Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New speaker has a sorry voting record

Dennis O'Brien rose overnight from obscurity to one of the most powerful politicians in Pennsylvania. But what do we really know about the new speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives?

He's a Republican from Philadelphia just like his predecessor, John M. Perzel. He likes kids. O'Brien had his son in tow when he took the oath of speaker on Jan. 2. He smiles more than Perzel, who rivaled Dick Cheney and Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons" for the most prominent scowl of any public figure.

We also know that O'Brien has held more press conferences (at least 2) in his first month in office than Perzel did in four years as speaker.

But there is something troubling about O'Brien. It's his voting record.

I've often used the phrase "the more you know, the less there is to like" to describe some of Pennsylvania's leading politicians, including Democrat Ed Rendell and Republican John Perzel.

I've been doing a little digging into O'Brien's voting record. It's not a pretty picture.

I was not one of the many political observers who jumped on the O'Brien bandwagon when the Philadelphia Republican made a deal with Rendell and the Democratic House majority to oust Perzel.

I'm no fan of Perzel, but O'Brien may not be much of an improvement.

We already knew O'Brien voted yes for the Legislative pay raise in July 2005. That is a Scarlet Letter for all Pennsylvania politicians, including Gov. Rendell, who signed the pay raise into law.

O'Brien has also voted the wrong way on just about every major bill to come before the House in the past couple of years:
  • Start with Act 1, the ridiculous tax shuffle Rendell and the Legislature cooked up last spring to get the heat off them as they approached the 2006 general election. O'Brien voted yes for Act. 1.
  • O'Brien voted no when the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes in favor of a sales tax came before the House on June 13, 2006. Another bad move.
  • O'Brien supported Rendell’s casino slot plan in 2004 and voted no when the House attempted to repeal the flawed gambling plan on March 14, 2006.
  • O'Brien voted in favor of an unnecessary tax on 911 services adopted by the House on June 21, 2006. That tax passed by a 100 to 95 margin, so every vote was needed. In typical fashion, O'Brien voted with the Democrats to push the tax through.
  • O'Brien was also on the wrong side when the House passed the Fair Share Tort Reform bill in March 2006 to deal with Pennsylvania's growing malpractice crisis. Most Republicans (including John Perzel) voted yes, but O'Brien joined with most of the Democrats to vote against tort reform.
  • O'Brien has also been a longtime supporter of excessive spending under Gov. Rendell. O'Brien voted yes on Rendell’s $26 billion budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year. O'Brien also voted yes to Rendell's 2005-06 budget.
And if his lousy voting record isn't enough, O'Brien also ranked No. 195 on the most recent Liberty Index Report Card published by the Commonwealth Foundation.

The Liberty Index examines the voting records of all 253 legislators (and the governor) on a variety of laws and ranks them based on how much liberty they take away from Pennsylvania residents, including economic freedom.

O'Brien earned an F+ grade, which is the same grade Perzel earned, but Perzel actually fared better, coming in at No. 148 in the rankings. Rendell got an F- on his report card and came in at a pathetic No. 236.

On the plus side, O'Brien did form the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform and has given the 24-member, bipartisan group a lot of leeway to come up with suggestions to improve the way the House conducts itself.

Let's just say that O'Brien has a long way to go to convince me that he's a true reformer and not a puppet for the status quo party led by Ed Rendell and the new Democratic majority in the House.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Congressional Democrats bungle pay raise

Score one for the Republicans in the Nancy Pelosi Era of Congress.

All the political grandstanding by Democratic candidates about Congressional pay last fall appears to have backfired on them.

Remember the pandering to voters by Democrats who insisted they wouldn't take a pay increase until the minimum wage was raised? As if giving American workers chump change is the same as a hefty pay raise for our under-worked and overpaid members of Congress.

House Republicans, still smarting from losing the majority in House to the Donkey-crats, managed to outwit their rivals by blocking the scheduled 1.7 percent pay hike Congress gave itself for 2007 as a cost-of-living-adjustment.

Congressional pay will be frozen at $165,200.

The Republicans and Democrats had a handshake deal since 1989 whereby they would not make Congressional pay a campaign issue. They also figured out a way to avoid voting to give themselves a raise each year by triggering automatic COLAs for members of Congress unless they vote not to accept the increases. That hasn't happened yet.

The Democrats had to ruin it for everyone by making Congressional pay a big part of their attack ads on Republicans leading up to the November 2006 elections. The ads linked Congressional pay raises with alleged Republican inaction on the minimum wage. You remember the attack ads: "Rep. Joe Blow voted against raising the minimum wage, but voted himself a pay raise for four consecutive years."

