Monday, August 29, 2005

Pay raise arrogance reaches a new low

Legislators dare you to vote them out

Hey, stupid. Yeah, you. Go ahead. Try to vote me out. Do your best. I’m a member of the Pennsylvania House of Lords (aka state legislature). You can’t touch me. I’m invincible. I can rob you blind any time of day or night, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That, in essence, is the attitude of many of the people you’ve hired to serve in the Pennsylvania House and Senate. Not only did they vote themselves exorbitant pay raises in the middle of the night, but they believe you’re too chicken to do anything about it.

Sure, about two dozen of the 253 lawmakers have seen the error of their ways and decided not to take the 16 percent to 34 percent pay raises. Some have even pledged to repeal the pay hike when they get back to Harrisburg on Sept. 26. But the vast majority are digging in.

They don’t think you’ve got the brains or guts to stand up to them — to fire them. So they’re going to take the $11,000 raise on top of the 5.2 percent cost-of-living increase they took at the beginning of the year, and they’re going to tack on another cost-of-living increase in 2006 just because they can.

And you’ll continue to pay every penny to maintain Pennsylvania’s royalty in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to.

Allow me to introduce you to state Rep. Jacqueline R. Crahalla, a Republican from the 150th House District, which includes Collegeville, Lower Providence, Trappe, Upper Providence and West Norriton. What does Rep. Crahalla have to say to her constituents who would rather she not have increased her own pay to $81,027 a year, as well as that of her husband, District Judge Benjamin Crahalla, to $74,566 a year as part of the same pay raise bill?

"I’m staying the course," Crahalla told The Philadelphia Inquirer when asked if she was willing to heed the demands of constituents. "The nastier people get, the more stubborn I get."

Hmmm. Stubbornness. Just the kind of trait we need in a lawmaker. To her credit, Rep. Crahalla has been one of the few lawmakers willing to explain the indefensible 2 a.m. raid on the state treasury. She says she routinely puts in more than 50 hours a week on the job. She says judges and cabinet officers should be paid more.

Rep. Crahalla could make a strong case for boosting the salaries of judges and county district attorneys, but there’s no justification for giving herself an $11,000 raise.
Crahalla conveniently forgets that the state legislature met an average of 77 days in each of the past five years.

While the typical Pennsylvania worker puts in at least 245 work days during the year (assuming three weeks vacation), state legislators go to Harrisburg 77 days, take a 10-week summer vacation, go home for at least a month for a winter holiday and take every government holiday off as well.

I’m guessing Rep. Crahalla finds things to do around her district the 200-plus days the legislature is not in session. On the bright side, there’s no heavy lifting involved in being a state lawmaker — unless you pick up that hefty paycheck in cash. Does any of this justify legislators being paid more than twice what the average worker in Pennsylvania is making?

Has Crahalla given any thought to the thousands of senior citizens in her district who are struggling on Social Security? Their cost-of-living increase this year was 2.7 percent, or $15 a month. If the Crahallas need $20,000 more to get by, what does Rep. Crahalla tell the folks back home trying to stretch that $15 until next month’s check?

Arrogant is not a strong enough word to describe the hundreds of Harrisburg pay-grabbers. Insolent might be the better word. The contempt these "public servants" have shown the people who elected them is palpable.

In addition to the unbelievable display of disdain these politicians have for the people in their home districts, another interesting point in the Inquirer article was the fact that so few politicians were even willing to "defend" the pay grab. The reporter who wrote the story called 25 lawmakers, but only two were willing to talk. Imagine that. A politician who doesn’t want his or her name in the newspaper. That’s a first.

We’re approaching the two-month anniversary of the Great Pay Grab of 2005. The politicians who orchestrated this betrayal of public trust can’t hide forever. Eventually, they will return to the scene of the crime.

Will the 23 legislators who voted for the pay hike but changed their minds about taking the money stand up to the party bosses who run Harrisburg? Will the 79 House members who opposed the pay grab in the first place stand up to the tyrants? Will the 23 senators who voted against the pay hike demand a vote to rescind the pay raise?

