Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How much control do you want Big Brother to have in your life?

Smoke 'em if you got 'em — at least for one more year if you're planning to apply for a job with Montgomery County in suburban Philadelphia.

The county's threat to implement a ban on hiring new employees who smoke has been reduced to ashes, like a half-smoked cigarette left to smolder in an ashtray.

County Commissioners' Chairman Jim Matthews, a former smoker, announced recently that he's going to allow the controversy to blow away — at least for now. "This does not mean we have shelved the idea," Matthews emphasized in an article published in the Nov. 26 edition of The Pottstown Mercury. "We just need more answers."

It's not clear what prompted Matthews to drop his missionary crusade to prevent chain smokers from getting their foot in the door of the county's personnel office. Perhaps Matthews' intention to run for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2006 has something to do with it. What politician in his right mind wants to kick off a campaign by alienating a large segment of the voters?

This debate started because Matthews, a Democrat turned Republican, was attempting to promote himself as a fiscal conservative. Montgomery County pays about $24 million for health care benefits for its 3,200 employees.

When Matthews first floated the smoking ban idea in March, he said the county's insurance company promised significant savings in premiums if the county didn’t hire smokers. (Current county employees can continue to smoke to their heart’s content, or until their hearts give out).

According to the Nov. 26 article by reporter Margaret Gibbons, some of the statistics provided to Matthews by the county’s insurance advisers, include the following:

• Smokers are 50 percent more likely to be hospitalized than nonsmokers.

• Insurance companies pay out an average of $300 more a year in claims for every smoker than claims from nonsmokers.

• Smokers are absent from work 50 percent more of the time than nonsmokers, with 80 million work days lost each year in the United States because of smoking-related illnesses.

There's nothing wrong with trying to save taxpayers some money, but is going after a personal habit — something a worker does away from the job — the right thing for government to do?

Jim Matthews is the younger brother of loudmouth liberal commentator Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," but for purposes of this column, it’s appropriate to refer to Jim Matthews as "Big Brother."

We all get the message that smoking is bad for you. But where do you draw the line in the government dictating personal habits? Drinking too much alcohol is bad for you. Will Big Brother Matthews go after alcoholics next? What about a recovering alcoholic? Can they ever get a job with Montgomery County?

Gambling is bad, and so is adultery. And let's not forget that heart disease is the biggest killer in the United States. What about gluttony? What if you want to eat a pound of bacon and a box of doughnuts for breakfast or a couple of Big Macs for lunch? Will Matthews install scales at the entrances of all county facilities and force workers to reveal their weight each morning?

How far will Big Brother go to enforce restrictions on personal habits? It's one thing to ban smoking in a public building or at public gatherings. But what if a worker smokes on his way to work or on a lunch break away from the job site? Will Big Brother Matthews hire spies to follow suspected smokers around? Will he install cameras in rest rooms? Is there such a thing as smoke-sniffing dogs? Will Big Brother Matthews hire K-9 units to patrol county property for wayward smokers? Release the hounds!

What is the ultimate goal of Big Brother Matthews in order to save on health care costs? Get rid of any worker who turns 40? Shades of "Soylent Green." Older workers tend to get sicker than younger ones. What about women? They have medical conditions that men don’t have to deal with. Is the goal to hire only men in their 20s to work for government?

What about people with allergies? Who wants to sit next to somebody who sneezes all the time? And we all know people who tend to get more colds than the average person. How do we go about weeding out the sickly from our employment rolls?

If Matthews' anti-smoking crusade is carried to the extreme, what's to stop government from genetic testing to single out people who may have a proclivity to certain diseases?

Matthews even came up with a couple of good reasons why the smoking ban is a bad idea.

He told Gibbons that a smoking ban could reduce the opportunity for the county to "hire the best and the brightest" as department heads or for the solicitor, district attorney or public defender offices. "Do we want to deny ourselves from hiring top people just because they smoke on their own time?" Matthews wondered.

Wrapping himself around the American flag, Matthews told Gibbons he didn't want to deny war veterans an opportunity to work for county government. "I am not about to turn down someone who has been sloshing around in Baghdad, dodging bullets and explosives on behalf of our country," said Matthews, adding he’s aware that there’s a "smoking culture in the military."

I'm not a smoker. Never have smoked and have no desire to start. And I don't enjoy breathing in second-hand smoke. I don't allow anyone to smoke in my house. Big Brother Matthews doesn't own the county administration building. There's something inherently wrong with government officials telling people how to live their lives on their own time and in their homes.

The only Democrat in Congress I respect

Our Troops Must Stay
America can't abandon 27 million Iraqis to 10,000 terrorists

Published Tuesday, November 29, 2005
in The Wall Street Journal

I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. More work needs to be done, of course, but the Iraqi people are in reach of a watershed transformation from the primitive, killing tyranny of Saddam to modern, self-governing, self-securing nationhood--unless the great American military that has given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn.

Progress is visible and practical. In the Kurdish North, there is continuing security and growing prosperity. The primarily Shiite South remains largely free of terrorism, receives much more electric power and other public services than it did under Saddam, and is experiencing greater economic activity. The Sunni triangle, geographically defined by Baghdad to the east, Tikrit to the north and Ramadi to the west, is where most of the terrorist enemy attacks occur. And yet here, too, there is progress.

There are many more cars on the streets, satellite television dishes on the roofs, and literally millions more cell phones in Iraqi hands than before. All of that says the Iraqi economy is growing. And Sunni candidates are actively campaigning for seats in the National Assembly. People are working their way toward a functioning society and economy in the midst of a very brutal, inhumane, sustained terrorist war against the civilian population and the Iraqi and American military there to protect it.

It is a war between 27 million and 10,000; 27 million Iraqis who want to live lives of freedom, opportunity and prosperity and roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam revanchists, Iraqi Islamic extremists or al Qaeda foreign fighters who know their wretched causes will be set back if Iraq becomes free and modern. The terrorists are intent on stopping this by instigating a civil war to produce the chaos that will allow Iraq to replace Afghanistan as the base for their fanatical war-making. We are fighting on the side of the 27 million because the outcome of this war is critically important to the security and freedom of America. If the terrorists win, they will be emboldened to strike us directly again and to further undermine the growing stability and progress in the Middle East, which has long been a major American national and economic security priority.