Adding insult to injury for Democrats is the fact that the pay raise vote was already taken for 2007 before Democrats starting attacking Republicans in the fall.

The pay raise automatically kicked in when Congress voted 263-152 last June to reject a move by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, to force an up-or-down vote on the pay raise. That allowed the automatic COLA for 2007.

The rich members of Congress -- Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, etc. -- don't care about the $2,800 pay raise, but a lot of those new Democratic members could have used the extra pocket money. They'll have to wait until 2008 to pad their own salary.

By the way, the minimum wage increase that Democrats promised still hasn't cleared the Senate.

The one-year freeze on Congressional pay is a good time to take a serious look at how we pay our elected representatives and other officials. There's no secret that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is lobbying for higher pay for judges.

We have to figure out a better way of compensating elected and appointed officials. The current system, where they give themselves pay raises, is wrong.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Flood the House with reform ideas

They asked for it. Let's give it to them.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives wants to clean up its act. Maybe the 203 members of the largest and most expensive legislature in the country finally got religion. Or maybe, it was the sight of 50 of its members being tossed out by voters or forced into retirement that finally got the rest of the legislators to wise up.

Whatever the motivation, the new Speaker of the House, Dennis M. O'Brien, has appointed a 24-member Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform consisting of 12 Democratic and 12 Republican legislators from across the state.

The commission held its first meeting last week, where one of the co-chairmen, Rep. Josh Shapiro, announced that "everything is one the table" when it comes to restructuring how the House conducts the people's business.

Shapiro, a second-term Democrat credited with recruiting Republican O'Brien to help overthrow longtime Republican Speaker John M. Perzel, said all the right things during the commission's first public session.

The commission will review a laundry list of reform initiatives and try to reach a "super-majority" among its members before taking the recommendations to the full House later this year, according to Shapiro.

All of the commission's meetings will be open to the public and press and all 24 members will have an opportunity to push their reform measures, Shapiro said.

And in perhaps the most revolutionary concept since the Legislature was founded, Shapiro said the people of Pennsylvania — that's you and me — will also have an opportunity to provide input to the commission.

It's time to let our elected representatives know that the people mean business. I've been talking about the people's revolution for the past two years, but some career politicians still think that the only people pushing reform are a few newspaper columnists and a handful of citizen activists.

The best way to send a message to the politicians is for tens of thousands of Pennsylvania voters to e-mail suggestions for reforms to the commission.

All it takes is a few minutes on your computer, but the more individuals who send e-mails to Harrisburg, the more impact it will have on the Legislature.

In August 2005, The Mercury launched "Operation Giveback," a grassroots effort to persuade the Legislature to repeal the July 2005 legislative pay raise. We asked readers to sign letters demanding a repeal of the measure that gave lawmakers pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent.

We collected more than 10,000 letters and hand-delivered them to Harrisburg. Those letters were dropped on the desks of House and Senate leaders. People who were in Harrisburg at the time have told me that the letters went a long way in persuading lawmakers that the pay raise had to be repealed.

It's one thing for a small group of activists or newspaper columnists to complain about the way Harrisburg does business. But when tens of thousands of voters voice their opinion, the politicians listen.

Let's do the same thing now with the reform commission.

The e-mail address to send suggestions for changing the way our lawmakers conduct themselves is

Send one suggestion or several recommendations, but the key is to have as many Pennsylvania voters participate in the process. We have the numbers. We need to take back our state government from the political aristocracy.

Tim Potts, one of the activists who has been demanding more accountability in Harrisburg though the organization he co-founded, DemocracyRisingPA, has a few suggestions on how to approach the e-mail campaign:

* Be courteous. They're really listening this time.
* Be concise. They're going to have a lot on their plates.
* Be positive. Tell them what you want them to do in the future, not just what you don't like about the past.
* Be helpful. In the subject line of your e-mail, identify whether your idea is for a rule or a law. For example: "Rules – Perks" or "Laws – Open Records." It will help them sort ideas appropriately.

There's all sorts of suggestions for potential reforms. The big one is the need for a constitutional convention, primarily to give citizens the right for voter-driven Initiative, Referendum and Recall, but we might have to start with less ambitious reforms.

If you need some ideas, Potts lists all sorts of ways to improve our state government on his group's Web site,

They opened the floodgates. Let the deluge begin.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Democrat dirty tricks go unreported

One of the most bizarre political stories of 2006 went largely ignored by the left-leaning Pennsylvania media.

Could the reason for the lack of coverage be that the story involved Democratic Party dirty tricks? Imagine if a Republican was behind the allegations. The liberal Pennsylvania media would be falling over itself to cover the story.