Only three state senators need to reverse their vote on the pay hike. And 26 state representatives need to change their vote to repeal the raises. Gov. Ed Rendell, who is getting booed more often than Terrell Owens these days, said he will sign the bill abolishing the pay grab.

Voters in the 150th District will let Rep. Crahalla know if she still has a job in Harrisburg when she faces reelection in May 2006.

What about your state legislator? Have you told him or her in no uncertain terms that their future hinges on whether they do the right thing for the people they promised to represent?

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Pay raise outcry continues into week 7

This is the latest editorial in The Mercury (Pottstown, Pa.) on the Legislative pay grab. The newspaper has collected 7,000 protest letters from readers in the past three weeks. They will be delivered to Harrisburg when the Legislators return on Sept. 26.

At the beginning of week seven since the legislative pay grab, few things have changed since the debacle first unfolded on July 7.

The first legislative leader to change his mind on collecting the midterm raise as an unvouchered expense — Rep. Brett Feese, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee — came forward last week. He became the first leader to reverse his earlier decision. Feese’s decision does not apply to his actual raise, however, which he will collect, starting in December 2006.

Most of the leaders, who received the biggest raises, accepted the early payments. Three others in leadership — Sens. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin; Mary Jo White, R-Franklin; and Connie Williams, D-Delaware — refused the special payments from the beginning.

Feese was among the three latest lawmakers to rescind their acceptance of the unvouchered expenses, pushing the total to 17.

At the same time, other legislators dug in their heels in defense of the 16 to 34 percent raises they awarded themselves on July 7, repeating the argument that they work hard and deserve the raise.

“I think this is fair compensation for the amount of hours we put in,” said state Rep. Jacqueline R. Crahalla, R-150th Dist., noting she routinely works 50-plus hour weeks. “This job is tough and every two years, your reputation gets knocked to hell if you are seeking reelection, and there is no job security,” said Crahalla, adding that “municipal administrators” often get paid more and have better job security than state lawmakers.

The pay raise legislation, passed at 2 a.m. on July 7, boosts the base salary of state lawmakers from $69,647 to $81,050, with committee heads and those in leadership posts getting additional hikes. Pennsylvania now has the second highest paid legislators in the country, behind only California.

Throughout the state, voter outrage has continued loud and strong. More than 7,000 people have sent protest letters to legislators as part of Operation Giveback, a letter-writing campaign sponsored by The Mercury to “send a message to Harrisburg.” A Web site and a radio station conducting similar campaigns have also reported phenomenal voter reaction.

Area lawmakers voting against the pay hike were state Sen. John C. Rafferty, R-44th Dist., state Sen. Rob Wonderling, R-24th Dist., state Rep. Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist., state Rep. Carole Rubley, R-157th Dist., and state Rep. Douglas Reichley, R-134th. Reichley, however, took the money as an unvouchered expense.

Voting for the hike were Crahalla; state Sen. Michael O’Pake, D-11th; state Sen. Robert Thompson, R-19th; state Rep. Dennis Leh, R-130th; state Rep. Raymond Bunt, R-47th; state Rep. Timothy Hennessey, R-25th; state Rep. Curt Schroder, R-155th, and state Rep. Robert Flick, R-167th. Schroder reversed himself after initially accepting the unvouchered expenses and announced he would not take the raise early.

Taxpayers are upset not only with the magnitude of the pay hike but also with legislators’ poor track record on property tax reform, jobs growth and schools funding. One legislator ludicrously defended the vote to give themselves a raise as part of a package that ultimately benefitted taxpayers.

Ask taxpayers how much they’ve benefitted from the legislators’ pay grab.
In particular, ask them this week as they try to pull together the money for local school tax bills that have a discount due date if paid by Aug. 31.

We think we know what their answers will be.

Copyright 2005 The Mercury

Monday, August 22, 2005

Has your state legislator apologized yet?

I’ve been checking Web sites of newspapers across Pennsylvania since the House of Lords (aka the state legislature) gave itself an exorbitant pay raise six weeks ago.