Before going to Iraq last week, I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel has been the only genuine democracy in the region, but it is now getting some welcome company from the Iraqis and Palestinians who are in the midst of robust national legislative election campaigns, the Lebanese who have risen up in proud self-determination after the Hariri assassination to eject their Syrian occupiers (the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias should be next), and the Kuwaitis, Egyptians and Saudis who have taken steps to open up their governments more broadly to their people. In my meeting with the thoughtful prime minister of Iraq, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, he declared with justifiable pride that his country now has the most open, democratic political system in the Arab world. He is right.

In the face of terrorist threats and escalating violence, eight million Iraqis voted for their interim national government in January, almost 10 million participated in the referendum on their new constitution in October, and even more than that are expected to vote in the elections for a full-term government on Dec. 15. Every time the 27 million Iraqis have been given the chance since Saddam was overthrown, they have voted for self-government and hope over the violence and hatred the 10,000 terrorists offer them. Most encouraging has been the behavior of the Sunni community, which, when disappointed by the proposed constitution, registered to vote and went to the polls instead of taking up arms and going to the streets. Last week, I was thrilled to see a vigorous political campaign, and a large number of independent television stations and newspapers covering it.

None of these remarkable changes would have happened without the coalition forces led by the U.S. And, I am convinced, almost all of the progress in Iraq and throughout the Middle East will be lost if those forces are withdrawn faster than the Iraqi military is capable of securing the country.

The leaders of Iraq's duly elected government understand this, and they asked me for reassurance about America's commitment. The question is whether the American people and enough of their representatives in Congress from both parties understand this. I am disappointed by Democrats who are more focused on how President Bush took America into the war in Iraq almost three years ago, and by Republicans who are more worried about whether the war will bring them down in next November's elections, than they are concerned about how we continue the progress in Iraq in the months and years ahead.

Here is an ironic finding I brought back from Iraq. While U.S. public opinion polls show serious declines in support for the war and increasing pessimism about how it will end, polls conducted by Iraqis for Iraqi universities show increasing optimism. Two-thirds say they are better off than they were under Saddam, and a resounding 82% are confident their lives in Iraq will be better a year from now than they are today. What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory.

The leaders of America's military and diplomatic forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey and Ambassador Zal Khalilzad, have a clear and compelling vision of our mission there. It is to create the environment in which Iraqi democracy, security and prosperity can take hold and the Iraqis themselves can defend their political progress against those 10,000 terrorists who would take it from them.

Does America have a good plan for doing this, a strategy for victory in Iraq? Yes we do. And it is important to make it clear to the American people that the plan has not remained stubbornly still but has changed over the years. Mistakes, some of them big, were made after Saddam was removed, and no one who supports the war should hesitate to admit that; but we have learned from those mistakes and, in characteristic American fashion, from what has worked and not worked on the ground. The administration's recent use of the banner "clear, hold and build" accurately describes the strategy as I saw it being implemented last week.

We are now embedding a core of coalition forces in every Iraqi fighting unit, which makes each unit more effective and acts as a multiplier of our forces. Progress in "clearing" and "holding" is being made. The Sixth Infantry Division of the Iraqi Security Forces now controls and polices more than one-third of Baghdad on its own. Coalition and Iraqi forces have together cleared the previously terrorist-controlled cities of Fallujah, Mosul and Tal Afar, and most of the border with Syria. Those areas are now being "held" secure by the Iraqi military themselves. Iraqi and coalition forces are jointly carrying out a mission to clear Ramadi, now the most dangerous city in Al-Anbar province at the west end of the Sunni Triangle.

Nationwide, American military leaders estimate that about one-third of the approximately 100,000 members of the Iraqi military are able to "lead the fight" themselves with logistical support from the U.S., and that that number should double by next year. If that happens, American military forces could begin a drawdown in numbers proportional to the increasing self-sufficiency of the Iraqi forces in 2006. If all goes well, I believe we can have a much smaller American military presence there by the end of 2006 or in 2007, but it is also likely that our presence will need to be significant in Iraq or nearby for years to come.

The economic reconstruction of Iraq has gone slower than it should have, and too much money has been wasted or stolen. Ambassador Khalilzad is now implementing reform that has worked in Afghanistan--Provincial Reconstruction Teams, composed of American economic and political experts, working in partnership in each of Iraq's 18 provinces with its elected leadership, civil service and the private sector. That is the "build" part of the "clear, hold and build" strategy, and so is the work American and international teams are doing to professionalize national and provincial governmental agencies in Iraq.

These are new ideas that are working and changing the reality on the ground, which is undoubtedly why the Iraqi people are optimistic about their future--and why the American people should be, too.

I cannot say enough about the U.S. Army and Marines who are carrying most of the fight for us in Iraq. They are courageous, smart, effective, innovative, very honorable and very proud. After a Thanksgiving meal with a great group of Marines at Camp Fallujah in western Iraq, I asked their commander whether the morale of his troops had been hurt by the growing public dissent in America over the war in Iraq. His answer was insightful, instructive and inspirational: "I would guess that if the opposition and division at home go on a lot longer and get a lot deeper it might have some effect, but, Senator, my Marines are motivated by their devotion to each other and the cause, not by political debates."

Thank you, General. That is a powerful, needed message for the rest of America and its political leadership at this critical moment in our nation's history. Semper Fi.

Mr. Lieberman is a Democratic senator from Connecticut.

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Books any conservative would love this Christmas

Having trouble figuring out what to get that hard-to-buy-for conservative on your Christmas list? Look no further. There's a ton of great new books out that any common-sense American would enjoy finding under the tree this Christmas.

At the top of the list is "Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild" by Michelle Malkin. This is the most entertaining book out there about your favorite cast of liberal characters who've gone off the rails on a crazy train. Malkin pulls no punches in going after the usual suspects: Screamin’ Howard Dean, John Forbes Kerry, Ward Churchill, Ted Kennedy and Sen. Dick Durbin, who compared American soldiers fighting to liberate Iraq to Nazis. But Malkin also exposes dozens of lesser-known liberal loons who are leading the assault on American values and politics, including pseudo-celebrities, so-called pundits and front-men for a gaggle of radical left organizations. Malkin also defends herself from vicious personal attacks launched by left-wing flame-throwers who frequently resort to name-calling when they can’t offer any intellectual rebuttal to conservative arguments. Some of the insults include aspersions on Malkin’s Asian-American heritage. Have you noticed that it’s OK for liberals to insult a conservative’s ethnic and racial background? That old liberal double-standard at work again.

Another excellent book is "Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror" by Richard Miniter, the veteran investigative reporter and frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal. Miniter's previous books — "Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror" and "Shadow War: The Untold Story of How America is Winning the War on Terror" — were equally provocative. This is a serious look at the successes and failures in the War on Terror. "Disinformation" is a quick read and a book you don't have to read chronologically, so if you like to jump around chapters, you'll enjoy this one. Miniter doesn't just expose the attempts by the mainstream left-wing media to distort the progress of the war in Iraq. He also goes after the right for perpetuating myths about the war that has hurt its progress.

