Yesterday's Post-Gazette article did a pretty good job summing up the gist of Tuesday's marathon 7-hour City Council meeting, marking-up the city's 2011 annual budget.
But the one critically important feature left unwritten was:
Voting for the amendments were Mrs. Harris, Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto, Ms. Rudiak and Mr. Shields. Voting against them were... (P-G, Joe Smydo)
Those five members were the five consistently least compromising in terms of entertaining any permutation of Mayor Ravenstahl's parking deal as a solution to the city's pension problem. They were also the same five who voted at the beginning of the year to elect Councilwoman Darlene Harris as the body's president over Councilwoman Theresa Smith. The no-votes were in the opposite camp on both scores.
So at least 2010 has a lovely matching pair of bookends.
What occurred in those several dozen budget amendments can be accurately described as providing neighborhood groups and initiatives (in those five members' districts) with the critical funding necessary to do important work that had been deferred for years and years, often despite repeated assurances: community and recreation centers, senior centers, youth programs, business district improvements, neighborhood master plans, and blight removal.
All of that can also be just as accurately described as pet projects comprising "reelection insurance" to those five Council members who are likely to be challenged by the assembled forces of mayoral allies, the city and county Democratic party, and any labor groups and other constituencies outraged over the city's failure to stave off a state takeover. Of course, along with reelection insurance comes the camaraderie of victors divvying up hard-earned spoils.
During deliberations, viewers literally heard "Won't somebody please think of the children?" tearfully employed on multiple occasions. And the story of each individual amendment, taken in isolation, was 100% legitimate on that very basis; in some cases these groups had been promised very humble forms of civic support since the Caliguiri administration, and had simply fallen on the wrong side of Act 47 cuts or mayoral political whims past and present. Yet taken together and in context, the many amendments were just as much a textbook example of pet projects being allocated in those districts whose political representatives are holding a slim but surprisingly firm majority on the Council opposing this mayor.
Flip sides of the same coin.
The next stage of this particular mini-drama involves the mayor's line-item veto -- one drawback of Council having passed all the mark-ups by only that 5-4 margin.
Now, budget hawks of Pittsburgh take heart: none of the items in those amendments would actually swell the size of the city's gross annual expenditures. It was all paid for with matching cuts elsewhere in the budget.
In several cases, the trade-offs made common sense -- the cost of a specific named demolition project was taken out of the city's yearly allocation for building demolitions, for example. But in what seemed like a whole lot of cases -- particularly the community development projects -- the allocation came out of one of several accounts in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Even "personnel" in at least one case.
This mayor, as all Pittsburgh mayors, is fond of his URA.
So Mayor Ravenstahl could veto all the amendments, which might bring with it the collateral PR advantage of being able to say he "acted on principle" -- but in addition to throwing gasoline on our present civic inferno, these vetoes would not necessarily restore funds to his own submitted line-items. It might just take the money out of the spending budget on both ends and in entirety, if Council doesn't eventually allocate it towards something -- and government oughtn't quite be allowed to grind to a standstill.
Or he could choose to not veto any of them -- perhaps cooling intergovernmental relations a titch -- and then he could hand over the keys to the mayor's office while he's at it. So we're pretty likely to see a Solomonic splitting of the vetoes somewhere around 50% of the group, although with only a modest reduction in outrage and further drama.
All of which is to put off discussion of the fact that we're 9 days from the state pensions takeover deadline and despite the furious work and alarmed advocacy of various civic parties, we don't seem to be any closer to a break.
Council's majority bloc has most recently demonstrated its solidarity against any form of business deal involving the LAZ and JPMorgan ownership group (which is the only one we can deal with if we're even going to pretend to honor the proper process for these things before the deadline). So in tennis terms you might say it's ad-Harris.
In any consideration of what the mayor's next move ought to be, one needs to keep a few facts in mind:
1) The "Council-Controller plan" was kept a state secret for the better part of a year, under a fairly flimsy pretense of its advocates being "cooperative", while the Mayor's plan marinated in in full public scrutiny as one plan that would definitely raise parking rates sky-high.
2) The very day the Council-Controller plan was unveiled to the public, six (6) members of Council unloaded fire on the mayor's parking plan and on Mayor Ravenstahl himself in the loudest, most alarming, most vicious, least walkable-back way possible, while the mayor was off the continent, and demanded his plan be erased from consideration prior to discussion of their own.
3) Upon returning to Pittsburgh, the mayor did what anyone in that situation would be expected to do, and vilified the stuffing out of the Council-Controller plan right back in return.
4) Other than the Council-Controller plan, all of the other ideas floated by the Council majority are pretty goofy. *-CLARIFICATION / UPDATE: Or sound pretty goofy. You know.
5) In the ensuing months, the mayor's plan was modified in several ways, bringing the rates way down to Earth (at the cost of reducing the payoff) and even, in one modification, actually taking many of the "public assets" off the table so Council could do its Council-Controller thing. So as I see it, although neither faction deserves to win the Nobel Prize in Compromise, the mayor's side at least merits a table at the reception ceremony more so than the Harris majority.
Now, what can I say. Very little.
In 20-20 hindsight, the smart play for the Mayor might have been to fight for the lease deal through Thanksgiving, and then find some pretense for giving in, gaining a say in Council's vision, and declaring a victory. I for one never anticipated that five Council members would actually, at the end of all things, prefer the state takeover to a less-preferable but cleanly viable solution.
In 40-40 hindsight, the optimal play for the Mayor might have been to even more assertively explain his case for his parking deal to the public over all those long and dreary summer months, to begin with an RFP prescribing lower rates at the outset instead of having to be bargained down later, and definitely to horse-trade some of those irritating Council members' votes with the very kinds of initiatives they are now demanding via budget amendments, not to mention for political support or at least non-interference.
What the best play is now, I don't know. I don't fracking know. I just hope people are bargaining constructively and creatively is all.