To my pleasant surprise, every newspaper in the state — from the big city papers in Philadelphia, Allentown and Pittsburgh to the smallest daily papers scattered across the state — has editorialized against the unjustified pay raise and the reprehensible method it was approved (under cover of darkness on the last day of the Legislative session before lawmakers went on their 10-week summer vacation).

I’ve read hundreds of letters sent to newspapers by residents of Pennsylvania who feel violated and betrayed by people who are supposed to look out for them. It’s like having a member of your own family commit a crime against you.

One of the most interesting articles I’ve come across was in the Lancaster New Era.

It was a story about a state legislator from central Pennsylvania who not only reversed his stand on the pay hike (at least 16 legislators have done so since July 7) but this lawmaker publicly apologized to his constituents.

State Rep. Tom Creighton, who originally voted for the pay raise and defended it for five weeks, now admits it was an "error in judgment" that violated the "faith and trust" voters placed in him, according to the newspaper.

"In asking for your forgiveness on my vote on the pay raise, I’m committing my full energies in the remaining days of my term to fixing a broken system," Creighton said in a letter to residents of the 37th District.

"In the coming days, I will be introducing legislation to repeal the legislative pay raise, and intend to work with my colleagues and a growing number of concerned citizens like you, to restore the faith and trust you’ve placed in me," he wrote.

Creighton also told the newspaper that he originally voted for the pay raise because the Harrisburg party bosses put the squeeze on him. Voters in Creighton’s district need to think long and hard if they want to send this man back to Harrisburg next year when it appears he turns into a spineless jellyfish and does what he’s told. Imagine his campaign theme: "I will mindlessly obey others."

It’s difficult to say if Creighton’s apology is sincere, but it is a step in the right direction. Unlike the conceited party bosses — John Perzel, William DeWeese, Robert Mellow, David Brightbill, Robert Mellow, Samuel Smith — who refuse to even acknowledge that the pay raise was a mistake, at least Creighton heard what his constituents were saying and put their needs ahead of his own.

When will area lawmakers show some backbone and apologize for their grave error in judgment?

I am referring to Sens. Michael O’Pake, Robert Thompson, Connie Williams and Stewart Greenleaf and state Reps. Tim Hennessey, Raymond Bunt, Dennis Leh, Robert J. Flick, Dante Santoni Jr., Tom Caltagirone, Sam Rohrer and Jacqueline Crahalla. They voted for the pay raise and have so far refused to give the ill-gotten gain back.

State Rep. Douglas Reichley also has a lot of explaining to do. He initially voted against the pay raise, but then showed up in Harrisburg to collect the pay hike even though the state Constitution prohibits lawmakers from approving pay raises for themselves during their current term.

Rep. Curt Schroder decided not to take the pay raises even though he voted in favor of boosting his salary by a minimum of $11,000 a year on top of the very generous perks legislators enjoy as members of the House of Lords. One recent study determined the total compensation package (salary and benefits) for a single state legislator costs taxpayers $150,000 a year.

While wholesale changes are needed in Harrisburg (228 of the 253 members of the bloated Pennsylvania House of Lords will be up for reelection in 2006), voters should be willing to give Sens. Rob Wonderling and John Rafferty and state Reps. Tom Quigley and Carole Rubley the benefit of the doubt. They voted against the pay raise, and as far as I know, have not accepted the money as "unvouchered expenses," the euphemism lawmakers are using to circumvent the Pennsylvania Constitution.

On the bright side, the list of legislators who have decided not to participate in the "unvouchered expense" scam is now up to 105.

Back to Rep. Creighton. "Trading principled decisions for legislative expediency is never right," Creighton wrote. "Unfortunately, for me, the State Capitol and its internal system of punishments and rewards got the best of me in that fateful vote."
Creighton wrote that he reversed his position "after much reflection, prayer and the counsel from countless friends like you."

