Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pennsylvania Legislators working hard or hardly working?

The kids have been back in school for weeks, the family Christmas tree is mulch by now, but the holiday season is not officially over until the Pennsylvania Legislature returns to work after its annual four-week holiday break.

How do I know that the most expensive Legislature in America is back to work?
I signed up for an e-mail service that sends me a daily update on what the Pennsylvania Legislature is up to in Harrisburg. On most days, this is the message I get:

No House Actions today.
No Senate Actions today.
No Bills or Resolutions were introduced in the House today.
No Bills or Resolutions were introduced in the Senate today.

But on Monday, Jan. 23, the 253 members of the largest full-time state legislature in the U.S. returned to the gilded palace they call home for an average of 77 days each year. Time to put away those Christmas toys our Legislators have been playing with since Dec. 25 and get back to solving all the state’s problems.

I know some people believe in the adage that you get what you pay for, but that’s not always the case. Pennsylvania taxpayers shell out about $150,000 a year to cover the salary and benefits of each state lawmakers, but a lot of lawmakers haven’t gotten the hang of this concept called lawmaking.

A survey by the National Conference of Legislatures, a trade organization that compiles all kinds of information about the state legislatures are, found that just 19 percent of the bills introduced by Pennsylvania lawmakers are ever signed into law. You have to wonder what happened to the other 81 percent of the bills our lawmakers spent so much time crafting. If only two of every 10 bills become law, where they bad bills to begin with or is there a fundamental flaw in how the Legislature works?

That’s just one of the many considerations voters will have to make by the May 16 primary election when all 153 members of the House and 25 members of the Senate face re-election. Not all of the lawmakers are facing opponents, although 18 incumbents have already dropped out by announcing their retirements.

An area newspaper recently bannered the question, "Are they earning their pay?" across its front page. The article reviewed how many laws the Berks County delegation to Harrisburg put on the books since 1999. It was not a pretty picture although the newspaper did run photos of a bunch of smiling politicians next to the tally of how many Berks-area bills were signed into law. Seven of the 11 lawmakers representing districts in Berks County have very little to show for the past five years in Harrisburg or for their $72,187 annual salary.

Two legislators — Republican Rep. Sam Rohrer and Democratic Rep. Dante Santoni Jr. — had big fat goose eggs next to their names, as in they’ve never introduced a bill in the collective 26 years they’ve been in Harrisburg. And it doesn’t get much better for other Berks County lawmakers: Democratic Rep. Tom Caltagirone, who has represented Reading for the past 29 years, and Republican Rep. Dennis Leh, a 19-year veteran of the Harrisburg scene, each had one bill signed into law.

Even the grand poobah of Berks County politics, state Sen. Michael A. O’Pake, who has spent the past 38 years collecting a paycheck from Berks taxpayers, managed to get just four bills signed into law.

I’m sure a county-by-county review would find similar results for most of the state’s politicians.

The next few weeks will determine how serious Pennsylvania voters are about making profound changes in the "business-as-usual" atmosphere in Harrisburg, where tax money goes to die.
Candidates will circulate nominating petitions to place their names on the May 16 ballot.

It’s still not too late to run against the incumbent Legislator in your district. The filing deadline is March 7. All the information you need about running is available through your county elections office.

PaCleanSweep, the non-partisan citizens' group that wants to get rid of all incumbents, offers good advice for first-time candidates on its Web site,

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

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