Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Pension scandal could rival pay-jacking

If Pennsylvania voters were outraged by last July’s Legislative pay grab, wait until they get a wind of the looming pension crisis that state politicians concocted.

The Legislative pay-jacking is peanuts compared to potential economic impact involving pensions handed out by Pennsylvania politicians to themselves and to the state's retired teachers.

The pay raise, which was repealed following months of public outcry, would have cost taxpayers about $20 million a year. The pension scandal has a potential price tag of $4.5 billion.

A new study from the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, "Beneath the Surface: Pennsylvania’s Looming Pension & Health care Benefits Crisis," says taxpayers will be funding a 672-percent increase in pension contributions — from $584 million in Fiscal Year 2004-05 to more than $4.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2012-13 — for the State Employees Retirement System (SERS) and Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS).

Would it surprise you to learn that the gang that tried to raise its own salaries 16 percent to 54 percent with a 2 a.m. vote on July 7, 2005, also gave legislators, judges, school employees and other state workers outrageously generous taxpayer-funded pension benefits?

All of this comes at a time when many Pennsylvania retirees have lost their pensions or had them severely reduced by employers. Instead of pushing for an increase in the state’s minimum wage, perhaps Gov. Ed Rendell could level with taxpayers about the massive debt they face to ensure that state politicians retire in style.

"In a world where private-sector benefit cutbacks and cost reductions occur on a daily basis, state government in Harrisburg has not responded in similar fashion," says Rick Dreyfuss, author of the report and the former director of compensation and benefits at The Hershey Company. "In fact, instead of reducing the potential for financial disaster, actions in recent years have served to accelerate the coming crisis in Pennsylvania."

Dreyfuss says the looming fiscal crisis is a direct result of legislation passed in 2001 and 2002 that generated $10 billion in additional unfunded liability. Legislation passed in 2003 served to refinance many of these additional costs over a 30-year period. To be fair to Rendell, the 50-percent increase in pensions for Legislators and others was signed into law by then-Gov. Tom Ridge, but many of the incumbent politicians in Harrisburg played a key role in lining their own pockets.

"Without significant changes in the design of both pension and retiree health care benefits plans, the taxpayers of Pennsylvania will likely be facing unaffordable costs," Dreyfuss concludes.

The study surveyed major private employers in Pennsylvania for comparison with the PSERS and SERS pension plans and found that not only are the pension plans for Legislators, judges, the governor, public school employees and other state workers among the most generous among taxpayer-funded plans in other states, but they are far more generous than what can be found in the private sector, Dreyfuss concluded.

"These benefits plans are operating in a vacuum, and without regard to either the taxpayer or global economic realities, which puts taxpayers in financial jeopardy," Dreyfuss said. "State government, like every employer in the private sector, must adopt more predictable and affordable retirement strategies."

In addition to the massive bill taxpayers face to fund these pensions, government accounting changes that take effect in 2007 will require Pennsylvania state government to annually recognize future retiree health care costs. State retiree health care benefit programs surpass those found in any Pennsylvania company studied by Dreyfuss.

Eventually, all Pennsylvania municipalities and school districts will be forced to adopt this change in accounting practice. And that means higher property taxes for Pennsylvania homeowners. So much for those tax rebates that Rendell and the Harrisburg Hogs are promising to deliver before Election Day.

The 40-page report on Pennsylvania’s pension crisis is available online at or by calling 717-671-1901.

As you contemplate where you’re going to cut back in your household budget to keep Gov. Rendell and the Legislators in the lifestyle of the rich and famous they’ve become accustomed to, keep in mind that the primary election is May 16 and the general election is Nov. 7.

Rendell, all 203 members of the state House and 25 of the 50 state Senators will be on the ballot. You can give the incumbents your opinion of the pension mess they’ve created by voting all of them out of office.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, PA. E-mail him at

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Veto of voter-fraud bill may haunt Rendell

Gov. Ed Rendell stopped by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia this week to announce he will veto the Voter Protection Act of 2006. That’s an odd thing for a Democrat to do, especially when Democrats complain so much about voter fraud.

Or is it that Democrats gripe about voter fraud only when they lose elections to Republicans?
The essence of the voter-fraud bill (also known as House Bill 1318) is to ensure that every vote counts and counts only once. That should be a no-brainer for anyone who believes in the integrity of the election process.

Rendell said there is no widespread voter fraud in Pennsylvania, especially in his hometown of Philadelphia. He called House Bill 1318 a solution in search of a problem, a measure designed to fix a "harm that doesn’t exist."

Of course, Rendell says a lot of things that deviate from reality. Just last week, Rendell defended his record on property tax relief for Pennsylvania homeowners despite the fact that property taxes have risen dramatically each year Rendell has been governor.