Here's some more gift ideas for the conservative reader on your shopping list:

"The War on Christmas: How the Conspiracy to Subvert Our Most Sacred Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought" by Fox News anchor John Gibson. Yes Virginia, there is a war on Christmas and Americans better wake up before the secular movement, in league with militant atheists and the ACLU, turn the wondrous celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ into a winter harvest festival. Don't let Scrooges like Michael Newdow get away with their full-scale war on Christianity and Christmas. Gibson, who works at Fox News, offers dozens of examples of how Christmas is being banished from the public square by a vocal minority.

"Pants On Fire: How Al Franken Lies, Smears and Deceives" by Alan Skorski chronicles the lies of the American left's version of Pinocchio. Franken, for those lucky enough not to know him, is the "star" of the Air America liberal talk radio "network." I put "star" and "network" in quotes for a reason. It's hard to think of Franken as a "star" anything when so few people listen to Air America and can you really call it a "network" when his show is heard on about a dozen stations? Most of the big-time conservative radio talk show hosts are carried by 300 to 400 stations daily. Back to Franken, a one-time "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer. What can an unemployed comedian without any skills do for a living? Franken became a Democratic pundit. "Pants On Fire" details the numerous tall tales Franken has been caught telling over the radio and in books. Franken has threatened to sue Skorski over the book, but doesn't dispute any of the reporting in the book. Isn't it ironic that Franken has a book out called "The Truth (With Jokes)" when Franken wouldn't know the truth if it slapped him in the face?

"Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy" by Peter Schweizer also takes jabs at Al Franken, but expands its scope to detail the private lives and financial dealings of Bill & Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore, George Soros and the denizens of the Hollywood's Left Coast. Information on how Soros hides his money in offshore banks to avoid paying U.S. taxes and a history of how the Kennedy clan has managed to hide most of its $400 million fortune in overseas trusts to avoid paying taxes is worth the price of the book alone.

"100 People Who Are Screwing Up America" is Bernard Goldberg's recounting of a rogue's gallery of familiar left-wing politicians, entertainers and people like Al Sharpton (does anyone know what this guy does for a living)? Goldberg, who worked for CBS News for a quarter-century, wrote the best seller, "Bias," which exposed the liberal slant in network television news. This is a more humorous look at the influence liberals have on American society. The only question I have is why stop at 100? There’s at least 100 liberals in Congress alone who are screwing up the country.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Congress joins the pay raise bandwagon

This is the editorial from the Tuesday, November 22, edition of The Mercury. It appears voters can add their local congressman to the list of incumbents who need to be booted out of office in 2006.

Congress joins the bandwagon for raises without cause

Just when we thought we had reeled in one group of lawmakers over a pay-raise fiasco, another group — Congress this time — gives itself more money.

Congress voted itself a $3,100 pay raise on Friday, then postponed work on bills to curb spending on social programs and cut taxes in favor of a two-week vacation.
Sound familiar?

In the final hours of a tumultuous week in the Capitol, Democrats erupted in fury when House GOP leaders maneuvered toward a politically-charged vote — and swift rejection — of one war critic’s call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

On another major issue, a renewal of the Patriot Act remained in limbo as an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans sought curbs on the powers given law enforcement in the troubled first days after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Both the House and Senate were in session after midnight Thursday, working on the tax and deficit-cutting bills at the heart of the GOP agenda.

The cost-of-living increase for members of Congress — which will put pay for the rank and file at an estimated $165,200 a year — marked a brief truce in the pitched political battles that have flared in recent weeks on the war and domestic issues.

Lawmakers automatically receive a cost-of-living increase each year, unless Congress votes to block it. By tradition, critics have tried to block increases by attaching a provision to the legislation that provides funding for the Treasury Department.

(Although information was not readily available from the Associated Press or any other source on how members of Congress voted, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-6th, said the area congressman voted against the raise. No wonder, after witnessing how his constituents felt about the Pennsylvania pay grab.)

The actions of Congress follow the same spirit of arguing over the business at hand, then agreeing on a financial benefit to themselves before leaving town for a vacation that set off a furor among Pennsylvania taxpayers last summer.

The state legislature finally saw the error and repealed the raise just days ago. Was anyone in Washington paying attention?

The raise voted in Congress was not as egregious as the July 7 raise in Harrisburg, but it was still a raise they voted for themselves without finishing the job at hand and on the way to a two-week vacation. Remember this the next time a politician tells you how tough they have it.

Copyright 2005 The Mercury

Thursday, November 17, 2005







By The Associated Press

Quotes on the Senate's vote to approve a repeal of the July law raising salaries for more than 1,300 state officials, including lawmakers and judges:

"We are here to correct a mistake. As one of the people who exercised poor judgment, I would like to apologize." — the Senate's Republican leader, David J. Brightbill of Lebanon County, as he introduced the repeal legislation on the Senate floor.
"You can't clean up a Category 5, manmade disaster overnight. It's going to take a long time and a lot of work. ... People have every right to expect us to do things right and to do the right thing." — Sen. Lisa M. Boscola, D-Northampton.
"The pay raise violated the constitution at least five different ways and everybody knows it. It was a slap in the face of voters and taxpayers." — Timothy Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising Pa., a watchdog group that was a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the July pay raise law.
"Today's action will hopefully be the final chapter in this controversial and divisive pay raise issue. Citizens' voices were heard loud and clear throughout this commonwealth and the Legislature listened." — Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Fayette
"I'm glad it's over." — Sen. Joe Conti, R-Bucks.
"Today, as I sign this repeal, 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." — Gov. Ed Rendell, in a statement announcing that he signed the bill into law.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

How one newspaper made a difference in the Legislative pay raise repeal

This column by Nancy March, editor of The Mercury, was published Sunday, November 13, 2005. It chronicles how a small daily newspaper led the charge in southeastern Pennsylvania to get the state Legislature to reverse the July 7 pay raise.

Your letters made the difference

By Nancy March
Editor, The Mercury

Newspaper editors and reporters lean toward the cynical.

So forgive us if we doubted that Pennsylvania’s lawmakers would ever really give back the pay raise they voted for themselves on July 7. The gig state legislators have going — double-digit raises on top of inflation indexes, paid health care, a generous pension plan, per diem reimbursements, and a tax break allowed for a job that only requires showing up at the office some of the time — is too good to be true. We didn’t really expect them to give anything back.

