Monday, August 08, 2005

Give it back: Newspaper launches campaign to rescind Legislative pay grab

The Mercury, the largest circulation newspaper based in Montgomery County, ran a front-page editorial in its Sunday, Aug. 7, 2005, edition, along with a letter that readers can clip and send to the newspaper, which plans to deliver the letters to Harrisburg. The editorial is reprinted below:

Legislators are urged to give it back

Anger is brewing in the state of Pennsylvania.

The spark for this anger is House Bill 1521 approved by Pennsylvania lawmakers early in the morning of 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 increases ranged from 16 to 34 percent with legislative leaders and committee chairmen getting the largest pay hikes.

As if that wasn’t enough to raise the hackles of folks struggling with high taxes and health care costs, the legislators then skirted the law so they could collect their money now instead of waiting until Jan. 1, 2007, when the raises take effect.

Using the tactic of "unvouchered expenses," 131 of the 201 sitting House members and 27 of the 50 senators got their money in checks on Aug. 1. That group included several who had voted against the bill but chose to accept the money anyway.

The legislators who said no to the raise — including both Rep. Tom Quigley and state Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County and state Rep. Carole Rubley of Chester County — are getting kudos from their constituents. Legislative leaders, however, punished those who voted against the bill by taking away committee posts.

The stream of letters, phone calls and e-mail to legislators has not slowed since the July 7 vote became public.

Instead, furor has grown as more details have been revealed about the package deal legislators are getting. Lawmakers get fully paid health insurance, up to $7,800 a year for vehicles, and those who live more than 50 miles from Harrisburg get expenses of $129 per day during legislative sessions. They also get fully paid pension benefits, which went up proportionately with the new salaries.

The pay raise bill was negotiated in secret, and the vote to approve it was taken in the middle of the night, just hours after a state budget was approved — six days behind schedule — that cut benefits for human services. As one Pottstown School Board member commented: "They can’t afford to feed the hungry school children, but they can find money for their own wallets."

Among the last-minute actions that the legislators left unfinished before starting their 10-week summer vacation was a proposal to raise the minimum wage. As was pointed out in an editorial in the Delaware County Daily Times: "The average $11,000 pay hike legislators are pocketing is more than a person working at minimum wage in the Keystone State makes in a year."

Those are just a few of the reasons for taxpayers to feel betrayed.
Another reason is the poor track record demonstrated by lawmakers.

They have failed to improve the economy. Pennsylvania ranks 47th in the nation in percentage employment growth and loses more young employment prospects to other areas than any other state. Population growth is nearly stagnant with a national ranking of 48th among the 50 states.

Pennsylvania ranks 40th in percentage income growth. The average Pennsylvania earned just $38,532 last year. The state is 44th in new business starts and growth.
In public education, Pennsylvania consistently gets low marks for how public schools are funded. It is 48th in the nation for state funding of public education and at the top of the list for the reliance on local property taxes to fund schools. Reliance on local property taxes creates lopsided funding that differs from school district to school district and makes Pennsylvania among the worst states for addressing equity in school funding.

The arguments that legislators work long hours and need high salaries to keep them equal with the private sector do not hold water. Their abysmal track record in fixing the commonwealth’s problems would get them fired in the private sector. They surely wouldn’t get such hefty raises.

Pennsylvania is rich in many ways. The stirrings that led to the birth of the nation started here. The state’s natural resources fueled industry and commerce for centuries. It has a wealth of culture and natural beauty.

But the citizens are getting tired of riches wasted on potential, on decades of lobbying for tax reform, on schools struggling with an antiquated funding system and on an economy stalled by a lack of initiative and incentive.

The only category in which this legislature has managed to rise to the top is in how much lawmakers get paid.

Pennsylvania is spending more than any other state in the nation on paying its legislators. And to borrow a phrase from an old movie: We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.

Readers are encouraged to cut out and mail to The Mercury the letter to legislators on the front page of this newspaper. The letters will be collected and hand-delivered to the state Capitol. Readers may also wish to contact their representatives by letter, phone or e-mail.

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