Rendell says requiring voters to show ID is unconstitutional. Rendell is a lawyer, but he’s not on the short list of Supreme Court candidates, so maybe we shouldn’t take his legal advice at face value. Rendell conveniently ignores the fact that 24 states already require voters to prove who they are before they can vote.

House Bill 1318 would also prohibit the placement of voting machines in private homes and businesses. Yes friends, many Philadelphia residents go into people’s homes or shops (some owned by politicians and their friends) to cast votes. (I’m not sure if the candidate’s wife and kids get to count the votes in their home to save election officials time.)

And this is the voter integrity that Rendell is defending? Who in their right mind would trust a politician to ensure a fair election?

Rendell, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was one of many Democrats who protested about voter fraud after Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election and John Kerry lost the 2004 election. Given a golden opportunity to prevent voter fraud in his home state, what does Rendell do? He wants nothing to do with it.

Rendell won the 2002 governor’s race with overwhelming numbers in Philadelphia, the epicenter of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. Rendell lost to Republican Mike Fisher in about two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s counties, but he locked up 70 percent of the vote in Philadelphia.

With GOP challenger Lynn Swann expected to sweep western Pennsylvania, Rendell needs even more votes out of Philadelphia to have any chance of winning re-election in 2006. So why would Rendell want to make it harder to run up big numbers in his hometown?

With apologies to M Night Shyamalan, you don’t need a "Sixth Sense" to see dead people in Pennsylvania. Just visit Philadelphia on Election Day. The dead vote early and often in Philadelphia precincts. And, they don’t have to show any form of ID.

Discounting the constitutional question, Rendell’s other objections to the voter fraud bill are lame.

Rendell said many Pennsylvania residents don’t drive so they don’t have a driver’s license to show at the polls. It appears Rendell didn’t bother to read the bill before announcing he will veto it. Under the Voter Protection Act, acceptable forms of identification includes both photo and non-photo ID, including utility bills, copies of a paycheck or even a voter registration card.

Rendell went to say that the homeless don’t have paychecks or utility bills to show. So this is what ensuring the fairness of elections comes down to? How many homeless people Rendell can pick up off the streets of Philadelphia and take to the polls?

Has anyone done a survey on voter turnout by the homeless? How do the homeless know where to vote? If they don’t have a permanent address, where would their voting precinct be located?

Rendell is grasping at straws. He doesn’t want fair elections in Pennsylvania because an election — without the usual Philadelphia shenanigans — could cost Rendell re-election.

It’s unlikely that the Legislature can override a Rendell veto unless a majority of Democrats join Republicans for a two-thirds majority. And that won’t happen in an election year.

In addition to the outrageous pay raise Rendell sought for himself and the Legislature last July, the failure to provide tax relief, the unwilliness to deal with the health insurance crisis for working Pennsylvanian, deteriorating roads and bridges, add the unwillingness to ensure fair elections in Pennsylvania as another reason Rendell does not deserve re-election.

E-mail him at

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More women need to take charge of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has a population of 12.4 million. The Census Bureau estimates that 52 percent of Pennsylvanians are women. So you’d think there would be a comparable percentage of women holding statewide office. Wrong. Not even close.

The top elected female official in Pennsylvania is Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, but the lieutenant governor is largely a ceremonial office. While Knoll presides over state Senate sessions, her job consists mainly of taking roll call. Mostly, she waits on the sidelines should something happen to the governor.

And Knoll’s job is in jeopardy. Knoll, who is 75, is being shoved aside as Gov. Ed Rendell prepares to seek a second term. Former Congressman Joe Hoeffel is planning to challenge Knoll in the Democratic primary and position himself as Rendell’s running mate and heir apparent.

Knoll, who served two terms as state treasurer, and Barbara Hafer, who served as state auditor and treasurer, are the only women to make an impact on statewide politics. Hafer even ran for governor, but never made it past the primary election.

Of the 50 state Senators in Pennsylvania, only nine are women. That’s less than 20 percent, way below the 52 percent population mark. There are no women in Senate leadership positions. It’s even worse in the state House of Representatives. Of the 203 members, only 24 are women. That’s less than 12 percent.

Also, three of the female state representatives have announced they’re not seeking re-election in 2006, including Chester County’s Elinor Z. Taylor, who held the post of GOP Caucus Chair, the only female leadership position in the state House. There are no women in leadership roles on Democratic side of the House.

Two of the seven members of the state Supreme Court are women, but generally speaking, all of the important decisions in Pennsylvania — both good and bad — are made by men.

That could explain why we have so many problems in Pennsylvania. We’ve seen what the boys have done with the state. The women can’t do any worse. And who’s to say they can’t do better?

