State Rep. Cherelle Parker speaks at a town hall meeting at United Cerebral Palsy in Chestnut Hill. In the background is Hilary Emerson, chief legislative aide for Parker. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

State Rep. Cherelle Parker speaks at a town hall meeting at United Cerebral Palsy in Chestnut Hill. In the background is Hilary Emerson, chief legislative aide for Parker. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget and the proposed sale of Philadelphia Gas Works were the hot-button topics discussed at the March 27 town hall meeting hosted by State Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D-Phila.) at United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia, 102 East Mermaid Lane.

Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, briefly reviewed Gov. Corbett’s budget.

“This is a better budget than we have seen in a number of years,” she said.

Ward noted that while the new budget does increase funding for schools, it makes no increase in basic education funding. In other words, it does not directly restore funding for nurses and counselors, art, music and advanced courses.

“It’s an election year,” she said. “It’s easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar. The bad news is Pennsylvania’s economy is not recovering as quickly as most states.”

Ward added that the budget does increase funding for early childhood education, rape and domestic violence programs and funding for people with intellectual disabilities.

“Gov. Corbett has learned to understand and has made a real commitment to helping people with intellectual disabilities,” she added.

According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, funding for individuals with intellectual disabilities will increase by $11 million.

Ward pointed out that the budget provides new dollars for schools by making changes to the state’s pension system.

The Pew Charitable Trusts and Laura and John Arnold Foundation recently estimated that nearly half of Pennsylvania’s current pension debt stems from the commonwealth’s failure to make annual required contribution payments.

Ward said Corbett attempted to boost the economy by providing businesses with almost a billion dollars in corporate tax cuts. She said the governor’s decision not to extend Medicaid coverage was “a missed opportunity.”

An opportunity, she added, that would bring $4 billion into the state and create 35,000 jobs.

“There is a real concern that the money allocated in this budget will not be there next year,” she said.

Ward said this year’s budget has a big increase in prison spending – $78 million to be exact. (The increase is due to the rising cost of incarceration, which the Pennsylvania. Budget and Policy Center said is projected to climb to $41,100 per inmate in 2014-15)

Ward said that next year Pennsylvania will spend roughly $2 billion on prisons and about $1.6 billion on colleges and universities.

“This is an area of real concern,” she said.

Ward said Pennsylvania’s future depends on people getting involved and letting their legislatures know where their priorities are.

Parker noted that Pennsylvania’s future will not be bright if it continues investing more money in prisons than in higher education.

“I don’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican or independent,” Parker said. “It has got to make your skin cringe when she tells you that as a commonwealth your tax dollars are being more invested in corrections then they are in higher education. I believe there is something innately wrong with someone making that kind of budgetary priority.”

One attendee asked what the governor’s justification was for putting together Healthy PA.

“The Federal government under the Affordable Care Act would provide health care to about 600,000 people if the governor of this state had expanded Medicaid,” the attendee said. “But now, he is proposing this health program which reduces Medicaid benefits. But under the Affordable Care Act Medicaid Expansion, people would be getting a lot of benefits. So 600,000 people will not have health care in this state, because the governor is pandering to the Republicans.”

Proposed sale of PGW

More than 80 residents listened to Parker, who is chairwoman of the Philadelphia County Delegation and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, explain why she doesn’t support Mayor Micheal Nutter’s $1.86 billion proposed sale of Philadelphia Gas Works.

“I need you to know for the record – that Cherelle Parker is not in support of privatization of PGW,” she said.

Parker added that while “the General Assembly doesn’t have a nickel in that quarter” the Philadelphia Delegation will be meeting with PGW, PUC and the Connecticut utility holding company.

“I don’t want you to think that I am trying to put the poison pill in your mind,” she said. “I am a capitalist, too. I support American principles. I support competition. That is what makes America great that everyone is suppose to have an opportunity to do well, but at the same time I just say, let’s just pay attention and ask some common sense questions.”

Parker said if the PUC could privatize PGW, it would do so immediately. She said just the concept of a municipal government owning a public utility company is absurd to the PUC. But, Parker added, the city has owned PGW for 178 years.

Parker voiced concerns about what effect selling PGW, which has a residency requirement for employees, would have on middle-class families. She referred to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that examined Philadelphia’s shrinking middle-class.

“Who has the ability to pay taxes? People who are working and in the middle-class,” Parker said. “As a working parent, I am going to do what is in my child’s best interest. If that means moving to lower Merion, I will. It just makes sense.”

Parker said several questions remain about how the sale will effect PGW’s assistance programs, gas rates and workers’ pensions.

Mayor Nutter said the deal would allow the city to put $424 million into Philadelphia’s underfunded pension plan. But, currently the city’s pension fund deficit is roughly $5 billion.

One attendee called it a “temporary band-aid.”

Parker said several questions must be answered before it can be determined whether or not it would be beneficial to sell PGW. She said that while the new company has agreed to freeze layoff for three years and maintain assistance programs for seniors and low-income households, “the devil is in the details.”

Parker encouraged attendees to write their city officials.

“You elect people who make decisions about how your money is going to be distributed,”Parker said, “and when you don’t see it going in the direction you want it to go in, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I making the right political decisions when I press that button?’”

State Rep. Parker’s next town hall meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 24, at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, 7301 Germantown Ave. For more information call 215-242-7300.