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

That's not a particularly fair characterization. The job, among other things, is one of constant travel to meet with diverse groups of constituents and interested citizens in one's own district, Harrisburg,and other places.

At 8:02 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Rep Cohen-

Forgetting the troll above, and forgetting the characterization of your job, the pay raise question is something that should be talked about.

Does it make sense in fiscally troubled times, for legislators to give themselves a payraise above cost of living increases? especially at a time of cuts to medicaid, et al?

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

Government is not like a private multinational corporation which stockpiles many billion dollars of reserves. A balanced budget is required by the state constitution; the state government tries to spend what it receives in taxes.

Therefore, all times are "fiscally troubled" times. There is never enough money to solve every problem, especially in times like the present when the federal government--run by Republicans in the House, Senate, and White House-- cuts hundreds of millions of dollars (about $350 million in state aid in 2005-2006).

What the Pennsylvania government spends its revenues on depends upon the will of the citizens, as expressed by whom they send to represent them in Harrisburg, especially what party they send to represent them in Harrisburg. Unfortunately, most legislative districts in both the House and Senate are represented by Republicans who have very limited empathy for the plight of the less fortunate and who often run without opposition. Dissent from their extremely conservative policies in their home districts is rather rare, creating the rebuttable presumption that they are indeed speaking for their constituents.

With the pay raises, the base salaries for Pennsylvania legislators are lower than that of many thousands of other public sector workers: experienced and well-credentialed teachers and principals, police who put in a lot of overtime or obtain advanced rank, professional aides in city and state departments in both the legislative and executive branches of the city, state, and federal governments, heads of departments and the vast majority of their deputies, etc. The bill raising legislative salaries also raised the salaries of judges, district attorneys, cabinet members, and the Governor, whose salaries were generally far higher than the legislature's before and after the pay raises.

I believe that legislative salaries should be high enough to attract many persons of competence
and integrity to seek the positions and work at them full-time and overtime when necessary or advisable.

It sent the wrong message when people like my Widener University School of Law law school classmate Kelly Lewis (R-Monroe County) resigned from the legislature immediately after winning re-election to take a well-paid lobbying job. It sends the wrong message in Congress when the number of former Congress members working as lobbyists exceeds the number of members sitting in the current Congress.

The people control the decision as to who their legislators are. That decision is more meaningful--and the people are hence more powerful--when the job is financially worth winning. When the job entails a significant financial sacrifice to the winner, the public's power over the winner becomes somewhat attenuated. Denying a person the chance to make a financial sacrifice is hardly the heaviest of punishments.

At 10:32 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Rep Cohen-

I appreciate your honesty here. But, let me say, I strongly, strongly disagree with you.

First, yes, others may be paid more than you. But, only one state, California, will pay their local reps more than you will get paid. Considering their State is a lot bigger, and their government is considerably smaller, I hope we don't try to pass them, as well.

Second, yes, there is always a tight budget. But, it is being a little evasive to say that all years are created equal. This year, State officials voted to cut spending on health care for the poorest and sickest Pennsylvanians. They have yet to vote on your minimum wage bill. And in that environment, they increase their pay to more than all but one state? I think that is simply wrong.

Third, I do not like the private sector argument. Besides the fact that the $30,000 in perks each member receives considerably raises their true salary, we are not really using public office as a way for people to get rich, right? Is government really ever going to be able to compete with the private sector? Moreso, should we even try? You give the example of Kelly Lewis, who stood for election, then immediately left after winning to be a high-paid lobbyist, and say he is a sign of why we should pay our politicians more? I think he is instead a perfect example of why we need to better regulate lobbyists.

And, at a time when the median household (not simply individual) income in PA is $41,000, it is hard to feel sympathy for any "economic hardship" of legislators.

You may have raised other people's salaries, as well, but are we supposed to sympathize with that? Spreading a big raise around to many others does not make it better in my book.

Finally, yes, ultimately the people decide. But, then how come a pay raise is hidden within a budget resolution, right as we go to a summer recess? Why not pass it a few months before an election?