Pennsylvania is not alone in having a shortage of women in public office, although the Keystone State ranks in the bottom five. A recent study found that women hold fewer than a quarter of the top jobs in state governments across the United States. Only eight of the 50 states have female governors. Fifteen of the country's lieutenant governors are women.

And the trend has hardly improved in the past eight years, according to the report by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at the University at Albany. From 1998 to 2005, the percentage of women in state government leadership positions rose from 23.1 percent to 24.7 percent. The study examined statewide elected officials, state legislators, high court judges, department heads, and top advisers in governors' offices. The full report can be downloaded at

Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Dakota are the five states with the lowest female representation.

The political fortunes of women may improve significantly in Pennsylvania in 2006. Public discontent with the incumbents is at an all-time high. It began with the July 7, 2005, vote by the state legislature to give its members pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent. It has continued over the past six months as the legislature has been unwilling to agree on a solution to the state’s No. 1 problem — skyrocketing property taxes. Voter discontent could sweep many more female legislators into office this year.

Two groups are working to find and nurture female candidates in Pennsylvania.

While the name leaves much to be desired, the Run Baby Run Reform Initiative has recruited 10 women from western Pennsylvania to run for the state Legislature.

Indirectly, another organization that would like to bring change to the male-dominated state Legislature is Operation Clean Sweep, the non-partisan citizens’ group with a state goal of ousting every incumbent on the ballot in 2006. Operation Clean Sweep has recruited 99 candidates so far to run against incumbents and 19 of its candidates are women. More information on the candidates is available at

I’ve served on various civic and non-profit boards and committees with women and have worked for and with women for the past 24 years. I’ve found women to be more focused on the job at hand and less interested in consolidating power, inflating their own egos and serving their own financial interests. Those qualities alone are reason enough to elect more women to state government.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Can a legislator change his spots?

"Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil."
— Jeremiah 13:23

Most of us are familiar with the proverb about how a leopard cannot change its spots. Its origins are from the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in a time of immorality, idolatry and raging hypocrisy. He confronted priests who sold out to the highest bidder. He lived in a land where rulers plundered the people. I know what you’re thinking. Reminds you of Harrisburg circa 2006.

Can members of the Pennsylvania Legislature be forgiven by voters for their many sins against citizens? Can persons who have used their elected office to grow rich and powerful be trusted when they say they will lead the effort to reform Harrisburg? Can a career politician change his or her basic nature?

Can a leopard change its spots? Let’s look at the evidence:

Many legislative leaders who pushed for the outrageous 16-percent to 54-percent pay raise last year still blame the news media for stirring up the people of Pennsylvania. In their minds, Pennsylvania residents are sheep. Dumb sheep, at that. They never question the wisdom of their elected leaders, some of whom have presided over Harrisburg longer than many biblical kings.

Can a leopard change its spots?

If editorial writers, columnists and talk radio hosts had minded their own business, the legislators would be enjoying their ill-gotten gain to this day. They’ve gotten away with it so many times before. But thanks to newspapers and radio, legislators were forced to give the money back. Many incumbents — at least 100 by my last county — face challengers this year. Many career politicians are promisng to change. Did they repent? More than 70 legislators who voted to repeal the pay raise in November kept the money they collected during the four months the raise was law. Those who paid back the money didn’t return it to the state treasury. It went into the slush funds that legislative leaders control. Many are paying back the money on an installment plan, essentially getting an interest-free loan on the backs of state taxpayers.

Can a leopard change its spots?

Some of the legislators who took the money early as unvouchered expenses spent the money. Joe Conti, a Republican state senator from Buck County, said he spent the $5,000 to replace a water heater. He offered to rip up the water heater and turn it over to the state, but won’t give the money back. How does someone who makes $80,000 a year not have money to replace a water heater? Conti is retiring rather than face the voters. Others who spent the money on vacations or home repairs are repaying the money on installment plans. In some cases, they’ll be paying it back over 30 months. In other words, they got an interest-free loan from taxpayers and will pay it back when they feel like it.

Can a leopard change its spots?

Tim Solobay, a state legislator from western Pennsylvania, left a voice mail with the editor of his local newspaper saying that legislators are planning an "all-out assault" on the media once the election is over. "The majority of the legislative feeling about the media right now is if there’s something they can do to screw them, you can imagine it may occur," Solobay said in the message. There’s been talk in Harrisburg of expanding the state sales tax to cover advertising. There’s a First Amendment issue here because advertising is a form of speech, but advertising is also the lifeblood of newspapers and radio. A tax on advertising would put many media outlets out of business, which I’m sure is what legislators would want.

