Friday, July 08, 2005

Money For Nothing (Not Much Anyway)

This is a long one coming up having to do with Pennsylvania state politics (you are duly warned).

Not unlike a little kid trying to sneak one last cookie from the jar before dinner when our back is turned, our august legislators in the state of Pennsylvania voted themselves a pay raise at 2 AM this morning, shortly after they finally passed a state budget (weeks overdue again, as is the case just about every year).

The percentage of the raise? Anywhere from 16 to 34 percent, depending on whether or not you are a newly-elected legislator or a senior member of a high-profile committee.

As the Bucks County Courier Times opined this morning:

“The early morning vote hiked salaries from $69,647 to slightly more than $81,000, making them the second-highest paid legislators in the nation behind California. Not bad considering the average Joe earns $38,000 a year in PA and gets maybe a 3 percent pay hike.

But regular people don’t get the kind of perks lawmakers get: $129 in expense money for every day they’re in Harrisburg; up to $650 a month or $7,800 a year to lease a car; fully paid health insurance valued at $13,000 a year; and a fully paid pension.

The increasing cost of health insurance alone has wiped out the salary increases most people have seen in recent years. In all likelihood, millions of Pennsylvanians are taking home less than they were a few years ago.”
Yep. Also…

“That a pay raise vote hasn’t taken place in a decade might lead to the conclusion that they’re due. We might agree, except that 10 years ago lawmakers not only voted themselves a pay hike, they also enacted annual cost of living raises. Those automatic increases have hiked legislative salaries some 25 percent since then.”
Also, as John Grogan of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported…

“There is plenty to be outraged about here: The amount of the hike, the secretive way it was handled, and the insensitivity to the financial reality of the taxpayers who must foot the bill.

But most outrageous of all is the slippery end-run the lawmakers made around the state constitution in order to get their raises, pronto.

The constitution bans lawmakers from accepting a pay raise in the same legislative term in which they approve it. The rule is there for a good reason: to discourage greed and avarice. It is an essential safeguard in a system that allows politicians to decide how often and by how much they raise their own pay.

How did the legislature respond to that safeguard, which would have delayed the raises until December 2006? By taking advantage of a dubious and ethically challenged loophole.

Until the pay raise becomes official, lawmakers will receive it under the table in the form of unvouchered expense checks (no receipts necessary!).

This, taxpayers, is beyond outrageous. This is a willful perversion of the law of the land, a law put in place to keep politicians honest.

This is a travesty.”
I agree (Alison Hawkes, a beat reporter for the Courier Times, also did a good job reporting this story).

Some lawmakers did the right thing and voted against this increase, and I’ll mention two of them later.

So what has this gang accomplished to merit such a huge jump in compensation? Here is a short list in no particular order (I’m sure I could find some more gems, but for now…):

- Passing a law that allows any of the estimated 1,300 retail establishments that sell beer to do so on Sundays, for a $100 fee of course (I don’t know what is more ridiculous – the fact that this law had to be passed in the first place, or that the state found a way to do it and gouge business owners in the process).

- Failing to pass any one of three bills to raise the state's minimum wage from the borderline-indentured-servitude rate of $5.15 per hour.

- Slicing state Medicare funding by a third when they passed the budget Thursday morning, resulting in about $243 million in service cuts, limiting doctor’s visits and hospitalizations for some of the state’s poorest and sickest residents (hey, you guys get all your health care coverage gratis. Care to “share the wealth”?).

- Passing a tort “deform” bill, which precludes patients from recovering damages for medical expenses already paid by insurers. "While this bill begins to address patient safety, it falls short of the public disclosure needed to curb the rise of serious medical errors," said Cliff Rieders, president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. "Patients did not get what they deserved from this bill."

- The sabotaging of Act 72, which is Gov. Rendell’s attempt at property-tax reform through reducing school taxes and making up the difference with gaming revenue. As far as I’m concerned, the fault lies primarily with the school boards that refused to participate, no doubt unwilling to release control of their purse strings, but this was aided in no small way by state Repug politicians who abhorred the idea of gaming from the very start. Hey, I’m not in love with it either, but what sense does it make to continue losing this money to Atlantic City and elsewhere? Besides, Rendell ran for governor on this idea and told everyone what he planned to do. It was just ducky for everybody at the time, I guess, but “when the rubber met the road,” some legislators bailed on him.

- FINALLY providing a dedicated source of funding for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) for train, bus, subway, and trolley service, though SEPTA ranks 19th on the funding list of the top 25 transit systems in this country (click
here for more information).

- Overturning a law passed by then-mayor of Philadelphia Rendell limiting gun purchases to one per month in a manner that prohibited Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from ever attempting to pass such a law again (special raspberry to State Representative Dennis O’Brien of Philadelphia, chairman of the state house Judiciary Committee, for squashing any attempts to get this issue resolved again – this was pointed out by John Grogan in a column earlier this year). This whole sorry spectacle points out once more how many legislators are in the “hip pocket” of the National Rifle Association.

- Lastly (and maybe most egregiously), the creation of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, a body dependent on state funding and toll revenue which has no regulatory oversight. None. You can’t find out how much money they’ve raised or how they fund their projects. I didn’t know this sort of thing was possible in this country, but apparently it is, and these geniuses created it.

The good news (and again, you have to look hard) is that Dave Steil, our Republican state rep, voted against the salary increase, as well as Tommy Tomlinson (he isn’t our state senator, but he has helped Rendell in the past, partly because the race track that would benefit from casino gaming resides in his district). More bad news? Our state senator, Joe Conti (who I thought once would be a better choice for U.S. Rep than Mike Fitzpatrick) voted for it. Care to explain, Joe?

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