Friday, November 11, 2005

Pay-raise debacle can inspire citizens to demand reform

The editorial below was originally published in The Mercury, which has been leading the anti-pay raise campaign in suburban Philadelphia. The point of the editorial was how to get the state back on track once the pay-raise controversy is behind us. But here we are, a week after the Senate and House voted to repeal the pay raise, and it still hasn't been done. And judging from Tuesday's primary election results, the public furor from the pay jacking will carry into the 2006 elections.

Citizens throughout Pennsylvania are savoring victory, knowing that their relentless outrage directed at state legislators forced a repeal of the hefty pay raise voted in July.

While taxpayers are sensing accomplishment, elected officials are relieved that the pay-raise saga is coming to a close, allowing them to move on with their jobs as lawmakers.

Gov. Ed Rendell called the pay-raise issue a “black eye” and urged legislators to work out the differences in the House and Senate versions of the repeal, so he can sign it and they can move on. Rep. Dennis Leh, R-Berks, who chairs the House finance committee which is in the throes of evaluating tax-reform proposals, said he was pleased to see the distraction of the pay-raise issue going away. State Sen. Robert Thompson, R-Chester, who chairs the appropriations committee in the Senate, said it was important to move past the pay-raise issue and get back to doing their jobs.

Not so fast.

We may applaud the willingness of these lawmakers to bend to the will of the people, albeit after it became clear they had little choice if they want to keep their jobs next year. We can bask in the certainty that citizens’ voices were heard and that public opinion still holds sway in a representative democracy. But one thing we can not do is let elected officials believe that business as usual is acceptable.

In the past, “business as usual” has brought to Pennsylvania:

• a percentage income growth ranking of 40th in the nation

• a ranking of 44th for new business starts and growth and 47th for percentage employment growth

• a loss of more young employment prospects than any other state

• a top-ten ranking (9th) for loss of workers aged 25 to 34, and

• a ranking of 48th for population growth.

The dire economic growth picture painted in those statistics from the 2003 Brookings Institution analysis of Pennsylvania is matched by problems in education funding. According to the education advocacy group Good Schools PA, Pennsylvania is second worst in the nation in terms of the state share of education costs and whether education funds in the state are spent fairly across the Commonwealth.

In 2001-2002, spending by school districts ranged from a low of $4,225 per pupil to a high of $12,691, creating an $8,466 gap between what the highest and lowest spending school districts spend per pupil. This disparity in the educational expenditure among districts is exceeded in only four other states in the nation, according to statistics compiled by Good Schools PA.

Now that they are beyond the distraction of the pay-raise debacle, legislators can get down to the business of fixing Pennsylvania.

The Legislature is currently in the midst of a special session on tax reform intended to fix a system — the local property tax — that has become woefully outdated and is at the root of the school funding problem.

Twice in recent years, the Legislature has tried to enact legislation to reform the property tax system, but neither the Homestead Act of several years ago or Act 72 last year accomplished wholesale reform. The goals of the two reform measures were irrelevant anyway, since both were rejected across the board by local school districts.

There are several proposals before the special session on tax reform, but it is not yet known which are drawing favor and which have a chance of being passed. Whatever legislators come up with, it better be good.

Taxpayers are not going to stand for more half-hearted, self-serving attempts at fixing the problems of this state. Change has to begin somewhere, and property tax reform is the most pressing and most critical place for it to start. But reform can not end with a tax overhaul; it must be tied to better school funding in order to restore faith in the Commonwealth’s ability to retain young, talented workers and grow economically.

The pay-raise debacle did more than just get legislators to give the money back. It reminded voters that they have a say in their government, and if they protest loud and long enough, their voices will be heard.

The message voters sent to Harrisburg was that the citizens of this great Commonwealth are not going to sit back and accept business as usual anymore.

Copyright 2005 The Mercury

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