He concluded by saying he is deeply sorry that the residents of Pennsylvania have lost faith in their lawmakers because of the pay grab. "The process needs to be responsive to the people, to the voters. If I made a mistake, I think I need to state why I made the mistake and explain why I won’t do it again and try to fix it."

The rest of the legislators who voted for the pay grab need to step up to the plate and say they’re sorry. They still have a long way to go to regain the public trust they violated, but an apology is a good place to start.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Money-grubbing politicians feel the heat

An editorial cartoon in The Mercury this week raised the question of whether Pennsylvania lawmakers were hearing the public outrage over the Great Pay Grab of 2005. Rest assured, they’re hearing you loud and clear.

The citizens of Pennsylvania are going to win this one. The Pennsylvania House of Lords (aka state legislature) is feeling the heat. The 253 state House and Senate members remind me of George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. Through arrogance and audacity, legislative leaders have led their troops into hostile territory, where they are greatly outnumbered by Pennsylvania taxpayers. Like Custer, the party bosses have managed to get their forces surrounded. And we all know how the Battle of the Little Big Horn turned out.

The party bosses that masterminded the pay grab — Perzel, DeWeese, Jubelirer, Mellow, Brightbill — are losing soldiers daily. Two more legislators have changed their minds and decided not to accept "unvouchered expenses" that let lawmakers collect their new pay raises 16 months before the Pennsylvania Constitution allows, according to The (Delaware County) Daily Times. Rep. Nicholas A. Micozzie and Sen. Dominic E. Pileggi joined 12 other legislators who initially accepted and — amid a roar of public disapproval — subsequently rejected the special payments that are equal to their prospective raises, the newspaper reports.

The party bosses have circled the wagons and are preparing to fight for the pay raise to the last man. But the foot soldiers who were led into this battle with the promise that voters are too dumb to figure out what the Legislature did at 2 a.m. on July 7 or too lazy to do anything about it are deserting the Custers who led them into the quagmire. As constituents continue to confront legislators, it’s becoming every man for himself, and politicians, by their very nature, will do whatever it takes to save their own skin.

Newspapers continue to lead the charge with daily revelations of the greed and back-room dealing in the Pennsylvania House of Lords. The Mercury has collected 3,400 signatures opposing the pay grab in just 10 days. Four of The Mercury’s sister newspapers in southeastern Pennsylvania have joined the cause. We will deliver the letters to Harrisburg next month.

The number of Web sites helping organize the people’s revolt against the greedy politicians is growing. reports 38,000 visitors to its Web site. The group has also signed up 2,200 subscribers to receive e-mail updates on the progress to clean up the mess in Harrisburg. Former state Rep. John Kennedy, who launched his own campaign to repeal the pay raise, reports 17,000 people have visited his Web site, www.declarationofaction.

The newest Web site devoted to winning back Pennsylvania from the gluttonous politicians is The group is planning to plaster the faces of the leaders of the pay grab on billboards across the state.

The politicians are blaming news coverage of the pay raise for stirring up the public, but as usual, they underestimate the intelligence of voters. You don’t need a Ph.D. to realize someone just reached into your pocket to relieve you of your hard-earned money. This revolt is grassroots. And voters won’t forget the pay raise when 228 of the 253 members of the House of Lords face reelection in 2006.

It’s not just the pay raise that is drawing public scrutiny. Residents are fuming about the $150,000 in taxpayer money being wasted by state lawmakers attending a junket in Seattle. Pennsylvania is sending nearly 100 delegates to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The only legislator from Berks, Chester or Montgomery counties I know went to Seattle is Rep. Dante Santoni Jr., a Democrat who "serves" the 126th District outside Reading.

Santoni, one of the drones who was promoted to a committee chairmanship when Democratic leader Bill DeWeese punished 15 Democrats who voted their conscience by not supporting the pay grab, willingly took the $11,000 pay raise and the chairmanship post, which added another $4,050 to his pockets. Santoni is also billing constituents for the $1,750 cost of attending the conference.

In western Pennsylvania, Rep. Frank LaGrotta said someone approached him in a supermarket and called him a thief for taking a "vacation" at taxpayers’ expense. LaGrotta decided not go to Seattle.

