Vote-trading is an old and time-honored tradition in Congress, state legislatures, town councils and probably student councils. Read Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and you’ll see how it helped get historic civil rights legislation through Congress.
Such deals are typically proposed and negotiated behind closed doors. The parties generally have the good taste not to do that kind of thing in public.
But as budget negotiations in the Pennsylvania legislature reached the mature phase yesterday, Governor Tom Corbett took the unusual step of taking the sausage-making public. He told reporters that Democratic lawmakers from Philadelphia can get desperately-needed funding for their schools if they’ll vote for his state pension reform bill.
“If there is a positive pension reform vote, then there would be a positive cigarette tax vote on behalf of the school district of Philadelphia,” Corbett said at a hastily-called news conference in his office. You can see the whole thing courtesy of Roxbury News here.
You may recall that Philadelphia City Council has already voted to impose a $2 a-pack tax on cigarettes sold in Philadelphia, but it requires approval in the state legislature.
Some Harrisburg veterans say they can’t remember a governor being quite this blatant about offering a deal for votes.
If Corbett seems a little desperate, maybe he is. In an uphill re-election fight, he doesn’t want to come away from this budget cycle without something he can sell to voters as a major accomplishment. A pension reform bill would do, but he and GOP legislative leaders can’t get it with just Republican votes, even though they’re a majority in both houses of the legislature.
So they’ve come asking for Democrats from Philadelphia and offering support for the cigarette tax as leverage. Democrats are reacting with outrage, saying they can’t support the pension plan and that the two shouldn’t be linked at all. Here’s one take on the issue from Philly Mag’s Patrick Kersktra, who calls the deal Corbett proposes “a mugging.”
“Philadelphia’s children are not chattel to be bought and sold on a political auction block,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told me Monday afternoon. I’d managed to get him on the phone as he was sitting in the capitol cafeteria in Harrisburg, between rounds of the budget battle.
Nutter wasn’t happy with how it was going, but he wasn’t giving up. He said there was no reason to link pension reform, however valuable, with funding Philadelphia schools, and he noted that the cigarette tax wasn’t taking a bite out of the state treasury. It was just giving Philadelphia the authority to tax itself.
He’s made that pitch plenty before, and it hasn’t gotten the votes he needs in the legislature.
Bill Green, chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, told our education reporter Kevin McCorry Friday he’s “hopeful that that members of Philly’s delegation will hold their nose and take some votes that will enable the district to get the required funding.”
Well, Governor, at least somebody is listening.