Philly leaders to Harrisburg: ‘Leave us alone’

 Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrel Clarke are concerned by what the see as state lawmakers wading into city politics. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrel Clarke are concerned by what the see as state lawmakers wading into city politics. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

Philadelphia city leaders have a message for state legislators in Harrisburg: stop meddling in the city’s local lawmaking. 

In recent weeks, the Republican-controlled legislature has sponsored bills to punish the city for its “sanctuary city” status; overturn a local measure aimed at narrowing the gender pay gap; and undo a law requiring Philadelphia employers to offer paid sick time.

“My preference is that they leave us alone,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday. “If you don’t want to live with us or be with us, then let us be at peace. And send us all your immigrants, because we’d love to have them.”

Kenney is referencing Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city” status, which means city police do not hold people who are arrested and suspected of being in the country illegally for federal immigration authorities. The police do hand over suspects when federal authorities present a warrant.

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Complying with the federal detainer requests, courts around the country have found, is voluntary.

But to some state legislators, not detaining suspects long enough for immigration officials to pick them up presents a public safety threat.

Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill this month that would withhold more than $1 billion in aid to Philadelphia and other cities that refuse to entertain these kind of detainer requests.

Another state measure would kill a Philadelphia law set to take effect in May that prevents employers from asking would-be hires about their past salaries.  It’s an effort to disrupt the cycle of women getting paid less than men for the same work.

The Pennsylvania Senate also is pushing a bill that undercuts a 2015 city law requiring companies with 10 or more employees to allow workers to earn up to 40 hours of paid sick time. A similar proposal passed the Senate last session, but it did not advance. 

“In some corners of Harrisburg, it’s fashionable to beat the city of Philadelphia up,” City Council President Darrell Clarke said. “But the concern is that Philadelphia is the economic engine in the state, so I don’t know why we continue to get treated as the stepchild.”

Indeed, Southeastern Pennsylvania accounts for about a third of all state income tax dollars generated statewide.

“The angst is not about the region. It’s about the city of Philadelphia,” spokesman for Pennsylvania House Republicans Steve Miskin said. “You don’t read about abuse of taxpayers and fraud in the outlying counties.”

The Philadelphia area may be an economic engine, though Republicans point out that Philadelphia in turn receives hundreds of millions of dollars in state support.

“I don’t think we’re picking on Philadelphia at all,” said state Rep. Seth Grove, who represents York County. “I think Philadelphia has overstepped its boundaries as a local government, and reining them in and making sure we have a vibrant economy in Philadelphia is a good thing.”

Mark Pertschuk, who leads a project called Preemption Watch at the Oakland-based nonprofit Grassroots Change, said the trend of state legislatures being pitted against city leaders defending local laws has been accelerating recently.

“This is a national, 50-state strategy,” Pertschuk said. “There’s no ideological basis for it. It’s all about money and the profits for industries.”

In some instances, he said, the threat of a state legislature intervening is having a chilling effect on local government proposing laws at all. 

“We’re seeing counties and cities that are just throwing up their hands and not taking action on some important issues that their constituents care about,” Pertschuk said.

Back in Philadelphia, Kenney said he thinks some of the Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg are being influenced by the national conversation, particularly by the country’s president. 

“They’re trying to model themselves after Donald Trump, because they saw that he was successful in getting elected nationally,” Kenney said. “They think if they’re mini-Donald Trumps, they will do well in the state.”

State Republicans, though, are not persuaded by the mayor’s analysis.

“That’s just a big, grandiose proclamation,” Miskin said. “These issues and concerns have been around long before President Trump began campaigning.”

Kenney said if the city has to, some of these showdowns may wind up in courtrooms across the commonwealth, likely poised to be the final venue for fights over laws and policies supported by Philadelphia leaders but challenged by state lawmakers. 

Grove said he and his Republican colleagues will not be deterred by the threat of a legal dispute. 

“If they want to pay attorneys to fight state law that we pass, let them,” Grove said. “But that’s on them. It’s not our fault.”

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