There’s also been talk in Harrisburg of setting up a state Web site to allow local and county governments to post legal notices without having to place them in local newspapers, where most residents get information about their borough council, township committee or school board. These public notices generate revenue for newspapers. Not everyone has access to the Internet, but all you need to buy a newspaper is 50 cents or you can go down to the public library to read the local newspaper. Why make it harder for citizens to keep tabs on government? Is this another attempt by legislators to kill the messenger?

Can a leopard change its spots?

Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature say that they’ve been working on property tax reform for 30 years. Good legislation takes time, they argue. But if Sovereign Bank wants a bill passed to shield it from disgruntled shareholders, apparently there’s an express lane for legislation. Within a week, a bill was drafted and pushed through both houses of the Legislature. Rendell signed it, but said he had reservations about the special-interest legislation. It’s amazing how Rendell, a man of such high principle, can sign so much bad legislation over and over.

After the Sovereign bill became law, it was revealed that the majority of Senators who supposedly voted for passage of the bill were not even in Harrisburg when the vote took place. More than 30 of the 50 senators were in Reading to attend the funeral for the mother of state Sen. Mike O’Pake. Somehow the senators managed to be in two places — 57 miles apart — at the same time. That’s the magic of Harrisburg.

Can a leopard change its spots? What do you think?

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

New book by Kutztown University professor chronicles 100 years of Pennsylvania elections

If history is a judge, Pennsylvania voters will re-elect Gov. Ed Rendell and most of the members of the state Legislature in 2006.

Despite all the talk of payback for the 2005 pay grab and reforming state government, Pennsylvania voters are creatures of habit. They tend to do the same thing every four years, regardless of which names are on the ballot.

Since 1900, voters have consistently returned incumbents to office, according to Jack M. Treadway, professor of political science at Kutztown University and author of the new book, "Elections in Pennsylvania: A Century of Partisan Conflict in the Keystone State."

The 296-page book, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press (, is a gold mine for political buffs. Everything you ever wanted to know about every statewide election of the past 100 years is in the book, which contains dozens of tables, graphs and maps chronicling primary and general elections dating back to 1900.

That's more than 13,000 general elections and 6,000 primary elections held in Pennsylvania for president, governor, U.S. senators and representatives, statewide row offices and members of the state Legislature.

The trends are ominous for anyone looking at 2006 as a year when the political establishment is turned out. Treadway chronicles the rise of full-time, professional politicians whose goal is to hold on to their well-paying jobs. It's harder for challengers to get elected because so many incumbents run for re-election and gerrymandering has created many safe districts for one major political party or the other, Treadway argues.

In other words, the politicians have stacked the deck to keep themselves in power and to determine who else is elected to the financially rewarding and increasingly exclusive club known as the state Legislature.

"Legislative districts in Pennsylvania, not simply those won by incumbents, have become much less competitive since the 1950s," Treadway writes. "The number of marginal districts has been significantly reduced. During the past two decades, on the basis of election results, only 35 to 40 House districts and about a dozen Senate districts could be considered marginal."

In analyzing election returns from 1900 to 1998, Treadway concludes: "During the first decade of the century, 41 percent of House incumbents and 36 percent of Senate incumbents sought re-election; by the 1990s, that figure had grown to almost 90 percent for House members and over 80 percent for senators."

More discouraging for challengers is Treadway's findings that incumbents running for re-election almost always win. With a few notable exceptions during the course of the past 100 years, it's nearly impossible to oust an incumbent from the state Legislature. While 84 percent of House incumbents and 92 percent of Senate incumbents running were re-elected during the years 1900-1908, today those numbers have reached 97 percent for House members and 96 percent for Senate members, according to Treadway.

The only comfort for beleaguered voters who would like nothing more than to boot career politicians out this year is the fact that Treadway's research ends with the 2002 gubernatorial elections. This is, after all, a scholarly examination of election patterns and not an analysis of current voter discontent with state government.

The people of Pennsylvania accomplished two things in 2005 never before seen in the state's political history. They forced the Legislature to repeal the July 7, 2005, pay raise that members gave themselves after voters defeated an incumbent Supreme Court justice for retention and narrowly missed casting out a second justice in last November's elections. The ouster of Justice Russell Nigro and near-defeat of Justice Sandra Newman sent shockwaves through the state's political establishment and forced the Legislature to repeal the pay raise by a vote of 252-1.

The fact that Pennsylvanians are still talking about the pay raise seven months later (and three months after it was repealed) may be an indication that voters will again make history in 2006 by chasing out incumbents, including the once-invincible Gov. Rendell, who in recent polls is tied with Republican challenger Lynn Swann, a man who's never been elected to any office. Rendell is trying to avoid being the first governor denied a second term since the state Constitution was amended 36 years ago to allow governors to succeed themselves.