Our cynicism about the will of the legislators to do the right thing did not give us pause, however, to tell them just how angry we were when they voted themselves a pay raise in the middle of the night without public notice or debate.

Our dismay at the legislators’ hefty pay raise also raised our hackles because of the abysmal job they have done in fixing the problems of Pennsylvania. Issues surrounding local schools funding, Act 72, the need for property tax reform and the lackluster economic growth of the Commonwealth are frequent topics of our views on the Opinion page. Since the problems don’t get fixed, we often say it appears no one is listening.

I wrote the first editorial about the July 7 pay raise for the July 10 Opinion page, "Legislative salaries raised while state’s numbers are in the cellar." We followed with additional editorials on every Sunday in July. We published editorial cartoons drawn by Mercury illustrator Alan MacBain depicting thieves in the night and the "Harrisburgers" super-sized takeout paychecks.

We were helped in our efforts to keep the pressure on by the Associated Press, which we rely on for Harrisburg news coverage. It seemed each day AP reporters discovered yet another cause for outrage. Stories flowed on the secrecy of the vote and the trick to collect money early with the now well-known concept of "unvouchered expenses." We learned about the lawmaker who told one of his constituents to stop whining and about the move to demote from legislative leadership posts those who voted against the raise.

Legislators reacted with arrogance. Some of our own area representatives went on the defense, blaming newspapers for dwelling on the pay raise and insisting they deserve the money because they work hard.

The editorials were soon joined on the Opinion page by columns and letters to the editor. Readers made it clear they wanted more than just to complain; they wanted action and results.
The furor didn’t let up in the first few days or weeks, as legislators smugly predicted. Instead, the movement to take on Harrisburg gained momentum, and local people said they were looking to us to lead the charge.

Well, we may be cynical, but we’re not cowards.

When a caller asked if we could print "a simple petition" on the front page of the paper for people to pass around and sign, the idea took hold. Sunday editor Charles Pitchford and graphics editor Bill Coldren designed a front-page graphic, featuring a parchment letter to legislators imposed on the dome of the capital surrounded by dollar bills. City editor Tony Phyrillas wrote the text of the letter to express our readers’ outrage. We titled the letter, "The Buck Stops Here."

"Operation Giveback" was a natural title for the project. I wrote a front-page editorial to state our position as a newspaper on why legislators needed to hear the voice of the people on this issue.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Letters poured in. On the Monday after we published the letter, a severe storm front — prophetic perhaps — moved through the region, and we expected it would keep people indoors. To the contrary, readers ventured out to deliver both originals cut from the Sunday front page and signed photocopies to our front door.

Readers called to thank us. Others stopped by with questions. Reporters from the Delaware County Daily Times, which is a sister paper of The Mercury, and the Associated Press called to interview me about the idea. The Daily Times featured our petition in a story in their own paper and even got reaction from legislators.

Some would say the numbers — 1,500 letters in the first three days, 8,909 by the end of the campaign — were insignificant in a state the size of Pennsylvania. They paled in comparison to the tens of thousands of people who called into radio shows or logged on to Web sites to protest the pay raise.

But that was the point. Our campaign was not about quick phone calls or pushing a button on a computer. In order to register displeasure with legislators, we asked voters to pick up a scissors, cut something out of the paper, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and mail it. Of course, we received many photocopies and many dropped off in bulk. But the vast majority were in hand-written envelopes with notes tucked inside from individuals. One letter included a tea bag symbolic of the Boston Tea Party revolt.

Many, many people included notes thanking us for giving them the means to have their say. Many applauded our leadership role.

Throughout history, newspapers have worked to keep government honest. The press is called the Fourth Estate for that role as an extra arm in the three-pronged democracy of checks and balances. But in a world where broadcast and online journalism have grabbed a larger share of the public’s attention, newspapers are not looked to as often to lead the people in a charge against government.

Our petition drive, Operation Giveback, let us take that role back. We did not embark on this letters drive to sell papers or to make money from advertising. We didn’t do it to win awards or to further our own careers. We did it because it reminded us of what brought us as reporters and editors to this business in the first place.

The letters campaign was our chance to represent the people of our community by sending a message to elected representatives. This was never about our editorial stance on the pay raise, although we had a lot to say about it. It was about us gathering your opinions and using our power — the power of the press — to carry that message home.

State Sen. John Rafferty told me the day after the repeal vote that The Mercury letters made a difference. "Thanks for keeping us accountable," he said.

The Mercury front page on Nov. 4 declared, "Pay raise repeal stuns public — Voters’ voices heard." That afternoon, a reader stopped by The Mercury office to comment and leave us with a gift. He presented a bag of 121 candy bars at the front desk and offered an observation about the day’s headlines:

"How sweet it is," he said.

We could not have said it better.

Copyright 2005 The Mercury

Sticking it to taxpayers, again

My response to the 253 members of the Pennsylvania House of Lords, our Royal Justices and King Edward (Rendell) I — "Stick It Where The Sun Don't Shine"

Pay raise repeal or no, lawmakers to see fatter paychecks

By Marc Levy
Associated Press Writer

HARRISBURG — If lawmakers repeal the unpopular pay raise they approved in July, a 1995 law will kick in and provide them with a cost-of-living increase this year, whether or not they pay back the extra money they reaped over the past four months.

The 1995 law gave lawmakers an immediate 18 percent boost in pay and introduced an annual cost-of-living adjustment that was supposed to end the uncomfortable practice of giving themselves an occasional pay raise.

Nothing in the pending repeal legislation — which is poised for a Senate vote on Wednesday — will prevent an individual lawmaker from both keeping the pay raise money and receiving the cost-of-living increase that will take effect Dec. 1 for all 253 lawmakers, House and Senate officials said.

The pay raise law in July gave lawmakers a choice. Under it, the Dec. 1 adjustment applies only to the lawmakers who did not take the "unvouchered expenses," a tactic lawmakers used to get the extra compensation right away and skirt a constitutional ban on midterm pay raises.

The state's more than 1,000 judges also would get the cost-of-living increase along with a four-month pay raise, House and Senate officials said.

Some lawmakers are signaling their intention to pay back the pay raise, but it is not clear whether judges will follow suit.

A spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which provides payroll services for the state's judiciary, said the agency is still reviewing the legislation.

Lawmakers weary of criticism over the pay raise shrugged at questions over whether lawmakers who accepted the extra compensation right away should also receive the cost-of-living increase. Sen. Robert J. Thompson, the
Chester County Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said he believed the pay raise was fair when he voted for it. And besides, he has spent much of his four-month salary increase on charitable contributions, he said.