This is a defining moment in Pennsylvania history. Citizens must stand and fight the flagrant theft of public money and public trust. There are nearly 8 million registered voters in Pennsylvania.

Regardless of party affiliation, we need to work together to oust the 200 or so legislators who raided the public treasury on July 7.
Even if the 2 a.m. cowards rescind the pay raise when they get back to Harrisburg after their 10-week vacation, they will try to rob us again.

The only solution is remove them from the temptation of taking our money. Remember the pay raise! Vote them out!

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Monday, August 15, 2005

Pa. residents must organize to take back their state

The revolution is on. The shots were fired in the wee small hours of the morning of July 7 when most Pennsylvanians were fast asleep. That’s when 253 renegade politicians gave themselves outrageous pay raises on the last day of the legislative session before going on a 10-week summer vacation.

The 2004-05 session was one in which our well-paid legislators again failed to deliver property tax relief to the state’s beleaguered homeowners, failed to deliver health insurance reform for small business, leaving thousands of Pennsylvanians without health coverage, failed to provide adequate Medicare funding for the state’s poor, and failed to raise the state’s minimum wage, keeping thousands of the state’s working poor in poverty.

To reward themselves for complete failure, they broke into the state treasury in the middle of the night and ran off with pay raises ranging from $11,000 to $36,000.
The anger and frustration among the state’s besieged taxpayers continues to rise with the August heat. The revelation that Pennsylvania lawmakers will fleece taxpayers for another $150,000 to spend the week vacationing (I meant to say attending a conference) in Seattle is another kick in the groin for Pennsylvania taxpayers.

That bit of news was followed by an investigative piece in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that exposed a $135 million slush fund set up by the party bosses who rule Harrisburg. This account is controlled by legislative leaders — the same ones who pushed through the pay raise and the very same ones who punished legislators who voted against the money grab by removing them from committee chairmanships. The $135 million can be spent at the discretion of the party bosses. They can buy off anyone in the state with the money, which used to be part of the state treasury until the party bosses confiscated it for their private accounts.

And the very same article in the Tribune-Review revealed that our hard-working, full-time state legislators averaged 77 session days a year for the past five years in Harrisburg. So much for working "24/7" as some of these charlatans have been telling constituents. Anyone interested in a part-time job (you only have to show up 77 days a year) that pays $81,027 to start with the potential to make $145,553 if you rise to the post of party boss? The line forms behind me.

So what can the tormented taxpayer do between now and May 2006, when Pennsylvania residents can extract their revenge on these bandits in three-piece suits?

First, educate yourself. House Democratic leader William "Boss Hogg" DeWeese complained last week that Pennsylvania newspapers have been writing too much about the pay raise. He thinks the news coverage is behind the outrage. In other words, if taxpayers would be kept in the dark, it would be a lot easier for the state Legislature to carry on its criminal activities.

DeWeese’s contempt for the people of Pennsylvania speaks volumes of the arrogance of elected officials in this state. They are not public servants. They have crowned themselves as royalty — a Pennsylvania House of Lords — to rule over the rest of us commoners. This is all the reason Pennsylvania residents need to clean house in Harrisburg.

Second, continue to voice your opposition. Call and write your legislators. Challenge them at public forums to defend the pillage of taxpayers so they can maintain the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Participate in The Mercury’s Operation Giveback. Write a letter to the editor. Call your local talk radio station. Keep it alive.

Third, and most importantly, start making plans for the May 2006 primary election. All 203 members of the House of Representatives and 25 of the 50 Senators will face reelection next year. Unless the incumbents have opposition on the ballot, there’s no way to get rid of them. Consider running for office yourself. You can’t do any worse than the do-nothing dregs we have in office now. If you’re an independent, a libertarian or a member of another third-party, you must change your registration to Republican or Democrat in order to vote in the primary. That’s crucial.

There are several Web sites already set up offering advice on how Pennsylvania residents can organize and work to take back their government from the freeloaders who inhabit Harrisburg.