Treadway may have another book on his hand depending on how historic the 2006 election cycle turns out. In the meantime, the professor has produced the definitive history of Pennsylvania politics in the 20th century.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at

Monday, February 13, 2006

Budget numbers don’t add up

Gov. Ed Rendell delivered his annual budget address to the Pennsylvania Legislature Feb. 8. Rendell wants to spend $25.4 billion dollars for the fiscal year starting July 1. State spending since Rendell took office has risen at twice the rate of inflation.

The governor is proposing $1 billion in new spending, but hasn’t figured out where the additional $1 billion in revenue will come from, other than some vague notion that the state’s economy will prosper if he’s re-elected and the money will pour into state coffers. What Rendell should have said was, "If you re-elect me, you can expect a massive tax hike in 2007 to pay for state government." But that would be telling the truth and Rendell is the consummate politician. The truth is the last thing he’s got going for him.

The speech was vintage Rendell. The governor cut state support for community libraries in each of his first three years in office. Now he wants to spend an additional $75 million on libraries. In other words, he wants to give back the money he took away since 2003. Does the image of a carnival huckster operating a shell game come to mind? All Rendell has done during his first three years in office is move money around from one pile to another.

Rendell pretends to be the "environmental governor" but he proposed cuts in environmental programs. He claims he’s pro-business, but he recently vetoed a bill that would have cut businesses taxes by $500 million. His proposed 2006-07 budget would cut state support for agriculture, tourism, public health and job creation programs.

In the same breath, Rendell wants the state to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.15 an hour. But he told the Legislature that it doesn’t have to act on that request until 2007. This is the same governor who campaigned in 2002 on the need to raise the minimum wage. What kind of message does that send to Pennsylvanians who have been working for $5.15 an hour since 2002?

Rendell’s speech contained 7,560 words. He droned on for 63 minutes. He mentioned "property taxes" only six times in the speech. He devoted less than one minute to the discussion of property tax relief.

If you ask Pennsylvania residents what the most pressing issue facing them today is, almost all would say property taxes. Rendell skirted the issue. Maybe it’s because he has failed to deliver on his promise of property tax reform in each of his first three years in office. Maybe all Rendell wanted to do was bring casino gambling to Pennsylvania. Rendell has $12 in campaign contributions — much of it from the gambling industry — as he prepares to dupe voters into giving him another four years in the governor’s mansion.

Here’s all Rendell said about property taxes:

"We have made great strides together, but we do have unfinished business. First, of course, is dealing with property taxes. This challenge has defied easy answers for more than 30 years in Pennsylvania. I both appreciate and respect the depth of thought, length of debate and creativity of ideas that have come forth in both chambers in support of greater property tax reductions than those we will provide with gaming funds. But first we should all remember that when we expanded gaming in July of 2004, we entered into a compact with the citizens, a compact that guaranteed that every homeowner would get property tax relief and that the tax dollars generated by gaming would help fund it. I have called you into a Special Session to ensure that we meet the principles of that compact. As I said when I did so, our citizens are losing their patience and the signs of their discontent are growing stronger. I ask you to pass a property tax relief bill that I can sign before the end of this month so that Pennsylvanians will know, once and for all, that property tax relief is certain."

Rendell promised property tax relief while running for governor in 2002. Rendell promised property tax relief in 2003. Rendell promised property tax relief in 2004. Rendell promised property tax relief in 2005. Rendell promises property tax relief in 2006. Do you believe him? How many more chances are Pennsylvania taxpayers willing to give Rendell?

There’s an old saying that goes: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." What happens when we’ve been fooled four times in a row? Who’s fault is that?

Since the state Constitution was amended 36 years ago to allow governors to succeed themselves, every incumbent has been re-elected to a second term. Voters should remember Rendell’s broken promises when they go to the polls on Nov. 7. They should send a clear message that they’re tired of empty promises from politicians by denying Rendell a second term.

Tony Phyrillas is a political columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Rendell, Legislators flunk the 'Liberty Index'

The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a free-market think tank, recently released its "Liberty Index" for 2006, a mid-term report card for Gov. Ed Rendell and the members of the Pennsylvania Legislature.

If you're a fan of Pennsylvania's ultra-liberal Democratic governor, you better send the kids out of the room. It's not going to be pretty.

"The purpose of the 'Liberty Index' is to inform Pennsylvanians how well (or how poorly) members of the General Assembly and Gov. Ed Rendell defended our Liberty," said Matthew J. Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, based in Harrisburg.

The group touts the report card as the fairest and most comprehensive analysis on the overall performance of legislators and the governor. Unlike most organizations that only look at selective votes in their ratings, the Commonwealth Foundation boasts that it has analyzed every single bill that became law or was vetoed by the governor during a given legislative session.

