Gov. Ed Rendell declared the issue of the Great Pay Heist of 2005 officially dead on Nov. 16 when he signed the bill repealing the legislative pay hike he signed into law on July 8.
"Today I am signing a bill that will, for all intents and purposes, put this debate behind us," Rendell said. "In this Capitol building, far too many days have passed without focusing on important issues. I urge the Legislature to return to the people’s business and hope that by signing this bill, we can channel the great interest and energy that was focused on this issue for the good of the citizens we serve." Yada, yada, yada.
It’s been 18 days since the Legislature got back to the "people’s business" but nothing much has been accomplished in that time. We still don’t have property tax relief, no increase in the minimum wage, no relief for small businesses struggling with skyrocketing health care insurance costs, and we’re still waiting for the Legislature to provide life insurance for Pennsylvania soldiers stationed in combat zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.
I know what you’re thinking. Let’s give these hard working legislators some slack. After all, they did take a 12-day Thanksgiving vacation during the past 18 days. I don’t know about you, but I only got one day off for Thanksgiving. And if you eliminate weekends (when Harrisburg is a ghost town), these exhausted public servants only managed to put in a couple of hours at the office in the past three weeks. Oh, but they did give themselves a pay raise on Dec. 1 when their automatic 3.6 percent cost-of-living increase kicked in.
Your entry-level Pennsylvania legislator now makes around $30,000 more than the median income of a Pennsylvania worker. And you should know this magic number by now: Pennsylvania legislators have averaged 77 days in Harrisburg in each of the past five years. That compares to the 245 days most Pennsylvanians put in at the office. Sure they tell you they work hard when they’re not in Harrisburg, but posing for a photo with a giant check or eating eggs at a Kiwanis breakfast is not what I call work.
And unlike state lawmakers, we have to pay for our own gas and provide our own vehicle to get to work. We have to pay for our own lunch. We have to contribute thousands of dollars a year to cover our health insurance and if we want to put a few bucks away for retirement in a 401(k) plan, our employer takes it out of our paycheck each week. State legislators get a big fat pension, courtesy of Joe Q. Public. They can retire in style at age 50 while you and get the bill for their pension … and their life insurance … and their long-term disability care insurance.
Some might say I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession about the Harrisburg Hogs, but I’m not ready to forgive and forget, especially when my own legislators — Sen. Michael A. O’Pake and Rep. Dante Santoni Jr. — a couple of sponges who’ve been living on my dime for most of their adults lives, have yet to apologize for their conduct.
O’Pake never met a camera he didn’t like — up until four months ago. Prior to that, his mug was in the newspaper or on local TV almost every night. If two or more people gathered anywhere in Berks County, O’Pake would find them and pose for a photo. He’s been keeping such a low profile since voting for the July 7 pay heist that I forgot what he looks like.
I predict Sen. O’Pake will serve out the remaining three years of his current term and retire. A couple other area Harrisurg Hogs (Sheila Miller in Berks County and Robert Flick in Chester County have already announced plans to retire instead of facing the voters in 2006) In four short months, O’Pake went from being the best-known and most popular politician in Berks County to somebody who is unelectable. And all he did was vote himself a big fat pay raise and thumb his nose at constituents for four months. Imagine that.
Santoni’s career in the House has been so indistinct that he’s been mistaken for a potted plant on more than one occasion. The guy has been in Harrisburg for a dozen years and hasn’t sponsored a bill or chaired a committee meeting. I guess the Democratic party bosses want to bring him along slowly.
Santoni’s claim to fame is following orders from the bosses by voting for the pay raise and accepting a low-level committee chairmanship when one of his fellow legislators was demoted for voting against the pay hike. Santoni represents a safe Democratic district, but all voters need is a choice and they’ll send Santoni a strong message about obliging the Harrisburg party bosses at the expense of the folks back home.
I received a mailing from Santoni in the spring that I’m thinking of having framed. In it, he claims credit for helping Gov. Rendell pass property tax reform by supporting the ill-fated Act 72 legislation. If that’s the best Santoni can say about his record in Harrisburg, he’d better update his resume. He’ll be looking for a real job after the 2006 elections.
E-mail Tony Phyrillas at firstname.lastname@example.org