Philadelphia state Sen. Vincent Hughes is one of the most dynamic members of the state Senate. The nearly 20-year veteran of the Pennsylvania General Assembly holds fiscal power as the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and maybe more importantly, his Twitter game is on point.
Billy Penn caught up with Hughes just hours after Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled his first budget on Tuesday, a bold plan that would change the city’s tax structure, raise the minimum wage and funnel $1 billion back into the education system. We talked to Hughes about everything from education, to social media, to keeping millennials in Philadelphia.
Here’s what he said, which has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
Billy Penn: Maybe you’ve heard: We cater to young people in Philly. With regard to keeping millennials in Philadelphia, how do you stop brain drain from the perspective of Harrisburg?
Hughes: The mayor tells me that Philadelphia has, I believe, the largest growing population of young folks in the nation of any major city. I’m the father of four millennials. My wife and I are very in tune with the mindset of millennials. We got to keep — at least two things: we have to keep supporting and creating environments where millennials can be given the freedom to express their creativity from a creative side or a business and entrepreneurial side. We have to make the space in the city exciting, fun and enjoyable. Make it a place where people want to be, where young people want to be.
As is the case in most circumstances, when millennials think about children, we have to keep the education system strong. We have to create stronger schools for when they grow their families so that it’s a place for the kids to go to school, and that’s at least one reason why the education thing is so important.
We, as a city, have to be about something. We have to be on a mission for something. We have to be driven to some good greater than our own individual selves, and I believe, I have seen, I believe, I know that young people are driven toward change, social change, doing good. I believe that. I know it. I feel it. I see that. When I was young, I was driven toward that. One way to keep a community of young people engaged is to show that, as a community, you’re committed to major transformation.
Billy Penn: In what ways?
There’s no reason that we have the number of children who are not reading at grade level. There is absolutely no reason. And we should be on a mission to make sure that within a year’s time, every child is reading at grade level, and it’s completely doable, and that is something that everybody can get engaged in.
Hopefully soon we can lay out a program for this. But we did — 300 kids for four weeks last summer were in a four-week reading program. That needs to be citywide. That needs to identify every child not reading at grade level, and you have the information to do that. We’re going to make sure you’re reading at grade level within a year.
Millennials, when they see that drive and that determination, when they see leaders are calling for that, they will gravitate to that.
Billy Penn: A lot of this issue has to do with development and revitalization. From your perspective, what development project is most important to Philadelphia right now?
Hughes: We’ve got to get deep into the neighborhoods. We know how to do economic and housing revitalization in distressed communities. The retail complexes we set up in West and North Philadelphia at Parkside Avenue and on Fox Street are examples of how to put quality retails in stressed neighborhoods. So now what you gotta do, you got people working, good retail going on, good activity going on. Now you have to reach into those neighborhoods and transform housing conditions in those neighborhoods and revitalize every one of those abandoned houses. So revitalization lends itself for folks who struggled who can benefit from a transformed neighborhood.
We need to take some of that shale money and take a small sliver of that and drive a piece of that money to neighborhood revitalization, but make sure it is all sustainable and all green. If I’m fixing up a house in a neighborhood, I should make it energy efficient so that it is green, because that then makes it sustainable for generations.
(By the way) how many of your readers are going to help me with my summer reading program? Last year I helped 300 kids. We want to take it to 1,000.
Billy Penn: How can someone get involved if they want to?
Hughes: Call my office. It’s very easy to remember: 215-879-7777, or go to the website senatorhughes.com. Or follow me on Twitter. I’m the coolest Twitterer in the state Senate. Follow me on Twitter. I am. I really am. Do you all follow me on Twitter?
Billy Penn: Yes, we do.
Hughes: Are you sure? Ben! (He was referring to Ben Waxman, his press secretary.) Check on that.
Billy Penn: Soooo any update on running for U.S Senate?
Hughes: No update. Ninety five percent of the time, I’m focused on the governor, helping him get his team together, driving important state policy, getting our schools working and raising minimum wage. Every once in a while my mind shifts to United States Senate. We have a budget to get done, though. We put that to bed, I will think about it, but I’m not allowing those thoughts to get in the way of the way of the work I have.
Billy Penn: What are your thoughts on liquor privatization vs. liquor modernization, and why, from your perspective, is this a fight worth having?
Hughes: Modernization. As far as the state’s budget is concerned, it makes absolute sense. We secured over $500 million annually for the state budget because we control the sale of alcohol in Pennsylvania. If we modernize the system to make it more user-friendly, doing the modernization, we can get an extra $150 million in the state’s budget through modernization, and the governor will direct that into education.
