Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Pennsylvania Whipping Post

A song started going through my head when I heard the news that the cost of running Pennsylvania's Legislature rose dramatically last year.

Here's how the song goes...

Sometimes I feel, sometimes I feel,
Like I been tied to the whipping post,
Tied to the whipping post,
Tied to the whipping post,
Good lord, I feel like I'm dyin'

I'm not sure if the Allman Brothers ever passed through Pennsylvania, but that lyric from "Whipping Post" sure captures the feeling of the state's beleaguered taxpayers.

Not only does Pennsylvania have the largest full-time legislature in the country, but we now have proof it's also the most expensive.

You would think that with such high-priced talent running the show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania would be a model of achievement. Not so.

Pennsylvania is facing a property tax crisis, a transportation crisis, a health care crisis, a crime crisis, an education crisis and a pension crisis.

Despite the $73,000 starting salary for a Pennsylvania legislator, the 253 members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly can't seem to find the time to address the myriad of problems facing the state.

And it's not like the 253 legislators don't have any help. One of the reasons the Pennsylvania Legislature is so costly is that it has 3,000 employees toiling away for those elected legislators.

Those folks seem to be tripping all over the themselves trying to justify their salaries.

Here are the staggering numbers revealed Wednesday by The Associated Press: The Pennsylvania Legislature spent $308 million in fiscal 2005-06, which ended June 30, 2006, according to the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission.

That's up from the $283 million the Legislature spent in the 2004-05 fiscal year.

On top of the $308 million in taxpayer dollars needed to keep the political aristocracy in business, the Legislature has also managed to siphon more than $200 million in public money for various slush funds controlled by legislative leaders.

The politicians call it "continuing appropriation," which is a cash reserve of accumulated of money not spent from one year to the next. The money is used by party bosses to amass favors and specific votes from rank-and-file legislators. These leadership accounts now total $215 million, a 34 percent increase over the $161 million at the end of 2004-05, according to the AP.

There's nothing in the Pennsylvania Constitution that permits these slush funds, but political leaders in both parties continue to defend the practice.

"It really does go to the good old-fashioned notion of American government, of having a separation of powers," Rep. John A. Maher, R-Allegheny, told the AP. Actually, if Mr. Maher would spend a little time reading the Constitution, he would note that it's not the Legislature's job to spend money. The Legislature makes laws and approves the budget put forth by the governor and then it's up to the governor and his administration to decide how to spend the money.

Maher, by the way, is the new chairman of the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission, which is assigned to keep tabs on legislative spending. File that one under "Fox guarding the hen house."

House Speaker Dennis M. O'Brien, a Republican picked by Gov. Ed Rendell and the Democratic Caucus to lead the House, told the AP he's not sure what's going on, but he's going to look into why running the Legislature is so expensive. "I will ask for the justification for that increase, and I will respond accordingly," O'Brien said

Few details emerged about specific increases, but the Associated Press was able to this gem: "Mileage for representatives, officers and employees in the House in the most recent fiscal year cost $413,000. At the 2006 IRS business rate of 44.5 cents per mile, that would be enough to circle the Earth at the equator more than 37 times."

I guess Harrisburg has moved to the far side of the Solar System in the past two years.

Pennsylvania voters began the housecleaning in 2006 when they kicked out or forced into retirement 55 legislators. The job isn't finished. All 203 members of the state House and 25 of the 50 state senators will be on the ballot in 2008.

What I told you in 2006 applies to 2008: You can't go wrong by voting out incumbents. A few good legislators may be tossed out in the process, but the vast majority of the politicians who populate Harrisburg need to be run out of town on a rail.

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