Thursday, January 31, 2008

What's up in Pennsylvania?

Cross posted at Daily Kos

The basis of the series, from the idea diary:

It'd be a diary every few days about each state, and the Democrats/Progressives in the state and the socioeconomic issues that state faces and what can be done to improve quality of life and how Democrats can do well electorally too, at all levels of government. I'm hoping for a collaborative effort for a semi-regular series that we can work on up to perhaps DNC time because after that, it's nonstop campaign till the election for many of us.

Famously described as "Pittsburgh on the West, Philadelphia on the East and Alabama down the middle," Pennsylvania's like three states knit together by the Turnpike, America's first real limited access interstate road.

Now known as a crucial swing state, Democrats outnumber Republicans in registrations by several hundred thousand. Democratic support at the federal level is solid in Southwestern PA in and around Pittsburgh, and in Southeast PA in and around Philadelphia. Democrats also do well in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre region. These are all counties where Clinton, Gore, and Kerry did well with some significant margins. The state's governor is a Democrat (Ed Rendell). Overall, this is not a state where the party is totally hurting.

Democrats did well in Pennsylvania in 2006. We, for the first time in many years, have a majority of the House seats. We sent Senator Bob Casey to Washington and unseated the evil and malodorous Santorum(NSFW link). We also gained a razor slim majority in the state House of Representatives and picked up seats in staunchly Republican districts in suburban Philadelphia.

And we can keep those seats. In addition, recently, an opportunity opened up in PA-5, where Congressman Peterson decided it was time to retire. It's a sprawling, huge, deeply Conservative and rural district along the northern tier of the state mostly north of I-80. I think the right Democrat with the right appeal could make the Republicans spend money there. Hell, the right Democrat could probably win.

Politics aside, there's a lot of good going on in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Erie all have economic development projects going on to improve the quality of life for their citizens. We're making efforts to bring green electrical generation to the state. Many Pennsylvanians have access to locally grown food from farmers markets all over the state (as agriculture is a major sector of the PA economy). A recent deal to ensure transit keeps operating passed the state Legislature. Infighting amongst the Republicans over how draconian they want to be toward gays means we aren't among the states with hate amendments and very likely won't be. Fundies are fairly muted. There's a wealth of post-secondary education opportunity. Unemployment is lower then the national average, and outside of the more expensive suburbs around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, cost of living is pretty low. Oh, and the income tax is flat, so flat-taxers would love that.

That's what's good about Pennsylvania. I rather like it here, as do many Pennsylvanians. I believe the statistic that gets thrown around is most Pennsylvanians live within 50 miles of where they were born, and more often then not, live in the same town (or same county) where they grew up. If you're born here, you stay.

Here's what's the matter with Pennsylvania. It's just two words, and these two words hold the meaning to everything that's wrong in Pennsylvania.


Those two words contain pretty much an encyclopedia of problems that our state and some of our neighbors face. For those not in the know, here's a
defination of the Rust Belt:

The Manufacturing Belt, more commonly known as the Rust Belt, is an area in parts of the Upper Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions centering around the Great Lakes of the United States of America. The region can be broadly defined as the region beginning west of the BosWash corridor and running west to eastern Wisconsin. The region extends southward to the beginnings of the coal mining regions of Appalachia, north to the Great Lakes and includes manufacturing regions of southern Ontario in Canada.

Economic activity in the Manufacturing Belt forms a significant part of the heavy industry and manufacturing sectors of the American economy. Contraction of manufacturing jobs has left many cities in this region in bad shape, forcing the area—the focal point on the continent for a recovering automobile industry—to diversify.

Most of Pennsylvania sits in the Rust Belt. Between 1970 and 2000, population growth across all but stalled as manufacturing moved to the South, and then eventually to Mexico and beyond. Indeed, much of the current growth the state has seen since the 2000 census is either in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh (suburban sprawl), or along the southern tier (York, Adams and Franklin Counties--in commuting range of Baltimore-Washington-Fredrick), or in the northeast corner (due to the overheated New York City metro housing market). Some of Philadelphia's suburban counties have grown, largely at the expense of other, inner ring counties and the city itself. I'll get to the implications of the growth that's occured in a second, as they're pretty important.

Rust Belt problems are cascading. The jobs leaving in the 1970s and 1980s meant white flight accelerated from many of the cities. Today, many Pennsylvania cities probably rival the way Southern segregation was prior to intergration, at least in my opinion. We've regressed.

The jobs leaving meant the brain drain began to accelerate. It was very noted in the 1990s, and Governor Rendell has made it an important part of both his administrations. Still, for a state that has excellent educational facilities (a significant portion of Americans live within 6 hours drive of many Pennsylvania universities, and we educate many of the nation's children), students are still leaving the state after they leave. This has and will lead to a demographic misbalance. Other then Florida, we have one of the nation's oldest populations.