"Sadly, only 54 members of the House and Senate voted, on balance, to 'expand Liberty' in 2005, while 199 legislators and Gov. Rendell voted, on balance, to 'contract Liberty,'" Brouillette said. "It was not a good year for Liberty last year."

How did Gov. Rendell do on his report card? An F minus. Not just an F, mind you. But an F minus. In other words, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and longtime Hillary Clinton confidant, has worked hard to sabotage Pennsylvania's economic future. (Rendell also earned an F minus in the initial report card for the 2003-2004 Legislative session.)

Coming on the heals of another analysis of Rendell's economic policies by the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, which gave Rendell an F, you have to wonder how much longer Pennsylvania can survive with Rendell at the helm. The Cato study graded all 50 governors in the United States. Rendell was one of only four governors to earn an F.

Rendell's tax-and-spend policies are the basic reason for his "F minus" rating from the Commonwealth Foundation, which believes in limited government interference.

Rendell, on the other hand, believes government exists to plunder as much income from working Pennsylvanians as possible.

In his first year in office, Rendell pushed for a $1 billion increase in the state income tax. He followed that up with a deal to bring 61,000 slot machines to Pennsylvania, which many see as a hidden tax. Instead of giving the money directly to the government, you lose your money in a slot machine and then the government takes its cut. Rendell also increased state inspection and emissions testing fees and pushed through a $52 emergency services tax on workers that replaced that $10 occupational privilege tax most communities collected each year.

Rendell also lobbied and signed into law a 16 to 54 percent pay raise for himself, the Legislature, state judges and hundreds of other state officials in July 2005. The infamous pay raise was eventually repealed after Pennsylvania voters staged a revolt. Under Rendell, the cost of state government has ballooned to $25.4 billion a year. State spending has risen at twice the rate of inflation under Rendell.

The Commonwealth Foundation report card should give Pennsylvania voters something to think about as they prepare to decide if they can survive four more years of Rendell's "tax-and-spend-and borrow" policies.

"It is critical that the citizens of Pennsylvania understand what is happening to their Liberty in Harrisburg," Brouillette said. "But it is even more important that our lawmakers start making Liberty their highest political end rather than a mere legislative afterthought."

The executive summary, with the rankings and grades of the General Assembly and Gov. Rendell, can be downloaded in PDF format at

Rendell is not alone at the back of the class. Many other well-known politicians, including most of the Democratic House and Senate leadership, Robert Mellow, Mike Veon, Mike O’Pake, Vince Fumo and Bill DeWeese, earned failing grades in the latest "Liberty Index."

While the majority of the lawmakers who received failing grades are Democrats, there are 56 Republicans who earned F's, according to the Foundation.

The GOP list of failures includes Senate Pro Tempore Robert Jubilirer, David "Chip" Brightbill, the Senate Majority Leader, and John Perzel, the speaker of the state House of Representatives and arguably the most powerful politician in Pennsylvania.

With the comedy team of Rendell and Perzel running the state, Pennsylvania taxpayers have no hope of seeing meaningful tax relief in 2006 or beyond. Unless the voters decide it's time to boot Rendell, Perzel and the other 200 legislators who earned "F" grades on the job.

A wise man once said citizens get the government they deserve. Rendell, the entire state House and half of the state Senate are up for re-election in 2006. The primary election is May 16. The general election is Nov. 7. That's when voters can correct their mistakes.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Why not a Newt in the White House?

Hillary vs. Condi. Hillary vs. McCain. Hillary vs. Giuliani.

The handicapping for the 2008 presidential contest has been under way since the day after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. One name that isn’t mentioned much is Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and the chief architect of the 1994 "Contract with America" that ushered in the current era of Republican dominance in Washington.

Gingrich was Speaker of the House from 1994 to 1998 when Republicans toppled 40 years of control by the Democratic Party. Gingrich left politics in 1999 to start a communications and consulting firm, lecture and write books, including his most recent, "Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America."

What did Gingrich learn from his 20 years in Washington?

"Traditional politics is dominated by and defended by a collection of elites who are deeply opposed to the solutions America needs to renew its civilization and ensure its economic and national security interests," Gingrich writes. "These elites want a dramatically different world from the values and aspirations of most Americans."

So while Hillary Clinton, the calculating liberal senator from New York, wants to be the first female president and John Forbes Kerry, the disdainful senator from Massachusetts wants another shot at the White House, maybe we should start looking outside of Washington for leadership.
Why not Newt? Is it the name that bothers you? Would America elect a man named after an amphibian as president? Stranger things have happened.