"I don't really have a lot to give back," Thompson said.

Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, D-Philadelphia, said the monetary expense of the pay raise is minor compared to the loss of time spent on the legislation and the damage the controversy has caused to the fabric of the Legislature.

"In the end, the people of Pennsylvania are going to suffer far more than the pay raise has cost them," Fumo said.
In total, 158 lawmakers at some point accepted unvouchered expenses. House and Senate officials said Tuesday that 21 lawmakers have signaled their intention to pay back the unvouchered expenses.

It is not yet clear how big the cost-of-living adjustment will be.

The adjustment is based on the 12-month change in the price of consumer goods around Philadelphia as determined by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The salary adjustment for lawmakers is based on the October figure, but the bureau has not publicly disclosed it yet. Through August, the latest available figure, the 12-month increase stood at 3.8 percent, but the figure was determined before hurricane damage caused a spike in energy costs.

"That's going to go up," said Matthew Martin, a senior economist for, an economic research firm in West Chester. He predicted it would be over 4 percent.

The repeal legislation would return a rank-and-file lawmaker's salary to $69,647. A 4 percent increase would push that up to more than $72,400.

July's pay raise, which nearly half of the Legislature did not take immediately, boosted base salaries by 16 percent to $81,050, but it also delivered larger increases of up to 54 percent for the scores of lawmakers who hold committee and leadership posts.

Judges received pay raises of 11 percent to 15 percent under the July law. It boosted pay for county trial judges to $149,132 and for Supreme Court justices to $171,800.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press

Monday, November 14, 2005

Voters lash out at legislators over pay raise

One of the dumbest lines that clueless legislators have been using for the past few months is that the anger over the July 7 pay raise is being orchestrated by Pennsylvania newspapers. That's baloney! All you have to do is read a sampling of reader letters published in newspapers to get a sense at how angry voters are with their overpaid, underworked state lawmakers. Below is a few examples of letters submitted to The Mercury.

To Sen. Rafferty:
I would like to express my thanks for your vote against the recent Pennsylvania Legislative pay raise, your decision to not accept the raise before your next term begins and, also, for your stance against having the suburban population subsidize the inefficiencies of SEPTA. Unlike my state representative, Dennis Leh, you realize you represent the will and best interests of your constituents, not cronies in the Legislature.
Now we need your help once again to finally secure real property tax relief for the citizens of Pennsylvania; not the crumbs Gov. Rendell tried to give us in order to pass his gambling legislation. It’s obvious that Fast Eddie is pandering to the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in hope of getting re-elected and couldn’t care less about the rest of us. We need substantial property tax relief, not a someday hoped for $300 accompanied by an increase in local taxes.
The Commonwealth Caucus Plan seems to be very fair in that it abolishes real estate taxes by simply expanding the sales tax to many now exempt items and at a rate lower than the current 6%. This type of consumption tax is equitable in that you only pay according to what you spend. Please help pass this legislation or something very similar.


Ever since that infamous night when our unscrupulous legislators voted themselves and other government officials a huge pay raise, we have seen a growing grass-roots effort by the good people of Pennsylvania to take back our government from the lying and corrupt politicians who are using the power of government for their own benefit.
The Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania ( agrees with PACleanSweep ( and other groups around Pennsylvania that it is time to clean up our state government. The career politicians who make up the Republican and Democratic parties have abused their positions in government, shown us they cannot be trusted, and have created a situation where it truly is "us versus them!"
It is time for "us" — the good people of Pennsylvania — to start getting rid of "them," the arrogant and out-of-touch politicians in Harrisburg.


Repealing the pay raise? Maybe! But what’s to prevent them from drafting new legislation after the election? And since the law states that the salary of judges is linked to the Legislators, they can really make out. Apparently, the state Constitution prevents legislators from cutting the salary of judges. So this raise remains and, if the legislators pass a new raise, the judges will get another increase. Looks like the judges are going to have their cake and eat it too.
As Yogi Berra once said, "It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!" We, the taxpayers, haven’t heard the end of this fiasco.


I’m glad the pay raise for Pennsylvania legislators, governor and judges, no, strike that, for some Pennsylvania government employees has been repealed. I don’t object to these people getting a raise. I object to the exorbitant raise that they voted for. I object to them using "unvouchered expenses" to circumvent the law so that they could receive the money now. I object to the "new" problem with the judges. The law states that when judges receive a raise, no matter how they got it, it cannot be taken back. Spare me! If the "officials" can circumvent the law to get their raise now, I’m sure they can find a way to get it back (from the judges).
While working for a company for 30-plus years, my highest raise was less than 15 percent (I consider promotions to be in a different class). During my tenure, the average raise was 5 percent, not 16 percent to 54 percent that these "officials" granted themselves.
Although the company I worked for paid for a portion of my insurance, I had to pay the rest including deductibles; dental and glasses were additional! Indeed, the year I retired, my company restructured the insurance programs. Of course, the increased costs were passed on to the employees. There was no raise to compensate for any portion of this. The costs of insurance to these "officials" is free including dental and glasses (and drugs?). I object vehemently to this free insurance ride.


To state Rep. Ray Bunt:
I received your latest "Newsletter." It appears you are using this propaganda to make your constituents think you are doing something for them and also for that fat raise you got.
You stated, "although I have reservations about this year’s budget…", you didn’t have too many reservations because you did vote yourself a 16 percent to 54 percent raise only to decide not to take it in advance after pressure from the voters.
I’m glad to see that $210 million will be borrowed every two years for six years totaling $625 million to be spent on environmental projects. Sounds real good but where is the money coming from to repay the loans? Could it be property tax increases!? I’m sure it’s not from your pay raise or gambling proceeds (ha! ha!).
The back page is very important. You stated, "I have recently drafted legislation that would protect consumers from computer lemons." I was under the impression that that’s what warranties were for.
The entire newsletter tries, unsuccessfully, to make you look good and is an attempt to make me and the other voters, your bosses, forget how you shafted us to line your pockets. Not one word was mentioned about your raise and if you would support a repeal vote.
I would also like to know how many taxpayer dollars were used to print up this piece of propaganda. How much was used for postage? Since you represent all the people in your district, did you send this to everyone? I know voters who have not received it.
You are calling on all veterans of WWII to return a postcard to you. Since many tax dollars were used to send out this piece of garbage, why couldn’t you pay for the postage to have these hero’s return the card? I am sure you can afford it better than them.