Rep Cohen, I know that you are an ally on most issues, and I respct that you are willing to openly defend your decision on a forum such as this. That said, I think you are wrong. Very, very wrong.

At 2:05 AM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...


I deeply respect your outstanding (and growing) advocacy skills, and your passion to right the wrongs of society. I am confident you will make an outstanding attorney when you graduate from law school.

Responding to a minor point you made, the pay raise bill was passed by a separate vote from the budget. It was passed at the time it was because many issues before the legislature had been resolved by the budget and the ability to focus on a pay raise was present.

The $41,000 annual income per family figure includes retired persons and students, who are deliberately not working full time, and families where one or two potential breadwinners are unemployed.

Comparing legislators to full-time workers working similar hours in either the public or private sectors (usually 50 to 70 hours a week)with similar educational credentials (the average legislator has a master's degree) does not lead to the conclusion that you reach.

No one is going to get rich on a public sector salary with pay raises or without them. Any institution has to compete to attract or retain its workers. The base legislative salary passed in 2005 now equals the base legislative salary, adjusted for inflation, passed in 1987. We are not talking about lifestyles of the rich and famous here.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

Perhaps this topic deserves a post of its own?

Mark, I am a bit surprised by your comments here. Regardless of whether you think the legislators' pay raise is justified, it seems you could be more sensitive to the message it sends when politicians vote themselves a pay increase even as they consider cutting back benefits for the poor.

But with respect to your specific justifications: I don't know how many teachers you think make anything near your yearly income, but it is a distinct minority. There are many, many teachers who work more than full time, under taxing and potentially dangerous conditions, that make considerably less than you, let alone considerably less than the $41,000 annual income per family that you seem to suggest is a low number for comparison.

I would guess that in sponsoring a minimum wage bill, you are well aware of just how little money many people have to pay their bills. The fact that an individual may have an advanced degree does not, in my opinion, justify the level of imbalance between the incomes of college graduates and those of a custodian, who has to pick up our garbage, or a clerk that sells us a book. Your argument here is a slippery slope one. I heard someone on right-wing talk radio yesterday arguing in favor of eliminating the minimum wage altogether on the basis of the fact that "some jobs just don't justify minimum wage pay" in business terms. He said it isn't personal, but that the market simply dictates certain realities. He rejected the concept that in terms of human value, we all deserve similar resources. Those people who don't have your advanced degree don't work less hard because they never had the privileged upbringing that afforded them the opportunity to obtain one.

Obviously, there are much more significant examples of the inequities of our capitalist system than you and your fellow legislators voting themselves a raise. You, in fact, have posted comments on the disgrace of corporations justifying the low wages of outsourcing as simply seeking profits, when high-level execs skim off huge percentages of profits in the form of exorbitant salaries. Clearly, the issue being discussed here is on a different scale. I for one wouldn't begrudge legislators being paid a reasonable middle-class salary for a difficult job. But the conditions surrounding this particular pay increase, and your justifications, in my mind are representative of a "disconnect" between our politicians and their understanding of the circumstances of the people they represent. And I find your unequivocal position on this issue surprising, because it does seem like execs skimming off the top, albeit on a different scale.

At 1:48 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

One of the most consistently radical unions in America is the United Electrical Workers, which left the CIO over 50 years ago in a McCarthy-era dispute.

The United Electrical Workers has long taken the position that no union leader should be paid more than the highest paid worker. The result of this principled position is the vast majority of their union leaders leave to take jobs elsewhere and the union leadership experiences gained with the United Electrical Workers are ultimately applied to the benefit of other unions (and sometimes corporations) which pay considerably higher salaries.

The argument that salaries of public sector workers can never be raised because others are suffering is so widespread that public sector unionism has become nearly universal in an age in which private sector unionism is down to 8% of the total. The only reason that the federal government does not have collective bargaining for its workers is that Congress passed a law against it.