Brain Drain

In Pennsylvania, higher education is a big industry--and Pennsylvania is a very big producer of college graduates. Between 1989 and 2000, some 750,000-bachelor degrees-- to use one indicator--were generated, making the state the nation's fourth largest producer of college grads.

Unfortunately, substantially more of these graduates move out of Pennsylvania than move into Pennsylvania. The numbers are disturbing. In the period referenced, Pennsylvania higher education graduated about 750,000, but only about 600,000 remained in the state. So, a net of about 150,000 more graduates--one in five of all graduates produced--were exported to other states.

We of course, are not the only state with a brain drain. The pattern is much more alarming in the Dakotas, for example. Still, it's corrosive to economic development when the youngest, best, and brightest leave for places like Denver, Atlanta, and the West Coast and it's even worse when they're not even natives and they just come here, get educated, and then go home or wherever.

Rendell's initiative started in 2003. As of 2007, the state hasn't made much leadway in staunching the flow of our students to other states. Even I have cast my eyes south and westward for better opportunity.

Now there is some good news in this. State government has made an effort (largely because we're cheaper) in hiring recent graduates. Mayor Reed of Harrisburg hired several new people right out of school, and a stipulation of their job is that they must live in the city limits. The mayor of Pittsburgh is 27 (and, nominally, a Democrat.)

The state is on a mission to change that. Three years ago, Pennsylvania developed a program called Keystone Innovation Zones, or KIZ, designed to do two things: keep the best and brightest college students from leaving and foster the creation of science and technology companies. KIZ has awarded $6 million in grants for research faculty to Pennsylvania colleges, offers $25 million in tax credits annually to new companies and encourages hundreds of firms to extend paid internships to students in the belief that collegians who have worked in the state are more likely to stay.

"There's a natural inclination when you come out of college -- if there are jobs available -- to stay in that area," says Dennis Yablonsky, the state's secretary of community and economic development. "We're trying to create an environment where this is easier to do."

The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency has provided $45 million in scholarships and internship wages for those studying in the science and technology fields. The state also has set aside 19% of the $2.74 billion it received in tobacco-settlement payments for bioscience research, some of which is being disbursed to state colleges.

So there are still some efforts in keeping the 22-35 age group in the state that are working. We're moving forward, abeit slowly.

The cascading effects of Rust Belt problems are seen pretty much everywhere. In the past, with the industry that occured during the days of Manufacturting, the state and therefore its municipalities had a wide tax base. The death of those industries means the tax base has shrunk. Now, if you mention "Property Taxes" to any Pennsylvanian, they'll shudder with a viseral reaction.

The shrunken tax base has affected everything from school funding to roads to transit. And due to the state's municipal fragmentation (there are over 2600 seperate municipal governments, 501 school districts, and 67 counties, thus creating a maze and morass of governmental authority), one town may be very bad off while the next town two blocks over is doing ok. Much of the state's cities, including both of the big cities and the state capital are in, have been in, or will be in soon, financial distress. 501 school districts means a lot of people get to have the small town experience of going to school within your community, but if you're in one of those towns (sorry, Townships or boroughs or cities, we only have one real town here) that's broke because the loss of industry and population has hollowed out your tax base, your school district is likely not going to be good either. State takeovers of school districts have occured, with varying results. The shrunken tax base also means overall, only 6 counties support the other 61.
The Brookings Institution examined several Pennsylvania cities and you can download the report there.

Casinos have recently been seen as a way to raise revenue to offset property taxes. We'll see about that.

Now, there HAS been growth as I noted. Unfortunately much of this growth is sprawl. I went to university in Lancaster County, a very rural, but increasingly sprawling county. I watched corn fields literally get plowed under for suburban tract housing, for commuters traveling to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. Yes, Amish folks are selling their farms and moving west, and their farms are getting renamed into subdivisions like "Country Acres" and "Countryside Estates" where all the houses look the same. Lancaster County, to its credit, is really making an effort to preserve as much farmland as they can, and constrain growth with a voluntary growth boundary much like the ones in Portland, Oregon. Lancaster Co. style growth can be seen in Adams County (home of Gettysburg), York County, especially south of the city of York, and Franklin County. Butler County is the same way, although that's people moving to the Pittsburgh area or out of Allegheny County. The growth in the Poconos is also the same---suburban sprawl. It has made for interesting sociodemographic changes and conflicts.

I'm of course happy to see my state growing, but I wonder how many of these peoples' kids (assuming these people don't all have ARMS and aren't in foreclosure, our foreclosure rates are pretty low comparatively) will stay here and invest in the state, since it's very likely their parents work in other states and they only live here because they can't afford to buy in Maryland or New Jersey or New York.

These are just a sample of what's the matter in Pennsylvania.