To state Sen. Robert J. Thompson:
I am writing to you in an effort to facilitate property tax reform. With the recent outrageous pay raise grab of July 7, 2005 in the wee hours of morning, I wish to add my protest to the mounting number of your constituents who feel that this is a violation of trust to the people of Pennsylvania who entrusted you and your fellow legislators to work in our best interests.
The property taxes in Pennsylvania are beyond outrageous! What is being done about it? Promises, promises! The school boards are holding the property owners hostage! They refuse to accept any plan to reduce property taxes and give relief to the senior citizens who worked their entire adult lives to have a happy (or at least comfortable) old age. Now, many of us on pensions and social security, and whatever savings we have managed to accrue for old age, face losing everything to the unreasonable greed of our school boards who will not release a stranglehold on the helpless property owners of Pennsylvania!
You, Mr. Thompson, as our elected spokesperson, should put more effort into relieving these persons of unnecessarily high taxes, even if it should take a closed door, middle of the night session of legislators!!
I am writing to beg you Mr. Thompson, to help your constituents! Taxes should be distributed more fairly! A sales tax, at least, would be more fair; people could have some control at least. How can we control our school board’s unremitting refusal to listen to reason?
Mr. Thompson, we seniors raised our children by the sweat of our brow, some of us through war times and depression times; it is unfair to force us to finance the demands of other people’s children after raising our own.
We want a fair tax distribution — something other than on our homes! This is unfair — help us, Mr. Thompson!


Someone you employ embezzles your money in the middle of the night, then takes off for a two month vacation to spend it. On his return, far from being contrite, his response is a defiant "I’m in charge of your money, and if I want to take some, whaddya going to do about it?"
Then, when the heat gets too intense and he thinks he’ll lose his job, he promises to return the loot, no hard feelings, OK? I don’t know about you but I’d fire him, and I wouldn’t care how many judges he promised to divide the swag with.
So don’t let up on the pressure on our lawbreakers — I mean lawmakers. Reversing the pay grab is just the start. Let’s also insist that the job of governing the state, which a few of us think is an important responsibility, will be a full time one. If they demur, let their pay be in proportion to the time they actually spend on the job, and the bills they actually pass — you know, like the millions of hourly-paid workers who don’t get paid if they don’t show up or don’t produce. Let’s plant the novel idea in their heads that we expect them to actually do something, not just talk, endlessly. How many years has property tax relief been yammered about in Harrisburg, without any result?
Let’s insist that they pass laws to make it illegal to vote for someone else, or jam your voting machine to pretend that you were actually there. Or to have outside business interests that are affected by legislation they vote on. Or draw expense money above their actual expenses. And make them buy their own damned cars, like the rest of us, and pay the same proportion of their health plans we poor schleps have to.
Above all, let’s continue to press for a complete restructuring of the whole legislature, eliminating some 50 percent of the superfluous seats so that we have the same ratio of legislators to residents as the average for the country. We could use the money saved on, say, property tax relief.
And if they wave away such demands like a man shooing flies, if they continue to act like arrogant aristocrats and treat us like the peasantry, placid fools who can be ignored except at election time, next year let us invoke Oliver Cromwell’s denunciation when he dismissed Parliament 352 years ago: "You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing…Depart, I say; and let us be done with you. In the name of God, go!"


Sunday, November 13, 2005

Legislators will pay dearly for pay hike

Maybe now, they’ll take the people seriously. Now that the voters have put the fear of God into Justice Sandra Schultz Newman and sent Justice Russell Nigro to the unemployment line. Just maybe, the most conceited legislators in the country will finally get the message.

The voters of Pennsylvania don’t just want an apology for the July 7 middle-of-the night pay heist — they want revenge! The victims are fighting back. They’ve cornered their attackers and want to beat them to a pulp before turning them over to the authorities.

That’s the message the 253 members of the Pennsylvania "House of Lords" need to walk away with after last Tuesday’s election results.

Never before in the history of Pennsylvania retention elections has a state judge been tossed out of office by voters. It’s nearly impossible to get more people to vote "no" than "yes" in a retention election, where judges typically are returned to office by 3-1 margins.

While Russell Nigro’s name was listed on the ballot, the vote against him was symbolic, although hearing his comments after the defeat, Nigro probably deserved to lose. Nigro took his banishment hard, calling Pennsylvania voters "irrational" and "misguided." Displaying the typical hubris of a Harrisburg insider, Nigro told the Associated Press, "I don’t know what they thought they accomplished by knocking me out of the box."

The 804,000 "No" votes cast against Nigro on Nov. 8 sent a message to the 253 legislators who fattened their bank accounts on the backs of working Pennsylvanians and senior citizens struggling on a fixed income. The voters said "No" to a do-nothing governor who worries more about Eagles football than Pennsylvania’s continuing decline.

They voted "No" to a Supreme Court that looks the other way when the larcenous legislators raid the public treasury to line their own pockets, double their pensions and give themselves unrivaled perks. The legislators have also thumbed their collective nose at the Constitution on a regular basis, but our esteemed judiciary, including Justice Nigro, has chosen to wink at the lawmakers time and time again.

Don’t weep for Russell Nigro. He can run again for the Supreme Court in 2007 or return to a lucrative private practice. And don’t worry about hurting Justice Newman’s feelings, either. She’ll retire in three years with a fat state pension when she reaches the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70. In the meantime, she’ll enjoy the $171,000 a year salary the legislators approved on July 7 for state Supreme Court justices.

What lessons can we glean from Tuesday’s vote?

First, the party line from Harrisburg that the citizen revolt is the creation of talk radio, newspaper columnists and editorial writers was proven wrong. Pennsylvania voters have had enough of the overpaid, underachieving Harrisburg bunch. It’s open season on incumbents. You’re going to need a scorecard to keep track of how many of our esteemed legislators retire in 2006, giving up the big paychecks and fancy cars before Pennsylvania voters ride them out of town on a rail.

The Republican Party in Pennsylvania might as well start packing its bags. It’s going on a trip to a place called political purgatory. What do the next 12 months look like for the state GOP? Let’s just say, it’s not good to be the ruling party in a state where the citizens are shouting, "Off with their heads!"

GOP bosses made two huge mistakes leading up to the election. They refused to condemn the pay-jacking, choosing to stand with the villainous John Perzel and the Harrisburg Hogs. Having lost the moral high ground, the GOP then put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a last-ditch effort to save Justice Newman’s job.

They even dug up former Gov. Tom Ridge to beg Republicans to spare Newman. Voters wanted blood, but the GOP bosses denied voters their retribution. That will cost the GOP big time at the polls in 2006. And what does it say about the party’s clout when 672,000 voters still voted against Newman?