It is not the low income workers who pay the vast majority of taxes. Pennsylvania exempts low income people from the state income tax, and thanks to legislation pushed through by my father, Councilman David Cohen, the City of Philadelphia will do likewise after the Street Administration ends.

Next to the public sector, the largest concentration of union workers is now in the non-profit sector, where the same arguments are raised against higher salaries as in the public sector.

Community Legal Services, the United Way, and many other non-profits have unionized professional and non-professional employees because those who devote their lives to improving the welfare of those who need help most are victimized by appeals that they can't in good conscience get salaries at or near their market value as long as others are suffering.

It is the goal of right-wing business leaders to drive down the income of the middle class in the direction of the income of the poor. That should not be the goal of progressives.

It is the goal of right-wing business to dumb down the public sector by depriving it of experienced leaders. That should not be the goal of progressives either.

Those who believe that the Medicaid cuts should be restored should organize on that basis. Conflating Medicaid cut restoration--a $250,000,000 cost--with salary increases for legislators, judges, and district attorneys--a $5,000,000 cost--is a diversion from solving the underlying problems affecting low income people.

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Ben Waxman said...

Real quick: I think Mark is right on in this argument. People get worked up about pay raises over and over again-- but it's such a tiny fraction of the state budget. There are a lot of other things worth getting mad about.

It's a paper tiger that is easy to get people excited about. It's not like these guys are getting rich. Do they make more than teachers and other public employees? Yes. On the other hand, being an elected offical is not exactly an easy job. Frankly, I'd like to see Mark get a $10,000 bonus if the minimum wage bill gets signed into law.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

It is a symbol. A really bad symbol.

It may not be an easy job, but neither are many others, and it is one they sought. And, I don't know, what is harder: teaching high school at an inner city Philly school, or being a State Rep? Each job's "toughness" probably depends on the character of the person more than anything else.

Bottom line is that we cannot compete with the private sector, and never will be able to, nor should we try. We shoud insure that our state reps can live comfortable lives. And, at a salary much higher than most PA residents, with tons of perks, they can live just fine. And, if they cannot, how come they make more than state reps in every single other state, save one?

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

The main difference between Pennsylvania and other state legislatures is the degree of time and expertise that goes into legislative decisionmaking.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says that Pennsylvania is one of the four most full-time states in the country, based upon how many legislators have significant outside income and how many days they spend on legislative business.

Pennsylvania is classified with New York, California, and Michigan in this top-ranked category. While Pennsylvania's legislature is far from perfect, and far too conservative in my judgement, we do function with a high level of competence.

California's notorious inability to come even close to balancing a budget or to regulate utilities led to the recall of Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

New York has frequently failed to pass a budget for most of the year the budget is to cover, and has failed to get all too many of its members to adhere to ethical standards in financial and personal matters.

Michigan, like Pennsylvania suffering from massive deindustrialization, has failed to
deal with the problem of developing a new employment base as well as Pennsylvania or other states have.

With a Democratic majority and more progressive Democrats, the Pennsylvania legislature could do better things. But what it does, it does competently because of significant attention to detail. (I do not deny that further improvements are possible.)

In the days of the Soviet Union, they got by with their legislative body meeting all of three days a year and merely rubberstamping whatever they were given to vote on. Until the 1950's, the Pennsylvania legislature often came uncomfortably close to the Soviet model. No comparison with other states is valid unless there are considerations of time spent and outside income earned.

Income disclosure of legislators is generally limited to souces rather than amounts, so exact comparisons are difficult. But in many other states it is quite common for legislatures to composed of highly paid attorneys,other professionals, businesspeople, and association executives, who earn far more each year than do the vast majority of Pennsylvania legislators.

Pennsylvania may be the 2nd highest paid legislature in terms of base salary paid for out of state funds, but I doubt we are anywhere near the top tier in terms of average income earned each year by members of the General Assembly.

I believe it is far better in terms of public policy to have legislators financially dependent on taxpayers than on employers or partners with significant legislative agendas of their own.


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