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Luke's bad timing

| Sunday, May 16, 2010

As we know from Ecclesiastes, "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven; a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot."

There is even an appointed time for City of Pittsburgh officials to approach the Pennsylvania Legislature for new taxing authority.

But this is not that time.

Still, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is proposing a graduated scale for what the city calls a local services tax but what is essentially an income tax of 0.3 percent on salaries and wages earned within city limits.

This is the latest scheme in what looks like a strategy of throw a lot of stuff against the wall and see if anything sticks. Ravenstahl previously suggested taxes on college and trade-school tuition and on sugary drinks. His administration also is considering the sale of Pittsburgh's parking facilities to private investors.

What is behind this frantic search for more money• Ravenstahl is trying desperately to raise enough money to keep the state from taking over the city's grossly underfunded pension system. The system has about $1 billion in obligations and only about a third of that cash on hand.

Anyone who now works in Pittsburgh pays a flat rate of $52 per year for city services. And while this is a pittance for the value of services provided, the timing of the 0.3 percent proposal could not be worse. Half of the state senators and all of the state representatives are up for re-election and most politicians will be loath to create a new tax for Pittsburgh.

Even without the elections, there is little likelihood that suburban Allegheny County legislators would vote for a new tax on their borough and township constituents for the sole benefit of the City of Pittsburgh. Of the 22 House members from Allegheny County, only two represent districts that are completely within the city, putting the other 20 at risk.

In less strident times, hard votes for new taxes often took place in lame-duck sessions after the November elections and before a new Legislature convened in January. But even if the votes would be there for this new tax, the scuttlebutt around the Capitol is that the Senate might not return for a lame-duck session at the end of this year.

And another common tactic -- getting legislators who are far removed from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to support the urban agenda -- might no longer be possible amidst political jitters.

Some Democrats remember the veteran northeastern legislator who was always willing to put up a vote for pro-Philadelphia bills, figuring no one in his district would care, since Philly was so far away. He was defeated when his opponent suggested that he cared more about Philadelphia than his own rural district.

Just as Rome was not built in a day, a solution to Pittsburgh's fiscal problems will require long-range planning, coalition-building and legislation that will help all struggling municipalities across the state.

And it wouldn't hurt if Luke Ravenstahl followed the lead of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who spends so much time in Harrisburg lobbying legislators that he greets them by name when they pass in the hall.

But most importantly, Ravenstahl must remember that in politics, as in life, timing is everything.

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