Mayor Kenney, Comcast looking at legality of proposed wage history bill

File photo: A 2015 rally outside Council chambers to call attention to the city's negotiations with Comcast over citywide franchise renewals.

Mayor Jim Kenney, Comcast and a coalition of Philadelphia businesses are examining the legality of a proposed bill that would bar companies from asking employees for their salary history. 

Late last year, City Council passed a controversial bill that bans employers from asking future employees what they've earned in the past. Kenney's signature is required, or he can veto it, so in December he requested the City's legal department send a letter to Comcast and a coalition of Philadelphia companies asking about the legality of the bill.

"The Mayor asked for our lawyers to contact the City’s Law Department to discuss the legality of the legislation.  The City Solicitor then requested a letter summarizing the coalition’s legal position," said Comcast spokesman John Demming. 

Comcast has given Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney a total of $8,000 in campaign contributions over the past two years. In 2015, Comcast gave $5,500 in political contributions to then-City Councilman Kenney's mayoral campaign, which followed a $2,500 contribution the prior year. 

The donations were made to Kenney during his run for mayor of Philadelphia by the Comcast Corporation & NBCUniversal Political Action Committee-USA, according to donation records disclosed annually on the public company's website.

In the scheme of Comcast's donations nationwide, that's about average. Comcast spreads contributions around many local races, not just in Pennsylvania, but in almost every state.

In Philadelphia, Comcast hedged its bets, giving then-Mayor Nutter $5,000 in 2014. Comcast also gave money to Philadelphia City Council members Darrell Clarke ($2,000), Kenyatta Johnson ($1,500) Blondell Reynolds Brown ($550), and Mark Squilla ($500) the same year.

Nationally in 2014 and 2015, Comcast made 4,787 individual contributions. In Pennsylvania, Comcast gave $639,015 to dozens of lawmakers over those two years, including $50,000 to both Tom Wolf and Tom Corbett for their 2014 gubernatorial campaigns and $8,000 to Kenney.

And in 2014, Comcast gave money to over 100 local politicians in Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania races.

Is there a quid pro quo

"After united public pressure from everyday people, Philadelphia officials have a strong, recent record of both pushing Comcast to expand resources for low-income communities in exchange for using our public rights-of-way, and in bucking Comcast's resistance to common-sense municipal decisions focused on improving the work lives of our many communities," noted Hannah Jane Sassaman, an activist with West Philadelphia's Media Mobilizing Project. Sassaman's group has pushed for Comcast to make payments to replace the school taxes it escapes because of abatements on properties such as its JFK Boulevard headquarters tower.

"During the recent franchise negotiations with Comcast, led both by Council leaders and the Administration, elected officials lifted up Comcast's high costs, low responsiveness to customers, and lack of support for low-income customers, amongst other issues, as major problems to fix in their next 15-year deal to sell services in the City," she added. 

"If the Mayor and Council don't blink at Comcast's threat to sue, and instead move forward in their vital efforts to reduce the pay gap for thousands of Philadelphians, they should be applauded for adding to that great track record of standing with people power, rather than corporate power."

Among those who received over $10,000 from Comcast were Friends of Dominic Pileggi, the Mike Turzai Leadership Fund, Friends of Joe Scarnati, the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Campaign Committee, Bob Brady for Congress, and Friends of Jake Corman. 

Campaigns that received between $5,000 to $9,000 included: Cartwright for Congress, Citizens for Hughes, Bill Shuster for Congress, Friends of Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania House Republican Campaign Committee, Tom McGarrigle for Senate, Tomlinson for State Senate, Rothfus for Congress, Mike Kelly for Congress, Charlie Dent for Congress, Citizens for Prosperity In America Today PAC, Dedicated To Establishing National Teamwork PAC, Friends of Glenn Thompson, Keystone America PAC, Keystone Fund; Leadership for American Opportunity PAC, Marino for Congress, Nutter for Mayor, PA Cable PAC, Patriots for Perry, Ryan Costello for Congress and We the People PAC.

Comcast runs cable franchises, internet businesses, and the Universal theme park. Issues before the GOP-controlled legislature included telecom taxes that experts say are among the nation's highest.

In 2015, Comcast donations included Sen. Pat Toomey ($7,500) and Republican U.S. Reps. Tom Marino and Ryan Costello (both $10,000).

Big, heavy-regulated corporations such as Comcast generally give more to political campaigns and lobbying because of the nature of their business.

So what does Comcast get for its money?

Comcast has squeezed concessions from the city of Philadelphia: Comcast called the new 15-year franchise agreement with the city one of the best in the nation. In 2015, Philly ended up with $20 million toward public, government and educational access channels--less than what the city wanted but $2 million more that what Comcast offered a month before.

Comcast re-launched the Yankees baseball channel to about 950,000 customers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut on Fox after a game of chicken with Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia is available to Verizon but has not reached terms with DirecTV, a source of angst for many.

And although Comcast bailed on a deal to buy Time Warner Cable, which would have combined the nation’s largest and second largest cable companies, Comcast did acquire NBCUniversal in 2011.

And of course, state and city lawmakers granted Comcast a huge tax break to build its headquarters at 17th and JFK Boulevard in center city.

Comcast is relatively transparent about its political giving.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Political Accountability, which annually scores companies for their political-spending transparency with its CPA-Zicklin Index of Political Disclosure and Accountability, released its latest index in September 2016 on companies in the S&P 500 and analyzes 24 categories: whether a company discloses recipients and amounts; whether it has implemented board-level oversight of political spending; and whether it posts a detailed report semiannually on its website; and other measures. The center scores companies from zero to 100.

Partly because of Comcast's openness -- such as the recipients and amounts listed on the Comcast website -- the cable giant scored at the "lower end of the first tier," with 82.9. Comcast was the highest-rated locally based company.

"I would say that the company has good behavior," Bruce Freed, the center's president said last fall

Comcast, for its part, issued a statement Tuesday saying it's not alone asking Mayor Kenney to veto a wage bill making it illegal to ask about past salary history: 

“Comcast is part of a broad coalition of many employers – small and large for-profit companies and non-profit organizations – all of whom have serious concerns with the proposed legislation.  We are all very focused on tackling wage inequity among women and minorities.  The coalition simply does not believe that this legislation is the appropriate vehicle to address this important issue," Demming added.