Tap Water Is Being Privatized in This State. Now There’s a Fight to Stop It.
"A system has been created that has some residents going to their local Wawa to use the bathroom to avoid flushing their own toilets."
Our weekly round-up of state and local news from Paul Blest:
Pennsylvania lawmakers are facing growing pressure to roll back the state’s “fair market value” law encouraging private actors to buy up municipal water systems, which has been utterly disastrous for residents unlucky enough to have a corporation run their water or sewer system.
These “fair market value” laws have been adopted by a dozen states over the past decade. The laws both incentivize municipalities to sell their utilities (by artificially inflating the value of the systems) and permit corporations to buy a monopoly with a permanent customer base. Once a water system is privatized, companies like Essential Utilities and American Water can hike prices under the guise of infrastructure improvements and use that money to buy up other systems in other towns across the state—not to mention pay back investors.
By the time there’s enough public awareness that a utility might be sold, it’s often too late in the process to stop it. The result: households in one town are now paying hundreds of dollars more annually for service than people in the next town, just by virtue of who owns the system.
Last month marked the first hearing on Act 12 reform in the Democratic-controlled House, where both utility officials and lawmakers described how the system has accelerated the privatization of Pennsylvania residents’ water and sewage, even of systems that are financially stable. Democratic state representatives have introduced a package of bills that would reform Act 12, but in the Senate, there’s been a push to go further.
So on Monday, several Democratic state senators (who are in the minority in that chamber) held their own hearing on the impact of Act 12. Sen. John Kane, a Democrat who introduced a bill to repeal the 2016 law, spelled out how companies are getting richer and consumers are getting screwed.
“Water is fundamental to life, and a system has been created that has some residents going to their local Wawa to use the bathroom to avoid flushing their own toilets,” Kane said. “At the same time, for-profit water companies brag on the earnings calls about record profits, and points to these laws around the country as reasons why.”
“I’m just not okay with any of this,” Kane said. (We watched the hearing and posted several notable moments and clips here.)
Though some Democrats in the legislature have stressed the need to pass a bill that can win bipartisan support, given Pennsyvlania’s divided government, House Republicans led by Chester County Rep. John Lawrence introduced a package of bills last year that public water advocates say, along with Kane’s bill and others introduced by House Democrats, would make much more of a dent in the problems created by Act 12.
Among the reforms they suggest: public referendums on water system sales, so residents have the ability to weigh in directly on whether they want their public utilities sold.
What’s happening in the states
Your weekly child labor update: Florida and Indiana appear to be racing to see who can get kids out of the classroom and into the workforce fast enough.
The Indiana bill we featured a few weeks back, which would allow kids to drop out after 8th grade and go work on a farm, has yet to receive a committee hearing. But last week, a bill did clear an Indiana House committee that would eliminate farm labor from a list of “hazardous” jobs that kids as young as 16 would work. And on Thursday, an Indiana Senate committee passed a bill allowing 14-year-olds to work up to 28 hours per week during the school year, a clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
While a bill that would have allowed kids as young as 16 in Florida to work in roofing and construction has thankfully been watered down, Florida House Republicans are moving full speed ahead on their bill to let employers schedule 16-year-olds for more than 30 hours a week and six straight days in a row, as well as not offer them a break for every four hours worked.
Emphasis on speed: this week’s House hearing allotted roughly 20 minutes for public comment for dozens of people. A trio of high school students spoke in favor of the legislation, after which Florida Republican Rep. Kevin Steele, who has a net worth of literally hundreds of millions of dollars, praised them for opposing the “weakening of our society” by encouraging kids to “work full-time.”
I want to make one note about the framing of these bills as “allowing” students to work more: teenagers don’t make their own work schedules. What it’s really doing is allowing employers to overwork them under threat of termination if they can’t work a full-time schedule, and also allowing those same employers to undercut adult workers with kids they can pay less to under state law.
Local medical debt relief: Some of the largest local governments in the country are taking steps to abolish medical debt.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan this week to partner with the group RIP Medical Debt to use $18 million to erase up to $2 billion in medical debt. Adams’ office says the plan could wipe out debt for up to 500,000 New Yorkers. (RIP Medical Debt has helped erase more than $10 billion in medical debt for more than 7 million families.)
Meanwhile, Cook County (Illinois) Board of Commissioners Chair Toni Preckwinkle wrote an op-ed for Newsweek promoting the city’s “Medical Debt Relief Initiative,” a plan to use $12 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan to abolish up to $1 billion in medical debt. So far, she said, the MDRI has erased $280 million in debt for 150,000 residents.
Oregon might finally get the right to repair: Oregon legislators have tried and failed on several occasions to pass a right-to-repair bill, but their latest effort picked up a key endorsement recently from Google, which said a bill proposed last year would be “a win for consumers who are looking for affordable repair options, for the environment and for companies that want to invest in making their products more repairable and sustainable.”
Lawmakers are planning to introduce the bill again during this year’s legislative session, which begins in the first week of February.
New pressure for Massachusetts to legalize teachers’ strikes: Public employee strikes in Massachusetts have been illegal since 1919, a product of America’s first Red Scare. But despite being illegal, a number of recent teachers’ strikes have produced gains in the state, as Jacobin reported last year.
A bill introduced in 2023, which received a hearing last October, would legalize teachers’ strikes. It’s received renewed attention now because the teachers union in the city of Newton voted to authorize a strike with 98 percent support and has now been on the picket line for several days — and they’re getting fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing so.
In a newsletter to constituents, Newton city councilor Bill Humphrey said he was a “firm supporter” of the bill, which would “restore the right of Massachusetts unions representing non-public safety employees of the government, including municipalities, to undertake legally protected strike actions after 6 months of mediation.”
What we’re reading
Philly’s worker-protection office has nearly doubled the money returned to cheated workers | Juliana Feliciano Reyes, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Arkansas Gears Up for Difficult Abortion Amendment Campaign | Gabrielle Gurley, The American Prospect
We Threw Out the Old Playbook: The New Union Drive at Mercedes | Jeremy Kimbrell, Labor Notes