And so we can create a system that has every appearance of a private system has all the amenities of a private system: flexibility in price, but still keep it controlled by the state of Pennsylvania. Hours open longer. The other side is that we don’t want booze in every neighborhood and every block, and if you’re not careful, when you talk about privatization, you will have it in every corner store, and I don’t think that’s the best way for the city to go.
So we can create a system that looks like it’s a private system but is still controlled by the state. That’s the goal of modernization.
Billy Penn: Obviously college funding and tuition prices matter in a city like Philadelphia that’s rife with colleges. What can the state do better in terms of working to reduce the debt burden on PA students?
Hughes: We have got to really educate students and families about the best decisions toward higher education and from a financial perspective, how to pay for it. The best way to do that is start when the child is born with a 529 program so that when it comes time, you have a ton of money saved up. We do a better job of connecting a lot of money left on the table — at the end of every year that could be utilized to help young people pay for their college education. We have to do the grunt work about how to make the right decision in terms of the university that they should be going to. Make the decision in terms of the money they have available and how to set up the money on the front end.
Billy Penn: Today’s budget seems like, when it comes to taxes, Philadelphians are essentially breaking even. Is that an accurate assessment, and what are your thoughts on how or if that will change personal finance for city residents?
Hughes: No breaking even, no. No. There was a huge wage tax reduction, an immediate half a point wage tax reduction, and some property tax and some helpful news in the rent rebate program. That is significant, in addition the restoration of Governor Corbett’s underfunding of basic education. That four years gets restored in year one, and that is not a small number. That is a very dramatic.
Billy Penn: Then what would you like to see that money to the school district be spent on?
Hughes: Well, the best thing is to ask them what could they do with $160 million of new money. That would put professionals, new and old professionals who used to work, back in the classroom. That would get counselors in place. That would get support personnel in place. That would have a significant impact on the quality of education that our children are receiving in the School District of Philadelphia. One hundred sixty million dollars of new money would have a very substantial impact on what happens classroom by classroom. We could reduce class sizes and get computers and supplies into the hands of our teachers and our children.
Billy Penn: Of course wheeling and dealing comes next. If anything in Wolf’s budget proposal could be compromised, what would you compromise?
Hughes: I’m not trying to compromise on much of anything.
Billy Penn: Really?
Hughes: I’ve had to live with less for the last four years with Governor Corbett. I think the people of Pennsylvania want the kind of direction that Governor Wolf wants to take Pennsylvania in. They want the minimum wage increase… 80 percent of people support an increase in the minimum wage. They want full funding for the education system. They want relief from property taxes. They want a freeze on tuition at state universities to make it easier for families to provide financing for the kids to go to college. Folks want that unequivocally, and that’s what I want.
Billy Penn: How are Philadelphia Democrats working to get attention for the city in Harrisburg while a Republican-controlled General Assembly leads?
Hughes: We’re reaching across the aisle. We’re making sure Republicans know what’s hapening in the City of Philadelphia, making sure they can’t just come to the City of Philadelphia to get their kids into college, to get tickets to a ball game, to get to see the orchestra or a concert or the Barnes Foundation or the Art Museum or anything like that. It’s not just about that. And we want to make sure that our colleagues understand that this city is vital to the economic health of the state.
Billy Penn: So how are you doing that?
Hughes: You have some common themes that Governor Wolf is talking about that transcend cities, suburbs and rural communities. Many have a very substantial interest in what’s happening in education. They just look at it from different perspectives. In Philadelphia, we have been starved for state resources, and we’ve had to do things at the local level to fill in that gap. There are a lot of other school district folks who have also been starved of state resources… so there’s some commonality there.
So the issue of raising the minimum wage, that’s a statewide issue. Providing Medicaid expansion, that’s a statewide issue. We’re spending time with [Republicans.] We’re talking with them. We’re working with the mayor, who has done a pretty good job of getting to Harrisburg and spreading our message. Fortunately, we have a governor who has put together an administration where people are sensitive to the issues people in Philadelphia have. They get that it’s an economic engine… We’re helping folks understand the importance of Philadelphia and what it contributes.
Billy Penn: Speaking of the mayor, have you endorsed anyone in the upcoming election?
Billy Penn: Will you?
Hughes: I don’t know if I will… many years ago, I endorsed someone, I don’t even remember what they were running for. And the person came up to me and asked for support. Well they never got their name on the ballot. So they were never an official candidate. So how about these folks running for office get their name on the ballot first.