Former state Rep. John Kennedy, a Republican from Cumberland County who declined his pension and perks while serving from 1981 to 1988, has set up an informative site called:

Another good site is, the Web log of activist Eugene Stilp of Harrisburg, who has filed a lawsuit to overturn the pay hike.
The newest site attempting to organize residents is

Also worth checking out is, which was set up by Russ Diamond, a Lebanon County businessman, whose goal is to kick out the entire Legislature. Diamond’s site offers a lot of practical advice on how to make wholesale changes in Harrisburg in 2006 and beyond. And who — except for the 253 mutineers — doesn’t believe change is needed?

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Pay raise revolt heats up: Letters pour in

This article was published Sunday, August 14, 2005, in The Mercury, Pottstown, PA

POTTSTOWN — One week after The Mercury began a campaign urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to return the large pay raise they gave themselves, nearly 3,000 readers have responded.

Enraged by the 2 a.m. July 7 vote by House and Senate members to increase lawmakers' salaries between 16 and 34 percent, readers have been mailing signed letters in droves to The Mercury office.

Titled Operation Giveback, the crusade aims to have state lawmakers repeal the pay increase and consider the needs of its citizens, many of whom are "struggling to pay property taxes and health care costs."

During the past week, The Mercury has been joined by four other Philadelphia area newspapers: The (Delaware County) Daily Times in Primos, the Daily Local News in West Chester, the Times Herald in Norristown and The Phoenix in Phoenixville.

Letters gathered by the five newspapers will be collectively hand-delivered to the state Capitol building in Harrisburg when the House and the Senate return from a 10-week summer recess on Sept 26.

Mercury editor Nancy March said the letter-writing campaign was inspired by a message left by a reader.

"A woman called and asked if we could print a petition so people could pass it around and let legislators know just how angry they are," she said. "So we thought, ‘Why not invite readers to send letters?’ Taking a huge stack of mail from angry constituents to Harrisburg is one way to let lawmakers see firsthand the furor they’ve created."

The reaction of readers has been gratifying, March added.

"People are calling us and coming into the office to thank us for the opportunity," she said. "In just one week, the campaign has generated a tremendous response, and it has all been positive. The people of the Pottstown area are telling us they welcome this opportunity to send a message to their elected representatives."

Bill Sharon, an employee of the Pottstown Codes Department, made 500 copies of the Operation Giveback letter and has spread them among six friends who are finding people to sign them. Although his letter is similar to The Mercury's, Sharon's goes a step further by demanding tax reform.

"I tell people they have to stop talking, and now is the time to take action," Sharon said. "We have to get out there and really make a statement."

Sharon has also set up a stand in front of his home at 131 King St. in Pottstown where passersby can stop and sign a letter. If people continue to respond, Sharon said he will copy another 500 letters and get more signatures.

"Maybe this pay raise issue is the kick in the backside that we need." Sharon said. "Everybody in the Pottstown area should sign a letter. There's not a reason why we shouldn't have 20,000, and it'd be great if people outside the area sent in letters, too."

Marie Piroschak, a senior citizen living in Pottstown, said she took 50 copies from Sharon and distributed all of them at the Pottstown Area Seniors Center. She said the response was so tremendous that she intends to hand them out again on Monday.

"Everybody wanted to sign, no problem at all, and they all seemed to know what this was all about. I was surprised," Piroschak said.

Although last month's pay increase is still fresh in the minds of constituents, many citizens are hoping that the taxpayers remember this vote during next year's elections when all 203 members of the state House and 25 of the 50 members of the state Senate face reelection.

Henry Flack of Schwenksville said signing an Operation Giveback letter was a no-brainer. The lawmakers' salary raise as well as the failure of the Legislature to enact property tax reform made his decision in next year's election an easy one.

"There isn't an incumbent that I would vote for again. I'm fed up with all of them," Flack said. "If a dog catcher ran against them, I still wouldn't vote for them."

