Friday, November 02, 2007

remembering the Regional Renaissance Initiative (RRI)

It's hard to bring this up without evoking a lot of latent emotion across town. The Regional Renaissance Initiative (RRI) was defeated exactly a decade ago this Sunday (November 4, 1997) and remains a watershed event for the region. It is safe to say that lingering sentiment toward the proposal and the subsequent antipathy toward the "Plan B" stadium funding package has impacted local politics for that decade. I am not saying one way or the other as to whether the program was indeed the "Stadium Tax" that its opponents say it was, but the voting results, along with public sentiment then and now, seem to have clearly bought that perspective for what its worth. For many, the idea that the two new stadia in town were built against the wishes of the electorate is an opinion that pops up on a regular basis to this day. That sentiment all goes back to the RRI.

For those who do not remember, the RRI was an effort to impose a 0.5% additional sales tax across a number of counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania. How many counties is a funny story unto itself which I will get into below. The funds would have been used for a variety of projects in the region. Each county had a referendum to see if it supported the program. Those that approved would have been included in the program. In the end, every county defeated the proposal, even Allegheny County. Given that the stadia part of the deal would have represented a net inflow of money into the city and county, that vote must have reflected something other than a purely economic cost and benefit analysis.

The more interesting aspects of the RRI have been lost to history because it never happened. If a multi-county sales tax had been imposed, just from a simple administrative point of view there would have had to have been created a multi-county government organization to receive and distribute those taxes. A megaRAD?... actually its name was already designated to be the Regional Renaissance Authority. Such a sub-state multi-county government entity would have been unprecedented for Pennsylvania and remains extremely rare within the United States*. I personally suspect that at some level, the creation of this multi-county government entity was a bigger goal than the tax or projects it would fund. Though the tax had a sunset clause, I'm sure the idea was that in time, such an entity could have evolved to deal with other issues that require multi-county policy coordination. In other forms, we still debate whether such an entity is needed to this day.

Which counties were to be included in the RRI? That question brings up one of the funnier aspect of the whole RRI imbroglio. From the earliest discussions, the intent of the RRI was to have a referendum across 10 counties in Southwestern PA. The referenda in each county were required by enabling legislation from Harrisburg. There is this little problem in that laws are made up of words and you can't really use a map in Pennsylvania statutes because of the uniformity clause in the PA constitution. All laws must theoretically treat all entities, such as counties in this case, the same. Thus you can't specify any county to receive any special treatment which would preclude designating specific counties in any state law. Theoretically a map would never be needed. Thus the enabling legislation for the RRI was written so as to capture all 2nd class counties (of which Allegheny is the only one) along with other counties according to this verbiage:
(1) has a boundary that touches, even at a single point, a county of the second class; (2) is a county of the fourth, fifth or sixth class and shares common boundaries at more than a single point with two counties described in paragraph (1); or (3) is a county of the sixth class and is located to the south and west of a county described in paragraph (2).
Go try and figure that out with a map. If you can't don't feel bad, the statute writers couldn't either. Actually it was that "single point" that got them in trouble. The problem is that when this edict was interpreted by the PA secretary of state, it was deemed to apply not to 10 counties, but 11. So Clarion County, which had not been a part of the discussion at all, was deemed to have a sufficient boundary with Butler county to be included and was told at the last minute to have a referendum for a proposal it new little about and cared about even less. It failed there too.

Why bring this up? Just my opinion, but I think the RRI remains a watershed event for the region in a lot of ways. Even if the referendum had failed in a close vote the impact would have been different. The irony is that in its uniform failure by large margins, the RRI created more agreement across the region than had been exhibited ever before or since. Around that time, a number of other proposals had been passed by referendum. Things like the RAD itself was created, and of course the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter would be passed the following spring. Just my historical opinion, but the RRI's failure kept those other initiatives as isolated successes without the longer term impacts they could have had. In the end, even most of the groups that its supporters would join the bandwagon in support of the RRI came out against it. How and why that happened remains understudied.

* and yes... MPO's are multi-county and could be considered government entities in a broad sense. Most, however, are 501C3's in the end I do believe. Multi-county entities with both taxing authority and public governance are pretty rare in the US.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't this also a time-limited tax? I seem to recall that if passed, it expired in 2003 unless the legislature again passed a law to allow another ballot question to retain it?

Most people seem to have forgotten what the actually ballot question was and for what the funds were to be used.

Also, can you provide a refresher on how the votes actually brokedown -- county by county, eligible voters, number of votes cast, etc. I've heard so many people say they "voted against using public dollars for stadia", that it appears to be turning into an Immaculate Reception scenario. Everyone who lived in and around Pittsburgh swears to God that they saw it either in person or live on TV, when the reality of it is that the game was not sold out so it wasn't even broadcast in Pittsburgh due to NFL blackout rules.

I really enjoy this blog and seeing the numbers for all of the various comparisons you present. You do an excellent job and oftentimes I end up thinking about something a little bit differently than when I'm started.

Friday, November 02, 2007 3:50:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

thanks for the comment... and as I mentioned in passing there was a sunset clause which would have ended the program after a number of years. I think 2003 give or take is correct. But plenty of laws we think are permanent started out with sunset provisions and just keep getting extended. I doubt there is any statutory reason why this program could not have been extended by legislative fiat in Harrisburg without the need for another referendum even. but that is all counterfactual history at this point.

I have some of those results buried in a file somewhere. I think the 'pro' side ranged between 20 and 40% by county but that is off the top of my head. One way or the other it was a remarkably low % overall especially when you consider it was a referendum question which often are confusing to voters.. especially for something called "regional renaissance...".. There are plenty of voters who would have gone into that election without much information on the referendum question and some of that positive vote I bet reflected the feel good naming. (I hate political euphemisms if you can't tell...)

Friday, November 02, 2007 11:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any way of figuring out how much money would have been raised through the RRI for projects other than the stadiums? I would think that some of the outlying counties would have received a decent amount of money for community development projects, transit, etc.

Monday, November 05, 2007 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

whether an individual county would receive back more than it contributed in the form of the sales tax revenues is a question I am not sure was ever answered. Part of this was formulaic with certiain limits placed on how much of the new revenues could be redistributed and for what purposes, I'd have to go look up those details. But it was also variable in that it would depend on number of counties that participated, which would have made the pool of money available for the core destination projects (stadia and others) and potentially leave more money available for other projects. So you couldnt definitely answer that question until you saw how many counties chose to participate.

I am also unsure if the revenues were earmarked for transit at all. I'm not even sure transit would have been an allowable expenditure, but again I would have to check on that to be sure.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007 1:06:00 PM  
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Monday, December 07, 2015 9:26:00 PM  
Blogger Robert Chesnavich said...

For anyone interested I've released a documentary about this issue. It's from my perspective as one of the primary activists involved with it, but I did my best to focus on the facts and just let the story tell itself. Hope you enjoy.

Sunday, November 12, 2017 9:02:00 PM  

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