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Chestnut Hill Local - June 9, 2016

A humorless political joke

Like most folks, I enjoy a good joke. Having grown up watching Johnny Carson, I learned the elements of how a joke is constructed. There’s the premise,“a goat walks into a bar,” and the punchline, “next time, I’ll wear a hat.” It’s the little story between the premise and the punchline that makes it a real joke.

In January, our new Mayor announced the premise. He wanted to create universal pre-K and pay for it with a soda tax. With that, he set this town on fire with debate at every level: Facebook, Twitter, op-eds, radio and TV ads. Opposing coalitions were formed, and millions have been spent.

The issue has been framed to suggest that we’ll have pre-K if the tax is adopted and we won’t if it isn’t. That’s the premise. The punchline is that, even with this very controversial tax, pre-K is a distant, long shot.

You see, Jim Kenney’s plan only addresses three years and is already obsolete. It claims a budget of $60 million annually, but that is based on minimum wage salaries. Kenney acknowledges the budget will increase in order to attract quality candidates. Further evidence the tax won’t cover the cost of universal pre-¬K is that the Mayor plans to approach the state, businesses and philanthropies to cover millions more in costs. This is not a real plan.

The devil is always in the details, but these are uniquely vexing. With the most specious of funding plans, Kenney says he wants to add 10,000 taxpayer-supported pre-K slots by 2020. In the unlikely event he succeeds, that will still leave 9,000 children in the cold. Not quite “universal”.”

As a funding base, soda is the last product to which you want to tie education. Soda faces a 30-year low in consumption and will shortly be surpassed by bottled water as America’s favorite beverage. In Philly, consumption has dropped 24 percent among Millennials.

Did Kenney learn nothing from the special cigarette tax that only Philadelphians pay? It was adopted to fund schools, but the tax reduced consumption and proceeds. One step forward, one step backward.

In another half-¬hearted effort to fund education, our pols imposed a “special” state sales tax increase that only applies to Philadelphians. Plainly, that didn’t work either.

The things that seriously afflict our city do not result from drought, poorly constructed levees or economic decline. Our schools, many pensions and our prosperity have all been trusted to politicians, and administration after administration has failed us. It takes a long time to develop a $5.7 billion shortfall in our pension fund. Our schools did not become a dystopian nightmare simply because of Mayor Nutter. We did not become the poorest big city in the nation overnight. That distinction required decades of political neglect.I think our problems resist resolution because our pols aren’t really committed to solving them. Like bad dermatologists, they treat your acne without ever curing it.

Please indulge me as I turn my attention to Kenney’s announced plan to pump $600 million into recreation centers, libraries and parks. Sounds dandy, does it not? The truth is the Mayor and Council have neglected these assets for decades and this torrent of cash is intended to catch up on long-deferred maintenance. This will not be a giant leap forward.

And, let’s take another look at that flashy $600 million figure. Half will be borrowed from Wall Street and the balance ($300 million) will be raised from businesses and the philanthropic community.

First, that’s not a real plan. Second, these are the same folks he’s going to hit up to close the gap on universal pre-K.

The Kenney/Clarke push for community schools also relies on the resources of businesses, churches and charities. All of Kenney’s “plans” heavily rely on a tin cup.

As I see it, Kenney is amusing us with a series of bad ideas because he lacks good ones. The soda tax was twice rejected by Council, yet he desperately pins his hopes to it. Fancifully, he even intends the tax to contribute $26 million annually to the pension fund. Sounds dandy, does it not? The truth is, at that rate, pensions won’t be fully funded for over 200 years. And, as soda consumption plummets, so will the revenue. This is not a real plan.

While Carson definitely prepared me for politics, the joke is on our elected officials. Despite their most substandard and compromised efforts, our universities, restaurants and theaters continue to flourish. Our parks and rivers provide recreation and peace. Coffee shops and niche amenities abound.

To our great relief, we see how very little impact pols have on our lives. Of course, it’s very different if you’re poor. Not even The Great Carson can assuage their neglect and pain.

So, I thank God for my blessings, one of which is the ability to know a joke when I hear one.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

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