You Don’t Support Our Transit, But We Should Support Your Highway?

Overcoming pleas that such a measure will destroy small businesses – just as similar measures apparently have destroyed all small businesses in Chicago, New York and Paris – the Pennsylvania […]

Overcoming pleas that such a measure will destroy small businesses – just as similar measures apparently have destroyed all small businesses in Chicago, New York and Paris – the Pennsylvania state legislature has stopped wringing its hands long enough to finally ink an indoor smoking ban. It forbids smoking nearly everywhere – except for

Smaller taverns where food sales don’t exceed 20 percent of revenue; private homes and vehicles; up to 25 percent of motel/hotel rooms; full-service truck stops (those with showers); tobacco shops; workplaces of manufacturers, importers or wholesalers of tobacco products; a tobacco leaf dealer or a tobacco storage facility; separate enclosed rooms or designated smoking rooms in residential adult-care facilities; private membership clubs like fraternal or veterans groups; places where fund-raisers are held by a nonprofit, charitable group only once a year, as long as food and beverages are available to attendees and youths under 18 cannot attend; cigar bars; up to 25 percent of a casino floor, unless an owner can show an economic hardship (meaning the nonsmoking slots sections are underused), and then the owner can increase the smoking area up to 50 percent; a designated outdoor smoking area within a sports or recreational facility.

What will those big-government, nanny-state loons do next? Ban lead paint? Regulate the banking industry? Examine airplane passengers’ luggage before they board?

(Then again, considering that Pittsburgh’s yet-to-be-built, supposed economic-magic-bullet casino is already facing default, the concept of casinos facing economic hardship may not be as ludicrous as it sounds). But the real insult added to this injury is that Pennsylvania cities and counties that are unfortunate enough not to be Philadelphia are still officially barred by state law from passing their own stricter smoking bans. State Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow (D-Lackawanna) described it best.

“You’re ignoring the second largest county in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. You’re saying to the people of Allegheny County and the city of Scranton, go to hell.”

Mellow’s deadpan-accurate statement constitutes a major dissent from the stranglehold rural Pennsylvania legislators have on the Commonwealth’s cities. Last year, Allegheny County passed a countywide smoking ban, which lasted all of 14 hours before being struck down by a state appellate court on the grounds that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not allow counties to pass smoking bans. Allegheny County went to a home-rule form of government in 2000, which supposedly delegates it many of the rights and responsibilities that previously belonged to the state. So while State Senator Mary Jo White (R-Venango) might claim about smoking that “Business owners have the right to make these decisions for themselves,” I might ask why the hell she gets to legislate matters that don’t affect any of her constituents at all whatsoever. Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh are pursuing a merger similar to one completed by Louisville city and Jefferson County, Ky in 2003. Regardless of merit of this proposal (which would do little to eliminate the redundancy of Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities), Pennsylvania’s General Assembly must pass a law to allow a voter referendum to appear on the ballot. The state must approve the right of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh city residents to decide what form of government is best for them. Talk about a nanny state. So, the elected representatives of Jim Thorpe Borough, Carbon County get to weigh in on an urban policy issue that only impacts people hundreds of miles away, even though I’m sure the majority of urban Pittsburghers would be surprised to find out that they share a state with Carbon County. So, Philadelphians’ and Pittsburghers’ tax dollars can bankroll I-80 (which runs nowhere near either city) but rural Pennsylvanians along that route can refuse to pay a toll to fund mass transit systems in the cities whose economies support the entire state — and legislators from Texas apparently get as much as a say on the matter as legislators from Scranton, since the debate has somehow elevated to the Federal level. But forget about I-80 for a second. If the Federal government cannot intervene in affairs that occur solely within one state (a decision made in 1824 and affirmed in 1935), does it not follow that a state government should not intervene in affairs that occur solely within one county or city? Maybe a stronger smoking ban than the statewide measure is not appropriate for Mary Jo White’s home county of Venango. Maybe a city-county merger isn’t appropriate for Jim Thorpe Borough and Carbon County. Allegheny County’s elected officials aren’t trying to put out Mary Jo’s cigarette (provided she’s on the appropriate 50 percent of an economically distressed casino floor) or consolidate Carbon County’s water and sewer authorities. They’re just trying to utilize an appropriate amount of sovereignty and accountability to pass local measures to maintain Pittsburgh’s vaunted quality of life. They’re just asking (along with Philadelphia) for rural Pennsylvania to pay a fair share of the burden of maintaining the state’s transportation infrasturcture. It’s no wonder our older communities are hollowing out — they’re in a constant battle for sovereignty and support in a legislative system that still is caught up in a Jeffersonian mindset hell-bent on maintaining an agrarian, yeoman nation. My apologies to Kathleen Parker (currently under fire for her nativistic assertion that Barack Obama cannot possibly understand the white, “full-blooded Americans” in small towns and the rural South), but America is not an agrarian, yeoman nation. The majority of Americans live in metropolitan areas, and have since the 1920s. I recently had the pleasure of hearing the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Katz speak on the Blueprint for American Prosperity”:https://www.brookings.edu/projects/blueprint/important.aspx, a Brookings initiative centered on the idea that:

Metropolitan areas — America’s collections of cities, suburbs, and counties — are our nation’s economic centers. Overall, thanks to their cumulative assets, the largest 100 metro areas alone generate a massive 75 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, and 42 of America’s metros — if treated as nations — would rank among the world’s largest 100 economies. The bottom line: America is a metropolitan nation.

In “An Economic Plan for the Commonwealth,” Katz and Brookings’ Amy Liu write that innovation, human capital, infrastructure, and quality places are among the economic assets that are most necessary to maintaining our nation’s economic competitiveness in the 21st century, and that these assets are most prevalent in Pennsylvania’s four metropolitan areas, which generate 80 percent of the state’s economic output with only 68 percent of its population. Seems common sense, right? If only out of concern for their own meal tickets, shouldn’t rural areas and state legislatures want to support the areas that bankroll them? Unfortunately, not always. Katz and Liu argue that the Federal government has been noticeably absent or counterproductive in supporting Pennsylvania’s and America’s metros, and that a stronger federal role in supporting innovation to spur economic growth, strengthening education systems (especially urban districts), overhauling infrastructure (especially transportation) and supporting mixed-income neighborhoods instead of ghettoizing the poor is necessary to propel metros to global competitiveness. I second their notion that the Feds need to know their role, and I’ll carry that argument down to the state level. Pennsylvania — and states across the country, like Illinois, that similarly antagonize their cities — must give local governments the accountability they need to maintain and support quality places. It goes beyond sovereignty; it’s a question of survival, with impact far beyond the local level.

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