Gingrich has positioned himself in an interesting place. A former Washington insider (20 years in Congress), he has spent enough time away from the Beltway to give him a fresh perspective on the nation’s problems.

And there’s no doubt where Gingrich stands. In addition to frequent appearances on Fox News, which keeps him in the public spotlight, the former history teacher offers a detailed blueprint of how to fix all that ails the country.

There are five key issues, Gingrich says, that must be addressed if America is to survive and thrive: win the war on terror; defeat the secular forces that have driven a wedge between public life and God; resolve the immigration crisis; emphasize math and science to rebuild our failing schools and fix Social Security.

A pretty tall order, but the alternative is unacceptable, according to Gingrich.

Start with the war on terror, which Gingrich argues needs to be fought with the same conviction as FDR showed in World War II and Ronald Reagan showed in pushing the Soviet Union over the edge to win the Cold War.

Gingrich has a harsh assessment for the John Murtha-Howard Dean-Michael Moore wing of the Democratic Party.

"If anyone thinks terrorists don’t threaten us, the question is: What would it take to convince you? If nearly 3,000 Americans dying on American soil in one day does not frighten you, what would?"

In addition to fighting Islamic fascists abroad, Gingrich sees a homegrown enemy, the radical left, which works to weaken American society.

"There is no attack on American culture more deadly and more historically dishonest than the secular Left’s unending war against God in America’s public life."

Gingrich also addresses the growing immigration problem, largely ignored by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "What worries me is the breakdown of will on the part of America to control our borders and to ensure that new immigrants learn to be American."

Gingrich also blames the left for watering down American citizenship — specifically refusing to force immigrants to assimilate into American society. That’s why you can become a citizen without speaking English or knowing anything about the United States.

Gingrich is the only politician on the national scene who talks about the decline of science and math in American schools.

Gingrich also tackles personal responsibility and the bygone sense of civic duty. He wants ordinary Americans to take a more active role in deciding who governs them, at all levels. "As an American, you are part of the freest, richest, most powerful country in history. We owe it to our children and grandchildren that we keep it that way. If you want to win the future, don’t complain, do something about it."

And for good measure, Gingrich offers solutions to a few other problems — the U.S. health care system, balancing the federal budget, corruption in Congress and election reform — in the pages of his latest book.

No sitting U.S. senator has been elected president since John F. Kennedy. It might be wise for both parties to look beyond Hillary and McCain in 2008 and nominate someone who isn’t part of the Washington establishment. Newt Gingrich is looking better all the time.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Saturday, February 04, 2006

An inspiring salute to the U.S. Marine Corps

From modest beginnings — 350 men and officers organized in 1775 to serve aboard U.S. Navy ships — to today's 175,000-strong "force of readiness," the United States Marine Corps is usually first in battle when our country goes to war. The Marines are the nation's 911 force, with two Marine expeditionary units sailing aboard ships somewhere in the world at all times, ready to strike when the president orders them into action.

Military historian James A. Warren recaps the history of the Leathernecks in a new book called "American Spartans," a reference to the legendary warriors of ancient Sparta. The subtitle of the book, "The U.S. Marines: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq," appropriately defines the role the Marines have played in many significant combat victories in the past 60 years, right up to today's struggle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iwo Jima was the defining moment for the Marines. Some 30,000 American fighting men stormed the beaches of the desolate volcanic island-fortress on Feb. 19, 1945, and spent the next 36 days in ferocious combat against 22,000 battle-hardened Japanese troops. More than 6,800 Marines and Navy personnel died taking Iwo Jima from the Japanese. All but 200 Japanese troops died defending the island. The raising of the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi remains one of the most memorable images of World War II.

"To have fought at Iwo Jima is to have taken part in the battle that cost more Marine lives than any other," Warren writes. "Iwo figures in the American popular imagination as the defining battle of the Marine Corps, for it showcased in dramatic fashion all the qualities we think when we utter the words 'United States Marine'."

Warren tries to present an objective history of the Marines, but you sense the admiration he has for the men and women who make up the Corps throughout the book. He concludes, correctly, that no branch of the military has done so much with so little as the Marine Corps.

For the longest time, the Marines were considered a stepchild to the Army and Navy and later, even the Air Force. The Marine Corps would go through long stretches of neglect by the Pentagon, especially from 1953, the end of the Korean War, to 1965, when full-scale deployment of Marines to Vietnam began.

In addition to the caliber and dedication of the men and women who serve in it, much of the success of the Marine Corps has been its adaptability and resiliency.

The Marines emphasize flexibility in weapons and tactics, adapting with changing technology and battlefields. The Corps is the smallest of the military branches and has kept its edge because, as Warren points out, the Marine Corps "has always had to fight for its place at the table" and the Corps has shown repeatedly that it "has been better at adapting than its sister services."

