Politics makes for strange bedfellows.
Ten Berks County candidates have combined forces to run as a reform coalition for the state Legislature. The group includes three incumbent legislators and an assortment of political newcomers. All have signed a formal statement titled "Promise to Berks."
The candidates have a few things in common besides their focus on reforming state government. They're all Republicans and their districts include portions of Berks County.
The group also has some differences. Three of the 10 either voted for the 2005 legislative pay raise or took the money as unvouchered expenses, a practice the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. Several of the first-time candidates in the coalition condemned the pay raise vote and defeated heavily-favored Republican incumbents in the May primary.
The coalition candidates are willing to put their differences aside because keeping a Republican majority in the Berks County legislative delegation is important to them. Only three of the dozen seats in Berks are held by Democrats. Berks has been a key battleground in the people's revolt against incumbent politicians since the Legislature voted itself pay raises of up to 54 percent in July 2005.
Four of the five incumbents who voted for the pay raise and had opposition in the primary were defeated by voters. The only incumbent who survived the voters' wrath was Democrat Rep. Dante Santoni Jr., who won the nomination for the 126th District because he had two challengers and his opponents split the majority of the vote. Santoni attracted just 45 percent of the vote from his own party.
Santoni is vulnerable not just for voting himself a pay raise, but he's one of the biggest underachievers in Harrisburg, unwilling or unable to introduce a single bill in 13 years. Santoni's opponent in November is Republican Hal Baker, a respected former Berks County government administrator who defeated two other Republicans in the primary to win the GOP nomination.
The members of the reform coalition are incumbent state Reps. David Argall, Doug Reichley and Sam Rohrer, incumbent state Sen. John Rafferty (44th Dist.) and six political newcomers: Baker, Jim Cox (129th Dist.), Mike Folmer (48th Senate Dist.), Gary Hornberger (125th Dist.), Carl Mantz (187th Dist.) and Billy Reed (130th Dist.)
Argall, Reichley and Rohrer bring some political baggage to the new reform coalition. Argall and Rohrer voted for the pay raise. Reichley voted no on the pay raise, but took the money as unvouchered expenses. (Rafferty voted no on the pay raise and did not accept the raise.) Argall and Reichley have returned the money. Rohrer said he voted "yes" on the raise because that was the only way he could get a House vote on the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes.
Rohrer said he never took the pay raise money but did manage to get the Caucus plan on the House floor for a vote, but it attracted only 74 of the 102 necessary votes. The plan was defeated because every Democratic member of the House voted against it. (This is why it's hard to swallow Gov. Ed Rendell's claims that the Republican majority failed to deliver property tax relief. It's the Democrats who vote as a block and take their marching orders from Rendell.)
The "Promise to Berks" reads: "We believe that every elected official is responsible to serve the people, not to be served. We believe that we are accountable not just to the voters but to the generations who will follow, as well as those who have gone before us. Our responsibility is to support and defend the founding principles of this great nation as noted in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These are the foundations of our freedoms and adherence to them is the best hope of freedom for the generations to follow."
If elected, all 10 Berks Republicans promise to tackle the following their legislative priorities:
• Real tax reform by permanently eliminating school property taxes and opposing all new unfunded mandates to the counties, municipalities and school districts in Pennsylvania, which shifts tax increases to these bodies. It will also work to eliminate current unfunded mandates.
• Controlling spending by implementing the Taxpayers Bill of Rights to strictly limit increases in state spending to the concurrent rates of inflation and population growth and requiring a three-fifths majority to pass a tax increase.
• Reforming the Legislature by requiring an independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of the General Assembly for fraud and mismanagement, enacting term limits on committee chairmanships and leadership, enact a five-year waiting period for former legislators and cabinet officials to become lobbyists and opposing passage of any legislation that has not met the procedural rigor detailed in Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Although the burden is still on the three Berks incumbents to show they've repented for their pay raise votes, Berks County has an opportunity to change the culture of Harrisburg by electing a block of reform candidates to the state Legislature.