Saturday, July 08, 2006

A day that will live in political infamy

On July 7, 2005, members of the the Pennsylvania legislature gave themselves pay raises of up to 54 percent in a middle-of-the-night vote taken without prior notice or any public debate. That vote led to an anti-incumbency movement that has claimed nearly 50 politicians so far. Gov. Ed Rendell could be the next casualty.
Has it been a year already? So much has happened. So much has changed. Some things will never be the same.

Do you remember where you were at 2 a.m. on July 7, 2005? Probably sleeping. We know where the 253 members of the Pennsylvania legislature were in the wee hours of the morning. They were voting themselves a pay raise.

We've reached the one-year anniversary of the infamous legislative pay-jacking. The ill-fated vote under cover of darkness would unleash a tempest that would forever change Pennsylvania politics.

Almost 50 legislators have been thrown out of office or forced into early retirement since the pay-raise vote. More legislators will face retribution in November.

If they knew now what they didn't know then, how many legislators would have gone through with the vote to increase their salaries by 16 percent to 54 percent? Not a single legislator spoke out against the pay raise, although dozens would later regret the vote, some publicly apologizing to voters. If they could turn back time, would Republican Senate leaders Robert Jubelirer and Chip Brightbill push for the pay raise knowing they were committing political suicide?

The Republican Party bosses, Jubelirer and Brightbill in the Senate and John Perzel in the House, decided ahead of time which legislators would vote for the raise, reasoning that veteran politicians would be immune to a voter backlash. The vote in the House was 119-79. The pay raise passed the Senate by a 27-23 margin.

It was a rare display of unity between the bickering political parties, who put aside their differences for one night to give each other, the governor and the state�s judges hefty pay raises. That kind of bipartisan unity would not be seen again on such important issues as the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes, which was defeated by the Democrats.

The pay raise was quickly signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell, who commended the bipartisan effort by state politicians to line their own pockets. Following the script, Ralph Cappy, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, emerged from obscurity to praise the "enormous courage" of the pay-jackers for their willingness to violate the state constitution by accepting the pay raise early as unvouchered expenses.

Despite the repeal of the pay raise last November, 60 House members and nine state senators continue to profit from the middle-of-the-night pay grab by refusing to return the higher salaries they received from July to November.

The pay raise vote led to the defeat of Cappy's colleague, Russell Nigro, who became the first Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice in state history to lose a retention election last November.

But the arrogant legislators continued to believe that the voters would forgive and forget. The legislators gave themselves a smaller pay raise late in 2005 in the form of a cost-of-living increase that brought the base salary of a Pennsylvania legislator from $69,000 to $72,000, second only to California.

The voters struck back again in May when 17 incumbent legislators -- including Brightbill and Jubelirer -- were thrown out of office in the primary. Fifteen of the 17 defeated candidates voted for the pay raise. By this time, voter anger wasn't fueled just by the pay raise. The unwillingness of the legislature and Rendell to come up with meaningful property tax relief played a big role in the clean sweep.

And speaking of clean sweep, the pay raise spawned a nonpartisan reform movement that has attracted national attention. Within days of the July 7 pay-jacking, Russ Diamond, a little-known businessman from Lebanon County scraped together enough money to start a Web site to protest the pay raise. The site, www.pacleansweep, would fuel the anti-incumbent movement for an entire year.

Nearly 600 Pennsylvania residents ran in the May primary, many drawn into politics for the first time by Operation Clean Sweep. Thirty-five PaCleanSweep-supported candidates won contests in the May 16 primary. More than 100 incumbent legislators will face general election challengers this November. Russ Diamond is working on an independent run for governor.

Many of the leaders of the citizen reform movement marked the one-year anniversary with a gathering Thursday in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg. Among those attending were Andrea Stalnecker of PACleanSweep, Tim Potts and Kathleen Daugherty of Democracy Rising PA, Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital, John Kennedy of the Commonwealth Foundation, Richard Schirato of Pennsylvania Citizens for Legislator Accountability, Sandra Christiansen of Common Cause/PA, Gene Stilp of Stop the Illegal Legislative Pay Raise, Sandra Strauss of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches and Chris Lilik of the Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania.

The reform leaders concluded during the news conference that very little has changed in Pennsylvania politics. These courageous citizen activists shouldn't sell themselves short. They've planted the seeds of reform. It may take years, but those seeds will blossom into a revolution.

Despite the millions of dollars from lobbyists and special interests, the 253 members of the legislative elite and a mediocre governor can't hold back the tide of millions of angry Pennsylvania residents who demand a better government.

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