The world remains a dangerous place. The Marines are as critical today at projecting U.S. military power as they were 60 years ago when they stormed the beaches of Pacific islands. Between 1990 and 1997, U.S. forces were deployed 36 times (compared to 22 deployments between 1980 and 1989), according to Warren. "The U.S Marines have been the force of choice in the majority of these deployments," Warren writes.

The author skims through some of the low points in the Corps' history, including the 1982 deployment of Marines to Lebanon by President Reagan to prevent more bloodshed in the Lebanese civil war. On Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into the Marines' makeshift barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 Marines as they slept. Warren never fully explains the mistakes made in using America's best fighting force for some undefined peacekeeping role.

Another mishandling of the Marines came in Somalia in 1993 when President Clinton sent Marines to help with distribution of humanitarian aid in the middle of another civil war. This deployment resulted in the deaths of eight Marines and brought about the poorly planned engagement of Army Delta Force troops and Rangers chronicled in the book and film, "Blackhawk Down." Eighteen U.S. Rangers were killed in Somalia before Clinton pulled out all U.S. forces.

An important lesson gleamed from the book is that the Marines are at their best when they have a defined mission and are led by military commanders on the ground, not civilian politicians in Washington, D.C.

One of the best passages in Warren's book sums up the respect and admiration most Americans have for the Marine Corps:

"In the end, the awesome power of the U.S. Marines comes not from their rifles, their hovercrafts, their F-18s, or their nine regiments of infantry, but from the proud and resilient hearts of all Marines, past and present, warriors united in their commitment of the five-syllable Latin expression seen in the banner above the eagle on their emblem: Semper Fidelis. Its English translation: Always Faithful."

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Competition at the polls is good for democracy

One of the most troubling numbers heard when the topic of the Pennsylvania Legislature comes up is that 90 percent of incumbent legislators are re-elected.

That number certainly does not reflect the job approval ratings of the Legislature. One recent survey found that two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters think the Legislature is not doing a good job. But the same people are sent back to Harrisburg year after year.

That might change in 2006. At least 25 new legislators will go to Harrisburg this year because that’s how many incumbents won’t be on the ballot in the May 16 and Nov. 7 elections. Twenty-one members of the House have announced their retirement so far. Another House member was recently elected Philadelphia City Controller. Three state Senators are planning to retire. The death of Chester County Sen. Robert J. Thompson on Saturday will open a fourth seat in the Senate.

And there’s still time for incumbents to bow out. Candidates have three weeks to circulate nominating petitions for the primary election, starting Feb. 14. The deadline to submit petitions is March 7. More incumbents will probably decide over the next few weeks not to face the voters in 2006.

One event that may hasten the retirement of incumbents is Monday’s announcement by Operation Clean Sweep that 81 reform candidates will challenge incumbents. The 81 are part of a group of 140 candidates recruited by Operation Clean Sweep, a non-partisan group that has called for the ouster of all 253 members of the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell. A full list of candidates running under the Clean Sweep banner can be found on the group’s Web site,

The reason for the sudden interest in state politics is the July 7, 2005, vote by the House and Senate to give its members pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent. That vote, taken at 2 a.m. on the last day of the session before the Legislature broke for a two-month vacation, still riles many voters. The decision by more than 150 legislators to take the pay raise early — a move that contradicts the state Constitution — left a bad taste in the mouth of voters.

Months of public outcry and the ouster of a sitting Supreme Court justice last Nov. 8, led to the repeal of the pay raise, although at least 75 legislators have refused to give back the money they collected last summer as unvouchered expenses.

The anger over the pay raise fueled the formation of groups like Operation Clean Sweep and prompted many Pennsylvania residents to seek public office for the first time. That’s a good thing. Democracy works best when voters have a choice.

Voters should not automatically support challengers without looking at their experience and their platform. While the majority of incumbent legislators voted for the pay raise, some did not. They should not be lumped together with the lawmakers who pushed through the indefensible pay raise or took the money as unvouchered expenses.

Some legislators have been in Harrisburg too long and have lost touch with their constituents back home. The leadership in Harrisburg is more interested in protecting its influence and returning incumbents who follow the party line than being responsive to the needs of ordinary Pennsylvanians. The lack of progress on property tax relief is a perfect example of this.

There are incumbent legislators who deserve re-election, and they shouldn't fear the voters if they've done their job. PaCleanSweep should be commended for its grassroots effort to recruit fresh faces.

Giving voters a choice when they enter the voting booth is an important step in restoring democracy in Pennsylvania government. Incumbents must be held accountable to the people they are elected to serve.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at