"I often characterize the state Legislature as an overly large and largely useless, semi-corrupt collection of corpulent characters who don't really do much."
Anybody who starts off a column that way already has my attention. That's the way Eric Heyl, a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, begins a recent dispatch on how Pennsylvania legislators waste a lot of time, in addition to tons of money.
Heyl is part of what I consider to be the best staff of columnists and editorial writers in the state. To be honest, I had never heard of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review before the pay raise fiasco exploded last summer. Since then, I make it a point to visit the newspaper's Web site daily to catch up on the latest shenanigans in Harrisburg and read some of the most perceptive columnists around.
Some of Heyl's other gems include, "Hmmm ... lawmaker feeling not so toasty," "Lobbyist regulation an exercise in absurdity" and "Kept cash from grab aids causes most noble."
The Tribune-Review should be applauded for taking the lead in exposing the corruption and mismanagement in state government.
Other newspapers — including The Mercury — have done a good job of covering the state legislature since the infamous July 7, 2005, pay raise vote. The Mercury was recently recognized with a first-place award by the Associated Press Managing Editors in the public service category for the paper's efforts to gather 10,000 signatures demanding the repeal of the pay raise.
While a handful of columnists and statehouse reporters have kept the pay raise issue alive in the past nine months, nobody has done more than the Tribune-Review to expose the need for massive changes in state government.
The Tribune-Review has published scathing editorials, naming names of self-serving scoundrels who have made a mockery of the concept of public service. Colin McNickle is the Trib's editorial page editor and also writes a weekly column.
Some of McNickle's most entertaining columns include, "A Machiavellian compliment," about House Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese's habit of butchering historical metaphors, and "Public-purpose' mountebanks," which begins with this classic line: "How stupid does the Rendell administration think Pennsylvania taxpayers are? Very, based on its recent public pronouncements."
Another outstanding columnist for the Tribune-Review is Brad Bumstead, who also covers Harrisburg for the paper. Bumstead's column, "Voters: Save yourselves" is must-reading for every taxpayer in Pennsylvania. Bumstead concludes that if voters do not carry out their threats to oust incumbents — especially legislative leaders — on May 16, living in Pennsylvania after that date will be insufferable.
It's like a failed coup against a tyrant. If the freedom fighters don'’t get rid of the dictator, a terrible fate awaits them.
"Here's the scenario: All legislative leaders win in the May 16 primary," Bumstead writes. "Then what happens? Will we see a reign of terror against taxpayers and journalists? Maybe not against taxpayers. But it will set back efforts to reform the General Assembly for, perhaps, a decade. It would open a dark chapter in Pennsylvania history."
Bumstead also predicts that the Legislature will vote itself another massive pay hike in the next year or two because they’ll come to the conclusion that they have nothing to fear from voters.
Other recent gems by Bumstead include "The GOP's tax-shifting pickle," Pay-jacking spurs baby-step reform" and "Is it the mother of all Capitol scandals?"
Another Trib columnist that I enjoy reading is Dimitri Vassilaros. Who knew there were two Greek-American columnists writing for newspapers in Pennsylvania? I don't have a problem as long as Dimitri stays in western Pennsylvania. Vassilaros doesn't write a lot about the state legislature, but when he does, he goes for the jugular.
A recent favorite column by Vassilaros was "Brightbill's tarnish" in which he skewers embattled Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill.
"Mr. Brightbill, a senator since 1983, is one of the ringleaders in the General Assembly's July pay-raise-bill scheme that was passed in the middle of the night with no debate or public input. Brightbill is so unpopular among his fellow Republicans in his district that only 23 percent say he deserves to be re-elected," Vassilaros writes.
Vassilaros also took Silent Bob Casey to the woodshed in a column titled "The real Bob Casey," in which Vassilaros wonders why it took Casey, who is running for U.S. Senate, eight months to condemn the pay raise.
Two other Trib columnists I enjoy reading are Ralph Reiland and Salena Zito, but neither writes often enough about state issues.
The icing on the cake when it comes to the Trib's editorial page is cartoonist Randy Bish, who is not only the best editorial cartoonist in Pennsylvania, but one of best in the country. I have an entire wall of my office plastered with Bish cartoons about the pay raise and other legislative transgressions.
You can read all the columnists mentioned here (and see color versions of Bish's cartoons) at www.pittsburghlive.com