Rep. Kinsey: First session in Harrisburg was ‘an experience like no other’

 State Rep. Stephen Kinsey (front row, center) was surrounded by friends and family after being sworn into office in January. (Courtesy of Rep. Kinsey)

State Rep. Stephen Kinsey (front row, center) was surrounded by friends and family after being sworn into office in January. (Courtesy of Rep. Kinsey)

The timing could not have been worse.

As the deadline to pass Pennsylvania’s 2014 budget quickly approached late last month, state Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D-201) came down with a nasty stomach bug.

“It was really tough trying to sit in session for hours,” recalled Kinsey, a freshman lawmaker who represents parts of Northwest Philadelphia. “But you have that responsibility and that duty, so you still want to be there no matter what.”

And so, he fought through the pain to watch the process unfold and, days later, cast a dissenting vote.

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School-funding challenges revisited

There had been harder moments to face during his first legislative session in Harrisburg, on which he reflected during an interview this week with NewsWorks.

The School Reform Commission’s call for additional funding for the Philadelphia School District came to mind.

Staring down a $304 million budget shortfall next year, the SRC requested $180 million from the city and state. The rest would come from labor concessions.

Kinsey, a product of Philadelphia public schools, struggled with the appeal.

As part of its facilities master plan, Germantown High School, his alma mater, was one of 24 schools that were shuttered following the 2012-13 academic year.

“It was tough because it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to support you, yet you’re closing two schools in my district,” said Kinsey, referencing Mayor Michael Nutter’s June 4 plea inside the state capitol.

Robert Fulton Elementary, which sits directly across the street from GHS, was also on the closure list.

In the end, Kinsey and the rest of the General Assembly approved a rescue plan put forth by Gov. Tom Corbett, which includes roughly $127 million in new funding for the School District of Philadelphia.

“Sometimes, you have to think beyond the district and selfishness and think about the other kids that are still out there that still need to be supported,” he said.

The vast majority of the money is tied to sources outside of the state budget.

It banks on, among other things, the city doing a better job of collecting taxes and the city’s ability to borrow against the planned extension of its one-percent sales-tax hike, set to expire next June.

The plan does not include revenue from a $2-per-pack cigarette tax, which was projected to raise an additional $45 million for the district.

Philadelphia City Council passed the measure, but needed state lawmakers to sign off on it to make it a reality. That never happened, but Kinsey said he would have voted to green-light the new tax if it had.

“It becomes very frustrating,” said Kinsey of the failed attempt to approve the tax.

Emotional recollection

Still, the education debate also produced Kinsey’s top memory to date.

It came as state Rep. Cherelle Parker, who heads the House’s Philadelphia delegation, wrapped up an impassioned speech about finding funding for the Philadelphia School District.

“She talked about our kids and how we need to support them and how we can’t let them down,” he said.

After finishing, Kinsey said Parker openly wept, deafening the usual chatter that fills the House floor.

“Everybody just sort of stopped,” he said.

The bright side

Those are the moments that make Kinsey smile when he looks back on the past six months.

Despite the stress and the long days at the Capitol — he would typically arrived at 8 a.m. and get home at 9 p.m. — he said he truly loves his job.

“You really get a sense of the responsibility that you have as a legislator and the effect that it has on folks,” said Kinsey.

Over the summer, Kinsey will walk around the 201st legislative district to chat with constituents and, in some cases, introduce himself.

A lot of residents still don’t know him, and he wants that to change.

Sneak peek at the next session

He’ll also take time to further develop three pieces of legislation he plans on introducing in the fall.

Two are school-related.

In the event of a school closure, Kinsey said he wants to require school districts to offer transitional counseling.

Following the January kidnapping of a kindergartener from her West Philadelphia school, he wants to create more accountability when an adult signs a student out of school. (The child, who was found the following morning, was taken by a woman who pretended to be her mother.)

The last measure would require city workers to replace street bricks after if they’ve been dug up to access underground pipes. In some cases, Kinsey said patches of brick streets have been replaced with blacktop.

First, though, he’ll head back to Harrisburg Sunday night. The state’s fiscal code, a critical part of the state budget, still needs to be passed.

He’ll be happy to make the trip.

“For me, it was an experience like no other,” said Kinsey.

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