This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
One of Pennsylvania’s most powerful state lawmakers says the actions of Philadelphia’s City Council may put additional funding in jeopardy for the cash-strapped city School District.
Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) criticized City Council’s decision not to hold a hearing on Mayor Nutter’s plan to sell the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works.
Nutter’s proposed deal with UIL Holdings Corp. of Connecticut would have privatized the utility for $1.86 billion. A portion of those proceeds would have been used to reduce the city’s unfunded pension liability.
"Not holding a hearing on the Philadelphia Gas Works for such an important proposal, where billions really could have been used toward debt reduction, infrastructure — such important opportunities — it gives everybody real pause," Turzai said. "This is a real concern for us."
When, for instance, the Philadelphia School District makes a funding request of the state this year, Turzai says, Council’s handling of PGW will spur skepticism among House Republicans — even though there is no formal link between the city-owned gas utility and the schools.
"Everybody is, I think, going to ask first and foremost, ‘Why didn’t you take a look at this Philadelphia Gas Works proposal? You didn’t have a hearing. You didn’t even hear out so many of your city civic leaders,’" Turzai said. "It will be something that I know that a lot of people are going to want to know about."
The School District, which faces an $80 million budget deficit to maintain the status quo budget for next year, declined to comment on Turzai’s view — as did City Council President Darrell Clarke.
In December, Clarke said in a statement that Nutter’s plan "would have resulted in significant job loss among Philadelphians by allowing UIL to lay off employees and to shift jobs away from experienced PGW workers."
Nutter, who has described Council’s inaction as a "big mistake" and "a massive failure in leadership," said that Turzai was "more than entitled to his view and opinion."
"I said at the time, I thought it was a bad decision and that it could potentially negatively affect us here in Harrisburg," said Nutter in an interview before Gov. Wolf’s inauguration. "No matter how people voted, there should have been a hearing and a vote, one way or another, up or down."
Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and former policy director for Gov. Ed Rendell, called Turzai’s statement "political blackmail."
"There are communities across this state that locally might be making decisions that he finds personally reprehensible." said Cooper. "Is he going to hold up school funding for communities across the state because he doesn’t like the decisions made by the local governments?"