So how can Democrats in the legislature and Congress and beyond turn this around?

The biggest thing: ADDRESS THE RUST BELT CASCADE. We don't need low-paying Casino jobs (while it's great they are bringing employment)-we need high tech industry to see Pennsylvania as an economically competitive state. We clearly have the educated population---there are over 250 universities and colleges in the state. US 22/322 between Harrisburg and State College can become the next Silicon Valley. As the brain drain article notes:

Research suggests that a large pool of well-educated young people can be just as important to creating a vibrant economy as big employers and real-estate development. In regions where a larger fraction of the work force is college-educated, wages rise among everyone in the community, not just the degree holders, says Leah Platt Boustan, who teaches economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. But for that to happen, competitive jobs must be available, as well as a vibrant nightlife and other forms of entertainment, she says.

In one study, Ms. Boustan and her colleagues looked at Alabama, West Virginia and Massachusetts over periods in which the states received federal funding for advanced education and research. Results showed that Massachusetts kept the graduates, due to the rapid growth of the technology industry in Boston and its suburbs. Alabama and West Virginia didn't because they lacked the jobs and amenities students were seeking.

Harrisburg, for example, has the vibrant nightlife. In fact Erie and Scranton also both have arts and nightlife scenes. Just not the high tech competitive jobs (although Erie does have a long running GE plant).

In addition, address the divide and unite the state. As I noted, we really seem like 3 states knit together by a 4 lane tolled thread. People in the Philadelphia region may not realize it but there is a great deal of resentment toward it from the rest of the state. There's a perception that all the money goes there, when in fact it's the 5 county Philadelphia region plus Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) that supports the other 61 counties. I'm not really sure how this could be addressed. Perhaps it means the Democrats run a 67 County strategy to show off that we're there for everyone, not just the people in the cities who comprise our base, and a 67 County strategy would help us gain in surprising areas. If more people knew that the Republicans were just screwing them here in the Big Red T, they wouldn't vote for them.

I hope this was a decent read for everyone, and I hope someone does something like this for their home state too. I really hope you all learned something too.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Why do the 2100 blocks of Penn and Susquehanna suck so much?

A murder just three blocks from my home is getting me to ask this question.

I walk throughout Midtown, Olde Uptown, and the lower part of Uptown (Front to about 3rd) all the time and the 2100 blocks of both Penn and Susquehanna Streets are just not streets I would walk up. Ever. The 2200 blocks of either street (Penn, less then Susquehanna) are decidedly less sketchy and north of that they're generally alright.

However, just around the corner from the Governor's Mansion, is where this murder took place, and it's not the first one on either of these blocks since I've moved here. One block down are houses selling for the upper 100k. One block over is Uptown 2nd Street where houses sell in the 200k range. I just do not understand why the 2100 block of Penn and Susquehanna are so bad. Is it Section 8? Is there just not enough of a police presence? No sense of community? It boggles the mind to see such a disparity in just one block difference (by contrast, the 2100 block of Green which is between them seems like a quiet street. Again, it makes no sense.)

Amaryliis Watch 2008 Continues

Any day now, she'll bloom.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cool Place to Hang Out

That would be Carley's, sandwiched between Scott's and Fisaga/Spice on Locust Street.

Smoke free, and live piano music. Bit of a more sophisticated crowd. I liked the fact that it is smoke free.

I didn't get a chance to stop in there on New Years Eve because it was so packed.

I'll have to check them out for lunch sometime soon and report back. From everything I've heard so far, the place is well received and a welcome entry (and alternative) to the whole 2nd Street Frat Party scene.

Only in Central Pennsyltucky

Jersey Mike reports on some scammalicious doings by one of the local cab companies:

Dispatch: Taxi!

Me: Hey, is there a long wait for cabs tonight?

Dispatch: Not really…

Me: Cool, can I get a cab at [my address]

Dispatch: Sure, just so you know- the fare tonight is twenty bucks plus whatever the meter reads.

Me: Pardon me?

Dispatch: Yeah, it’s new years eve, man.

Me: You’re telling me that there’s an extra twenty dollar fee to take your stank-ass cab tonight?

Dispatch: Yessir.

Me: Go [expletive deleted] yourself.

And that was it. I hung up ENRAGED and INSULTED that this cab company- this same cab company which I called countless times before for inebriated rides home from the bar or for a quick trip to the train station would have the audacity to GOUGE it’s customers on a night of the year that’s notorious for drunk drivers and DUI crackdowns.

If anyone else met this scam on New Years Eve, I suggest you contact the Public Utility Commission and raise a royal stink.

I got lucky, I took the last bus downtown at 6:30 and found myself a ride home at 1 a.m. I suspect that if I had called a cab (all of whom were doing big business around 6:30 I saw) I'd have encountered this and flipped a bitchfit, and walked (it's about 2 miles.)