By Don Brensinger
Copyright 2005 The Mercury

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Legislative pay raise: Throw the bums out only goes so far

It’s been 30 days since the Pennsylvania Legislature pulled off the Great Pay Grab of 2005. The fact we’re still talking about the crime a month later is a victory in itself. But a lot more needs to be done between now and the primary election in 2006, which will be the first opportunity voters have to throw the bums out.

The news media has a short attention span. Stories are followed for a day or two and then forgotten. Television is the worst. Unless you’re a runaway bride or an attractive blonde high school senior who disappeared in Aruba, you’re lucky if the story stays on the air more than a day.

Since the initial vote on July 7 when legislators gave themselves pay raises of 16 percent to 34 percent, there’s been hardly a mention of the Great Pay Grab on any television newscasts, which, sadly, is the main source of news for many people. It’s been up to newspapers and a few radio stations to keep the issue alive.

I’ve browsed Web sites of many Pennsylvania newspapers over the past 30 days to see how this story is being covered across the state. To my surprise, every newspaper — large and small, liberal and conservative — has been outraged by the flagrant abuse of power displayed by the Pennsylvania Legislature. I’ve read more than two dozen editorials, at least 100 letters to the editor and dozens of columnists. Everyone is on the same page.

I can’t recall any issue in my 23 years in the newspaper industry where there has been universal agreement. What the legislators did on July 7 is reprehensible. A betrayal of public trust. Utter contempt for the people these legislators claim to represent.

The pay heist wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment crime. It was premeditated. Down to the last detail. The party bosses knew which legislators came from safe districts. They voted yes. The party bosses knew which freshmen legislators were vulnerable. They were allowed to vote no. But don’t be fooled. Nineteen House and Senate members who voted against the pay raise took the money anyway.

The smug political bosses who run this state miscalculated on the pay grab. They figured the whole thing would blow over in a week or two. But five weeks after Pennsylvania residents were fleeced by their own state representatives, the anger continues to grow. Spurred by newspapers, talk radio and the Internet, residents are organizing and planning their response to July 7, 2005 — a date that will live in infamy in the annals of Pennsylvania history.

After voting themselves pay raises of 16 percent to 34 percent at 2 a.m. on July 7, the 253 members of the legislative body in the country went on a 10-week summer vacation. Legislators are spending the month of August at their shore homes or in their cabins in the Poconos. Some of them are at their homes in Florida. Others are on European vacations. Who can blame them? If you just "found" an extra $11,000 in your pocket, wouldn’t you go on a spending spree?

If they’re not relaxing on the beach, our legislators are spending the summer in underground bunkers. Politicians love to see their name in print and their smiling face on the front pages of newspapers. But for the past five weeks, they’ve been in hiding, refusing requests for interviews about the pay grab. Readers have contacted me to say they believe the legislators disabled their e-mail systems so constituents could not contact them.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who signed the pay grab into law, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy are the only politicians who’ve publicly defended the heist. (Rendell gets a $21,228 annual pay raise under the same legislation, while Cappy gets an $18,144 per year pay boost.)

Their arguments are weak: "Legislators work hard. They put in long hours. They’re away from their families." Nobody is putting a gun to anyone’s head forcing them to run for public office. Legislators are free to leave Harrisburg for private sector jobs any time they want. But name one private sector job where you can set your own salary and boost your pay any time you want (as long as you do it in the middle of the night when your boss is asleep).

Rendell, whose own re-election in 2006 is jeopardized by the pay heist, dropped by the Reading Fair Monday to grab something to eat. He was booed by the fairgoers. Nothing planned. No organized protest. Just hard-working residents of Pennsylvania trying to provide a day out for their families. They saw a well-dressed politician making four times the pay they bring home and spontaneously started booing Rendell.

Rendell is lucky fairgoers didn’t toss tomatoes or eggs or cow chips in his direction.

There’s no doubt politicians are feeling the heat. But the key is to channel the anger into action. It’s time for wholesale changes in Harrisburg. Unless most the incumbents on the ballot in 2006 are voted out of office, the politicians will continue to rape taxpayers.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

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.