Monday, July 18, 2005

Voters must not forget legislative money-grab

The editorial below was published Sunday, July 17, 2005, in The Mercury, Pottstown, Pa. It lists all the legislators in The Mercury's coverage area and how they voted on the pay raise issue. The editorial ran with a cartoon of a couple in bed who wake up to find a burglar going through their belongings in the middle of the night. The burglar smiles and tells the couple not to worry. He's not a thief, he's their local state legislator.

Thieves in the night.

That description embodies a growing consensus among Pennsylvania taxpayers that the action by state legislators to raise their own salaries between 16 and 34 percent last week was outright thievery.

For those who may have missed the details, state lawmakers passed House Bill 1521 in the early hours of the morning on Thursday, July 7. The legislation drove the annual base salaries of Pennsylvania lawmakers from $69,647 to $81,050, making them the second-highest paid legislators in the nation. The House voted 119-79 and the Senate voted 27-23.

Committee chairmen’s pay will increase by 28 percent to $89,155; committee vice chairmen to $85,103. Majority and minority leaders’ pay increased by 24 percent to $124,788, and pay for the Speaker of the House and Senate Pro Tem jumped 34 percent to $145,553.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who signed and defended the bill, said he would forgo his $21,000 raise if reelected next year.

The bill will go into effect Dec. 1, 2006. However, lawmakers have figured out a way to collect their raises right away by authorizing the payment of "unvouchered expenses" equal to the amount of the raises until the new salary levels take effect.

In addition, Pennsylvania lawmakers receive fully paid health insurance, a fully paid pension and as much as $7,800 a year for vehicle expenses. Those who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol get $129 a day in travel expenses.

Among area legislators, state Sens. Michael O’Pake (D-11th) and Robert Thompson (R-19th) voted yes; state Sens. John Rafferty (R-44th) and Robert Wonderling (R-24th) voted no.

State Reps. Tim Hennessey (R-26th), Dennis Leh (R-130th), Raymond Bunt (R-147th), Jacqueline Crahalla (R-150th), and Curt Schroder (R-155th) voted yes.

State Reps. Douglass Reichley (R-134th), Tom Quigley (R-146th), and Carole Rubley (R-157th) voted no.

When asked about their votes, some said they thought it was justified. Other claimed the raise was long overdue.

Think again.

In private industry, pay raises are tied to performance. When did failing to solve the problems of a state ranked near the bottom in every economic development and educational spending criteria match up with stellar performance?

And overdue? How many workers in the private sector have enjoyed automatic cost-of-living raises every year?

Crahalla said the raise was justified for some legislators who, like herself, pour many hours into their job. She also said she voted yes because her husband, who is a local district judge, deserves a raise, and that was part of the package.

Although O’Pake, voted in favor of the bill, Bill Evans, his executive assistant, said he planned to give the money to charity. (Taxpayers may have preferred it stay in their pockets, and they give it to the charity of their choice.)

Although voting against the bill, Reichley said his decision was a "personal opinion" and stood up for the legislators who favored the pay raise.

"I have no contrary opinion to those who voted for it. The criticism is not justified," Reichley said. "If people had a better sense of what goes into the job requirements, then they might have a different opinion on this issue."

The opinions on the issue arise from the fact that few taxpayers have the luxury of deciding how much they get paid.

Those same taxpayers are struggling to pay taxes in a system that desperately needs an overhaul. While they struggle with a lack of growth in the state’s economy and a graying population with a growing number on fixed incomes, they question the performance of the legislators in correcting these ills.

As an answer, lawmakers give themselves a raise.

Newspapers throughout the state are reminding voters that if they don’t have a say in how much legislators are paid, they do have a say in who gets the money.

Remember the names of those who voted for this pay raise and then decide at election time if they’re worth the money.

Copyright 2005 The Mercury

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