Archive: January, 2010
We mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there's a conversation gaining steam in the country about the compensation of public sector employees, and how it compares to the private sector. Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones weighed in yesterday with a thoughtful take -- though not a conclusive one:
This is a hard question to answer. How do you make sure you're really looking at comparable jobs? How do you value different benefits packages? How do you adjust for things like age, experience level, and regional cost of living differences? Has public sector comp gone up faster than inflation, or merely faster than more stagnant private sector median wages? Has anyone taken a broad, reasonably rigorous look at this? I'd sure be interested if someone has.
Frankly there may not be one correct answer to the question, "Are public sector employees overpaid?" Matthew Yglesias makes the case that the more important question is whether public employees are doing valuable work, and he's right, though we still think the questions Drum is asking are worth hashing out.
A question that gets thrown around from time to time in discussions of government aid, do-goodery etc. is, "would you pay your taxes voluntarily?" Well, this is not that. But it is a story of a government taking a softer approach to tax collection. Governing has an interview with officials from Washington state about their efforts at "voluntary tax compliance." Basically, Washington has something called a "use tax" which is a little bit obscure, and which a lot of businesses don't pay. The state wanted to step up collection of the use tax. But instead of auditing people or sending out threatening letters, it decided to undertake a public information campaign, informing businesses of the existence of the tax, and giving them a heads up that they may owe some money. It worked:
Back in 2003 when we started this program, the response rate was 43 percent. Now we're at 57 percent. Overall, collections that can be attributed to this program have been in excess of $17 million over the past five fiscal years. It's reasonable to say the targeted-education program is behind why businesses are paying a tax they previously didn't pay.
Of course, at the end of the day this "voluntary compliance" campaign is backed up by, well, involuntary compliance -- you have to pay your taxes in Washington. But it does sound like business owners appreciate an approach in which they're not treated like delinquents right off the bat. It's more respectful, and in a lot of cases, that respect is appropriate. Clearly a lot of these folks don't intend to cheat on their taxes.
In his State of the Union address tomorrow night, President Obama will propose a three-year freeze on many domestic programs. The measure would be aimed at reducing the federal deficit over the next ten years.
The freeze would cover the agencies and programs for which Congress allocates specific budgets each year, including air traffic control, farm subsidies, education, nutrition and national parks.
But it would exempt security-related budgets for the Pentagon, foreign aid, the Veterans Administration and homeland security, as well as the entitlement programs that make up the biggest and fastest-growing part of the federal budget: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
- A new report shows that Pennsylvania’s first congressional district, which includes Chester, South Philadelphia and parts of North Philadelphia, is among the hungriest in the nation.
- Remember that fight between Jon Corzine and newly elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over New Jersey’s possible budget deficit? Well, a nonpartisan budget officer told a legislative panel yesterday that Christie could be right about facing a $1.3 billion budget shortfall to close out the fiscal year. Corzine had said that he left behind a surplus.
- Pittsburgh officials are trying to assess the impact on city finances of being denied a $29 million request for stimulus funds targeted at neighborhood stabilization initiatives.
- The city of Harrisburg is considering major tax hikes and asset sales to deal with a projected $164 million deficit over the next five years. Under the mayor’s fiscal recovery plan, property taxes would rise by a whopping 117 percent in 2011.
- The Bethlehem water company is exploring green options to save some money. It’s considering ways of getting paid to maintain its watershed, a forested area up in the Poconos that acts as a natural carbon sink.
- And finally, we here at It’s Our Money have a motto when we get down about Pennsylvania government: At least we're not California. The projected shortfall in Cali has gotten so large that Gov. Schwarzenegger is asking why the state can’t house some of its prisoners in Mexico, since building and maintaining a prison there would be cheaper.
Someone's got another bone to pick with the PPA. This time user "mattdrex" is confused about restrictions on residential parking zones. He says:
As a center city resident, I have a real question for the PPA. I have a zone 4 residential pass. Roughly speaking I'm allowed to park between Locust and South from 15th to 7th - but let us focus on the blocks between Broad and 15th from Spruce to South. Spruce St between Broad and 15th - no parking (too close to the Kimmel). Pine St between Broad and 15th - half zone 4, half 2 hour meters not zoned for residential parking. Lombard between broad and 15th - all zone 4 parking. South between Broad St and 15th - although you can park on either side of the street, it's all zone 1 (not 4 like the others). So it's frustrating that for some reason I can park along Pine, Lombard and even parts of 15th St - but not South between Broad and 15th. I could go on with questions about a lot of blocks like that (South between Broad and 13th, 13th between Spruce and Locust, almost all of 12th street, Spruce between 13th and Broad, the last four spots on Lombard before you reach broad). So, why aren't those places zoned for residential parking? It's certainly a residential area, they're definitely in zone 4, and there's not a school, firehouse, hospital or police station on any of the blocks I mentioned - if it's metered, why wouldn't it be zoned residential as well?
Have any other questions for the Parking Authority? Ask them on City Howl.
As part of Mayor Nutter's plan to deal with the city's $1 billion budget deficit, Philadelphia no longer pays for costs associated with special events. This development has provoked some outcry, as groups like the Mummers struggle to pay for their parades without tax dollars. Today, Catherine Lucey has a story in the Daily News about a meeting between several such groups to try to secure dedicated funding for ethnic parades.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, who pushed for the sit-down, said she didn't think that the smaller, volunteer-staffed ethnic parades should face the same financial burden as bigger events that attract more donors and corporate sponsorship.
City officials are sitting down today with leaders of the city’s ethnic parades to try to work out a compromise on the fees they now have to pay for having an event in Center City. Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez arranged the meeting.
Speaking of enterprising council members, a Pittsburgh city councilman has written letters to top officials in other Pennsylvania cities pleading that the cities unite to support a reform agenda during the governor’s race. He wants to push for solutions to rising urban budget deficits.
Pennsylvania political watchers have long said that a key to reducing the cost of government is for different cities and counties to share services. Well, it looks like an attempt by Lehigh and Northampton counties to do just that is on the rocks, according to an analysis by The Morning Call.
Last week, the Daily News argued that Mayor Nutter had made the right decision in not appealing the police arbitration award, because the gains made in the contract (long-term changes to pension and benefit plans) outweighed the short-term pain it imposed on the city (raises).
Over the weekend, the Inquirer took a closer look at the downside, pointing out that in addition to the police, teachers and SEPTA workers have all gotten raises this year, and asking whether governments can afford those kind of payouts.
It also asked what the relevance of these three settled contracts is for the city's negotiations with other unions, and got an interesting answer from Nutter: The school district and SEPTA contracts, the mayor said, are not relevant, because those entities aren't funded by the city. The police contract is relevant, he believes.