Legislators Reverse RaiseStill no word of reaction from John Perzel (R-Phila.) on this - :-)
By Mario F. Cattabiani and Amy Worden
Inquirer Staff Writers
HARRISBURG - They finally got the message.
After four months of angry letters, biting editorials, protests, and dismal poll numbers, Pennsylvania legislators voted last night to repeal the pay raise they had approved for themselves, judges, and other state officials.
In an extraordinary reversal, the Senate unanimously decided to tear up the entire law, enacted July 7, that made the General Assembly the nation's second-highest-paid legislature.
"We need to repent, repeal and reform," Sen. Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny) said during a short floor debate.
"Today's vote is about respecting the public," said Sen. Richard Kasunic (D., Westmoreland). "... Democracy has worked."
Hours later, shortly before 11 p.m., the House followed suit, approving the bill 196-2.
"Pressure mounted in individual lawmakers' districts and they had to listen to the public," Rep. Charles T. McIlhinney Jr. (R., Bucks) said moments after the House voted.
But the House version may prove to be troublesome. It added a wrinkle that said if any portion of the bill is thrown out by the courts, the entire piece of legislation dies, reinstating the raises for all.
The Senate appeared poised to insist that such a "non-severability clause" not be included in the final bill, although as of midnight they had not addressed the House changes.
It was unclear what both houses were going to do to smooth out that wrinkle. Legislators are not expected back in session until Nov. 14.
For most of yesterday, Senate GOP leaders were preparing an amendment to an unrelated bill that would repeal only the provision of the law that allowed legislators to accept the extra pay immediately - through legislative expense accounts - despite a constitutional ban against their doing so in the middle of a term. That amendment would have kept in place the raises, but they would not have started for most legislators until December 2006.
When it came time to offer amendments yesterday afternoon, Sen. Sean Logan (D., Allegheny), who voted against the pay raise in July, was the first to be recognized. He offered a plan to rescind every detail of the law.
The bill with that amendment passed, 50-0. There were 27 senators, including 10 from the Philadelphia area, who voted for the raise in July but changed their minds last night and voted to repeal it.
"I think we need to restore some integrity to the chamber and to the Capitol, and repealing the entire pay raise is a great first step," Logan said in an interview.
Soon after the Senate bill passed, some legislators wondered whether they had just run afoul of the state constitution, which prohibits pay cuts for judges. "I know that has to be looked at, but 50 people said this is the right thing to do," Logan said of the question.
In the House, the two top Democrats, Minority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) and Minority Whip Mike Veon (D., Beaver), were the only no votes for the repeal. The chamber had approved the pay raise 119-79.
Gov. Rendell, who signed the pay raise into law, strongly supported repeal of the unvouchered-expenses provision - which he initially defended as "legal" in July. Last night, he was withholding judgment on the repeal, his press secretary, Kate Philips, said.
On July 7, the General Assembly raised legislative base annual salaries by 16 percent to $81,050. Legislative leaders saw their salaries increase 34 percent, with two of them getting pay hikes of 54 percent.
About half of the 253 House and Senate members have accepted the raise through unvouchered expense accounts since August, adding $950 to $3,111 to their monthly paychecks, the latest of which was received this week.
They would not be forced to give back the money.
Salaries for all but the top leaders, who for years have been paid more than rank-and-file members, would drop back to $69,648.
"We are simply representatives, and we were simply listening," Senate Majority Leader David J. Brightbill (R., Lebanon) said.
The repeal would also end the additional pay for committee heads. Gone, too, would be raises for state and county judges, the governor and lieutenant governor, cabinet secretaries, the state's treasurer, auditor general and attorney general, and other officeholders.
Many legislators said they supported the pay raise initially because judges were long overdue for a raise.
At the time, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy praised lawmakers for showing "enormous courage and significant fortitude" to vote for the pay-raise bill. Asked about judges' losing their raises, Sen. James Rhoades (R., Schuylkill) said: "They are going to have to suck it up like everyone else."
The initial pay-raise vote gave birth to a grassroots antipay-raise movement that over four months has grown into a political force.
An ecstatic Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist and one of the movement's leaders, said the political turnabout "shows the power of the people of Pennsylvania."
"Don't tell me people can't change things," said Stilp, who has filed a suit challenging the pay raise in state court.
G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, called what happened "a citizen revolt and a legislative turnaround the likes of which I haven't seen in 30 years of observing and writing about the legislature."
Although it was contemplated for several weeks, the repeal effort did not take firm hold until Monday, when the first samplings from a statewide poll commissioned by the Senate Republicans came in.
Stephen MacNett, chief counsel for the Senate Republicans, said the findings showed what most legislators had been hearing from their constituents: Despite the passage of nearly four months, opposition was still red-hot, and voters were most concerned about the unvouchered-expenses aspect of the package.
Sen. Robert Thompson (R., Chester), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he had been swamped with several hundred negative letters from constituents on the pay raise. "It shows it has hit a nerve with voters," said Thompson, who voted for the pay raise. "And I got the message."
Thursday, November 03, 2005
This is what happens when we fight back, people.