The revolution is just getting started. The latest Keystone Poll, released days after the election, shows that anger over the pay-jacking will last through the 2006 elections. Voters clearly are not satisfied by the legislature’s half-hearted attempt to repeal the pay raise. Isn’t it amazing that the vote to increase their own pay was taken at 2 a.m. without a single person raising an objection, but the House and Senate cannot figure out a way to undo the pay raise.

The next step to take back our state government from the corrupt politicians is for honest, civic-minded Pennsylvanians to step forward to challenge the do-nothing legislators in the May 16, 2006, primary election. In many cases, that means running against people in your own party. It also means that voters should consider changing their party registration so they can vote out incumbents in their districts. You can always switch back in time for the November election, but many of you won’t get the chance to oust incumbents if they get a free pass in the primary.

Residents in southeastern Pennsylvania also need to wake up to the reality that Ed Rendell is the worst governor in the United States and no matter how much he did to revive Philadelphia, Pennsylvania cannot afford four more years of Rendell. It’s called addition by subtraction. The Phillies fired general manager Ed Wade. The Eagles cut Terrell Owens. The people who elected Ed Rendell — essentially the residents of Philadelphia and its five suburban counties — must replace "Fast Eddie" if Pennsylvania is to have any hope for the future.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Send a message: Vote NO for Nigro and Newman

It’s Election Day. If the pundits are correct, 8 out of 10 Pennsylvania residents could care less. They won’t bother showing up at the polls today to decide who will represent them for various county and local offices and school boards. That’s a shame because most of the tax burden property owners pay goes to fund their local school districts and county services.

Will voters confound the experts and set a record today for what’s considered an "off-year" election? There’s no George W. Bush or John F. Kerry on the ballot to attract voters like last year’s election. Pennsylvania voters don’t even get the opportunity to tell Gov. Ed Rendell and the larcenous legislature what they think of their middle-of-the-night pay heist on July 7. The Harrisburg Hogs timed the pay-grab right to avoid voters’ wrath.

Of course, things didn’t exactly work out the way the politicians (or the so-called pundits) predicted. Four months of relentless backlash against the pay raise forced the cowardly politicians to repeal the 16 percent to 54 percent raises they gave themselves. I wonder how many Pennsylvania residents believe the repeal was a sincere effort to undo an action that could not be defended or whether it’s just a ploy to take voters’ attention (and the heat) off the legislators and the governor.

Pennsylvanians can take the next step in regaining control of their state government from self-serving career politicians by just saying no today to two Supreme Court justices seeking retention to new 10-year terms.

The only state officials on the ballot are Russell Nigro and Sandra Schultz Newman. Neither Nigro nor Newman voted for the pay raise and so far they haven’t had to rule on the Constitutionality of the vote. But Nigro and Newman are part of the problem. Harrisburg lawmakers feel they can stick it to the taxpayers whenever they feel like it because the state’s courts have always looked the other way or winked at the legislators when they’ve circumvented the state Constitution to line their own pockets.

The only way to put the fear of God into the 253 legislators and one part-time governor (you’re more likely to find the governor offering color commentary on Comcast after Eagles’ games than working in Harrisburg) is to vote out their cronies — Nigro and Newman.

Some of the state’s largest newspapers — including the Allentown Morning Call, the Harrisburg Patriot-News and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — are urging their readers to vote ‘No’ to retain Newman and Nigro.
The Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania, the state’s No. 3 political party, wants its members to reject Newman and Nigro.

Citizens’ organizations such as PACleanSweep and DemocracyRisingPA, which want more responsive and more ethical state government, are calling for the ouster of Nigro and Newman.

Just as the voices of outraged Pennsylvanians were heard by the larcenous legislators when they voted to repeal the pay raise, voters must continue to send a message to Harrisburg: "We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!"

You can send that message by making an example of Nigro and Newman. People all over the country are watching Pennsylvania to see if people still matter in a country where government intrude with all aspects of our lives. We the people have created monsters in our statehouses and in Washington, D.C., where government exists not to serve people but to perpetuate itself.

Pennsylvania not only suffers from having the most ineffective and most bloated legislature in the country, with 253 leeches feeding off taxpayers, but those 253 bloodsuckers have an army of 3,000 servants to do their bidding — with you and I paying the bill.

The story of the people’s revolt against the political elite is making news all over the country. It’s been covered by newspapers in Los Angeles and Baltimore. Just this past Sunday, the New York Times ran an article titled, "In a Rare Battle, Justices Are Fighting for Their Seats," on the effort to defeat Nigro and Newman

The political bosses behind Nigro and Newman have been spending tons of money to run radio and television ads trying to save their jobs. Don’t be fooled by the ads. Nigro and Newman are not innocent bystanders in the problems going in Harrisburg. They are part of the problem. The only solution is a clean sweep of the Harrisburg Hogs.

"Newman's and Nigro's ads are attempting to paint a warm and fuzzy picture of these two, but they didn't have a very warm and fuzzy attitude towards citizens when they trampled the Constitution on Act 71 and in 2002," said PACleanSweep Chair Russ Diamond. "And they certainly didn't exhibit a warm and fuzzy view of taxpayers when they abused their expense accounts by charging Pennsylvanians for $85 bottles of wine, $300 dinners, On Star systems for their taxpayer funded luxury cars and golden junkets to the Bahamas and other high-priced resorts."

The most important decision on the ballot today is the retention of Newman and Nigro. Vote yes if you want to see business as usual in Harrisburg. Vote no if you want to see this state have a future.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Arrogant legislators taste humble pie, but the job of winning back the state is not done

Is there a more satisfying feeling than seeing a truly arrogant person chow down on a slice of humble pie?

The 253 members of the Pennsylvania House of Lords were force-fed the entire pie in recent days. The good guys — the people of Pennsylvania — won this one. The bad guys — overpaid, underachieving state legislators — got what’s coming to them. Actually, what’s coming to them is ouster from office.

The decision to repeal the July 7 pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent was the least the larcenous legislators could do. We’re back to square one. We’re back to having the fourth highest paid state legislature in the country, but by many accounts, the least effective group of politicians ever assembled under the Capitol dome. You’ll recall that only 19 percent of the bills these paper-pushers sponsor each year ever become law.

The legislators didn’t repeal the pay raise because they saw the light. They didn’t do it because they were concerned about the plight of the average Pennsylvanian struggling to pay for gas to drive to work or oil to heat their homes. These bad boys did it because they were too many witnesses to the 2 a.m. raid on the state treasury. Tonight on "Cops" — Pennsylvania legislators caught on tape!

