I'm going out on a limb here. I know that none of Pennsylvania's 67 counties can take pride in the politicians they send to Harrisburg, but here's my vote for the worst collection of legislators in Harrisburg.
Dollar for dollar, pound for pound, year after miserable year, I'd say that Berks County is scraping the bottom of the political barrel to find the baker's dozen who represent Berks residents in the state Legislature.
Collectively, the 13 members of the House and Senate whose districts include all or parts of Berks siphon $1,022,016 each year in salaries from taxpayers. When you factor in all the perks and benefits these "public servants" have given themselves over the years, the cost tops $2 million a year. And this is just for the 13 legislators, not the hundreds of staffers who report to them.
The Berks delegation has been feeding at the public trough for a very long time. The 13 lawmakers have been on the public payroll for a total of 141 years. Some of these guys have been in Harrisburg so long, there's cobwebs growing around them.
What are Berks County voters getting for their money? Three of them are in leadership positions, Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill, Senate Democratic Whip Michael A. O’Pake and House Republican Whip David Argall — but using the word leadership with these hacks is being charitable.
When it comes to "law-making," which one suspects should be priority for "lawmakers," the Berks delegation is AWOL.
An investigation by the Reading Eagle newspaper earlier this year discovered that Berks lawmakers spend very little time making laws. Two Berks legislators — Republican Sam Rohrer and Democrat Dante Santoni Jr. — have never sponsored a bill that’s been signed into law in the collective 26 years they’ve spent in Harrisburg. Two other members of the Berks delegation — Democrat Tom Caltagirone (29 years in the Capitol) and Republican Dennis Leh (19 years in the Capitol) — have managed to get a grand total of 2 laws on the books (1 by Leh, 1 by Caltagirone) in the nearly 50 years they’ve been working in Harrisburg.
When Santoni was asked recently to point out his biggest accomplishment in the past dozen years, he mentioned securing a grant to buy $1,500 worth of band instruments for a local school district. I’m pretty sure his constituents are willing to take up a collection for the $1,500 to buy trombones if it means saving the $72,187 a year they have to pay this slacker.
And it's not just the lack of productivity as lawmakers that sends the Berks delegation to the back of the line. When these legislators do get around to casting votes during the 77 days they spend in Harrisburg each year, they tend to make bad decisions on pocketbook issues.
The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, an independent, nonprofit research and educational group, recently released its mid-term Liberty Index, which grades legislators on votes based on the "principles of limited constitutional government, economic and individual freedom, and personal responsibility for one’s actions."
Here are the 2005-06 grades for members of the Berks County delegation and a comparison of how the same lawmakers did in the 2003-04 report card:
• Sen. David "Chip" Brightbill: F plus — From an F in the first report card
• Sen. Michael O’Pake: F minus — Down from an F in the first report card
• Sen. John Rafferty: D — Down from a D plus in the first report card
• Sen. James Rhoades: F plus — Also F plus in the first report card
• Rep. Bob Allen: F plus — From a D minus in the first report card
• Rep. Dave Argall: F plus — From an F in the first report card
• Rep. Tom Caltagirone: F plus — Down from an F in the first report card
• Rep. Dennis Leh: D plus — Down from a B in the first report card
• Rep. Sheila Miller: D — Down from a C plus in the first report card
• Rep. Doug Reichly: B minus — From a C in the first report card
• Rep. Sam Rohrer: B plus — Down from an A in the first report card
• Rep. Dante Santoni: F plus — From an F in the first report card
• Rep. Paul Semmel: F plus — Down from a B minus in the first report card
The bottom line is eight F grades and three D grades from the 13 members of the Berks delegation. Not exactly a report card you want to show to mom and dad.
In addition to the middle-of-the-night pay raise they gave themselves last July, consider the failure to pass property tax relief for homeowners, the vote to double their own pensions and their refusal to disclose how much money they take in from lobbyists as more reasons Berks voters should send new blood to Harrisburg.