Losing Pittsburgh's Edge

The "tuition tax" post below generated more readership and comments than I expected, but most people missed the point. On the tax question and my suggestion itself, I'm not a tax lawyer, so I don't have the tools or the time to fully defend the details of what I suggested (what I called an "amusement tax" on salaries earned by professional athletes competing in Pittsburgh). Is this sort of thing constitutional under the federal Constitution? In general, absolutely. Cities and states can tax income earned within their borders by nonresidents, and the city of New York, to the consternation of New Jersey and Connecticut commuters, does precisely that. Is this sort of thing permitted under relevant Pennsylvania law that authorizes Pittsburgh (a city of the "second class" under PA law) to enact tax legislation? As I read the relevant statute, it is. But if for some reason it isn't, then in concept the law could be changed. I don't expect that to happen. But don't make the mistake of thinking that something can't be done by a city council or by a legislature because it's "illegal." Laws get changed all the time.

The real point of the post, however, was that any tax issue or revenue question in Pittsburgh requires making choices. Tax these folks, not those folks; these folks suffer, in relative terms. Those folks prosper. Like any community, Pittsburgh hates the idea of closing libraries, or closing hospitals, or closing police stations; it hates any prospect of losing some of what the community believes defines its "essence," whether that means population or neighborhood or services or resources. But lose things Pittsburgh will have to do, as Yoda might have said. As I've written over and over, at its current size, and with its current economy, Pittsburgh simply doesn't have the money to support all of its people with all of its current services. It is seductive but wrong to think that taxing college students will enable the city to avoid making hard choices. At most, a tuition tax means that days of reckoning can be postponed for a little while. The same thing goes for taxing professional athletes. Taxing jocks is no more logical than taxing the young. It's just that professional athletes have a lot more money.

I haven't been posting much of late, because work and family have been keeping me busy. Plus, I've been on the road. Interestingly, in my travels since the G-20 summit (and since my return from Amsterdam at the beginning of October), for the first time in years I haven't heard any of the positive "buzz" about Pittsburgh that has sustained the image of the city and region recently -- and that was the chief benefit of hosting the summit. The Steelers' up-and-down season seems to have little do with this. Instead, it is simply that many people and audiences greeted my mention of Pittsburgh in years past with comments echoing a "that's a cool place now" theme. Over the last several weeks, outside of Western PA I have gotten no comments about Pittsburgh at all - or worse, I have gotten references to kooky tax schemes and the fact that the city (and UPMC) waited until after the summit to unload the bad news about libraries and hospitals.

Is Pittsburgh sliding slowly backward? Or (more likely) are reality and image slowly coming into closer alignment?

Who can say? Time will tell. Onward.


1 Response to "Losing Pittsburgh's Edge"

Stephen Gross said... 11/25/2009 10:04 PM

Well, it may be all for the best that the buzz is disappearing. Buzz--national buzz, anyway--tends to be inaccurate and ill-informed. Worse still, it can bring about a kind of hyper-self-consciousness among policymakers. Rather than make policy decisions on the basis of local perception, they instead are influenced by outside, non-local pressures.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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