The Harrisburg Hogs gave the money back because they were cornered like rats. They had to do it to survive, to continue collecting twice the salary of the average working Pennsylvanian for a part-time job. A job that provides them with unequaled perks and even special IRS tax breaks available only to the politicians.

Internal polls by legislative leaders showed their approval ratings were lower than those of George W. Bush. In some cases, the approval numbers of state Senate party bosses like Robert Jubilirer and David Brightbill was half of the president’s. And Bush has the lowest approval ratings since Harry Truman was in the White House.

If you look at comments made to the Associated Press, some of the legislators get it. "We need to repent, repeal and reform," says Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny. "I think the people were heard on this. It was too much (money) in one shot, and that was heard loud and clear." — Sen. John Rafferty, R-Chester, on the public backlash against the pay raises.

But let’s not be fooled into a sense of complacency by the show of a white flag. Russ Diamond, founder of PACleanSweep, put the entire sorry pay raise episode into proper perspective when he told the AP, "If they did this once and we let them get away with it without a major change, then they will do it again. I assure you, they will do it again. Maybe not with a pay raise, but with something else. It's the process that needs (to be) fixed."

Pennsylvania residents won a surprising and significant victory this past week by forcing the pay-jackers to give back the money they lifted from the state treasury. But the war to restore Constitutional standards and Democratic principles to Pennsylvania is far from over.

The next important battle is Tuesday when voters have the opportunity to oust two members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Justices Russell Nigro and Sandra Schultz Newman are seeking retention for another 10 years on the court.

Many of the state’s newspapers have written editorials urging voters to vote "No" on the retention of these two judges. Citizens’ groups that want to see better government and more accountability in Harrisburg are urging voters to vote "No" to retain Nigro and Newman. The Libertarian Party, the state’s third largest political party, is urging its members to reject Newman and Nigro.

I intend to vote "No" to retain these judges Tuesday. While Newman and Nigro were not directly involved in the vote to raise salaries for legislators, the governor and all of the state’s judges, Pennsylvania voters should not pass up an opportunity to start cleaning out the cesspool that is Harrisburg.

If voters oust Newman and Nigro on Tuesday and remove two more Supreme Court judges who will seek retention in 2006, we can change four of the seven members of the state Supreme Court in the space of one year.

The job of cleaning out the Harrisburg stables can be completed next May and November when all 103 members of the state House and 25 of the 50 state Senators face the voters. Gov. Ed Rendell is also up for reelection next year and voters should deny the worst governor in the country a second term to complete a clean sweep.

Rendell, who signed the pay raise into law on July 8, and the 253-member House of Lords held Pennsylvania taxpayers hostage for 118 days before voting to repeal the pay raise. That tells me these people cannot be trusted to govern this state. They knew what they did on July 7 was morally and Constitutionally wrong, but they did it anyway. They put their own self-interest ahead of the people they were elected to serve.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Major newspaper urges 'NO' vote on state Supreme Court justices

The editorial below is from Sunday’s edition of The Allentown Morning Call. As far as I know, there has never been a case before where a major Pennsylvania newspaper has called for the rejection of state Supreme Court justices. The more liberal Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pennsylvania Bar Association are urging voters to overlook judicial inaction over the legislative pay grab and give Nigro and Newman a free pass. But if Pennsylvania voters are going to restore Constitutional order in Harrisburg and drive out the money-grubbing politicians, voting "NO" to retain these two judges on the Nov. 8 ballot is the only way to start. Pass this along to registered voters you know. Here’s the full editorial:

Voters are at a historic moment, should reject Supreme Court justices

This year, Pennsylvanians will vote on whether to retain two members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — Justices Russell Nigro and Sandra Schultz Newman.

Members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court are elected to 10-year terms and stand for retention at the end of each term. In theory, this gives voters a chance to evaluate job performance and make changes if the performance is poor. In practice, retention elections have been formalities. No state Supreme Court justice has ever been rejected by the voters in a retention election.

This isn't because there has been a detailed evaluation by voters. It's because statewide judicial elections are among the lowest profile races in politics. In Pennsylvania, party registration and geography are as important in winning seats on the statewide courts as are qualifications. Candidates from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas often benefit from hometown loyalties and high numbers of hometown voters. In off-year municipal election, when voter turnout is generally low, this translates into almost automatic victory in retention races.

Geography is a poor reason to elect or retain the judges who are supposed to uphold the rule of law for all Pennsylvanians. The key criterion should be how the justices uphold that rule of law — and that means, most importantly, the state constitution — and how the court performs as an effective check on the powers of the Legislature and executive branch. Thus, the best interests of all citizens of Pennsylvania — not just special interests or politicians — are served.

Retention elections aren't bound by the rules of fairness that govern a courtroom. They should be bound by the rules of the boardroom, with voters serving as the directors. When a company is performing poorly, directors make changes. So do the voters in this election, because the Supreme Court has abdicated its role as a check on the General Assembly. The justices' explanation, that they are respecting the principle of separation of powers, is a poor one.

While voters are justifiably angry about the General Assembly's July pay grab and the role Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cappy played in that, there are deeper reasons to rebalance state government. One is the unanimous vote by the Court last year to uphold the bulk of Act 71, legalizing slot machines. In doing so, the Court made a mockery of the constitution, upholding the Legislature's abuse of constitutionally defined legislative processes.

Justice Newman recused herself from that decision. In fairness to both Justices Newman and Nigro, they earlier voted to reverse Commonwealth Court on the Lobbyist Disclosure Act, which kept Pennsylvanians in the dark about how special interest influence the passage of laws. Unfortunately, those votes were for naught, because the Supreme Court voted 3-3, meaning the lower court verdict stood. And yes, the Pennsylvania Bar Association has recommended their retentions.

However, if Pennsylvanians are to begin exercising control over state government, insisting that the state constitution be consistently upheld, a message must be sent. If the historic discontent with what has happened in Harrisburg these last two years is to result in positive change, it has to start with a historic rejection in this retention election. Perhaps, then, the rest of the Court will hold the General Assembly accountable, and Gov. Rendell and legislative leaders will get the message to stop playing fast and loose with constitutional processes meant to ensure that public policy is enacted openly and with adequate consideration. We thank Justices Nigro and Newman for their service. Nothing personal, it's time for change.

The Morning Call recommends "no" votes on the retention of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices Russell Nigro and Sandra Schultz Newman.

Copyright 2005 The Morning Call