The only reporter who has been on top of the story is Margaret Gibbons, who covers the Montgomery County Courthouse for several Journal Register Co. newspapers, including The Mercury.

Here's some details from Gibbons' latest story:

Formal charges were filed Jan. 25 against a Democratic poll worker for allegedly sending numerous harassing text messages to the campaign cell phone of the field director for the ultimately unsuccessful campaign of 70th District state House candidate Netta Young Hughes.

The Montgomery County District Attorney's office charged Jacqueline A. Kilroy, 51, a homeless woman from Philadelphia who was used by the Hughes campaign as a poll greeter in Towamencin on Election Day, with ethnic intimidation and stalking.

The charges stem from racist, sexually explicit and obscene text messages sent from a disposable pre-paid cell phone to the campaign cell phone of field director John Campbell.

The latest charge involved a report she filed with authorities alleging that Hughes' Republican opponent and the eventual winner in the contest — Jay R. Moyer — made racial slurs against Hughes at the polling place.

A subsequent investigation by local police and county detectives, including interviews with both Democratic and Republican committee people working that poll on Election Day, determined that Moyer was not at the polling place at the various times Kilroy alleged the slurs were made.

"The fact that this type of tactic was used in my race is abhorrent and extremely disappointing," Moyer said. "I do not use these kinds of racial and sexual slurs myself and I would certainly not tolerate them from anyone working on my behalf."

The story has its roots in the November 2006 race for the open seat in the 70th House District, but several important developments have occurred this month.

The original story, reported by Gibbons, involved accusations of racism directed at Republican candidate Moyer, who narrowly defeated Hughes to win a two-year term in the Pennsylvania legislature.

From the start, Moyer denied any knowledge or involvement of the alleged racial intimidation.

The twist here is that a Democrat poll worker made up the allegations in an effort to hurt Moyer's campaign.

Last week, Montgomery County authorities arrested Kilroy, who is accused of lying to Montgomery County detectives when she claimed that she heard Moyer make racial slurs directed at Hughes, who is black.

Authorities suspected all along that Kilroy was responsible for a second racial complaint filed in connection with that campaign, Gibbons reported.

"We believe that Jacqueline Kilroy is responsible for the racial text messages," Montgomery County Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. told Gibbons. "Jay Moyer and his campaign workers had absolutely nothing to do with either incident."

Kilroy is facing a misdemeanor charge of making false reports to law enforcement officers. She is free on bail. Whether she will show up for a March court hearing is another story.

Kilroy, who is white and listed the county's homeless shelter as her address, was paid by the Hughes campaign to work the Towamencin 2-3 poll on Election Day, according to Gibbons' article. She subsequently alleged that Moyer, who is white, made ethnically disparaging remarks about Hughes when Moyer supposedly visited the polling site, Gibbons reported.

Montgomery County detectives obtained statements from GOP and Democratic poll workers that Moyer was not at the poll during the various alleged times Kilroy claimed to have heard the remarks, according to the criminal complaint.

Kilroy, who was taken into custody Jan. 17, is facing additional charges alleging she was the source of expletive-filled text messages containing both racial and sexual slurs that were sent to the cell phone of another Democratic campaign worker, according to Castor.

Moyer, a former county treasurer from Lower Salford, defeated Hughes by 103 votes, 10,912 votes to 10,809 votes. That's how close this race was and the phony allegations could have tipped the race to the Democrat.

Moyer, who was sworn in as a state representative on Jan. 2, held a press conference with Castor this week to announce he will sponsor legislation requiring that identification be produced by and then recorded for those purchasing disposable, pre-paid cell phones.

Castor said the reason his investigation into the Kilroy matter took so long was the problem detectives had in tying Kilroy to the text messages because they were made from a disposable cell phone, according to a follow-up article by Gibbons.

Identifying the users of disposable cell phones by backtracking to their purchasers is not a new problem for authorities, Castor said.

"This has been an ongoing problem for us, especially with drug dealers doing this," Castor said. "Drug dealers are running a business and need to be able to communicate with their customers. This is an ideal way to escape detection from us."

Early on in the Kilroy investigation, authorities knew that a pre-paid cell phone was used and had the number of the cell phone, but because stores are not required to keep the names of purchasers, they could not immediately link the phone to Kilroy, Castor told Gibbons.

Castor, who is vice president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said he intends to gain that organization's support for the legislation at their meeting in February, now that it appears to be moving forward, according to Gibbons' article.

"We have been trying to get the Legislature interested in the issue," Castor said. "When it happens to one of their own, it is amazing how quickly they move."

If a Republican was facing charges of voter intimidation or making ethnic slurs toward a candidate, the story would have been on the front page of every newspaper in Pennsylvania, especially the ultra-left Philadelphia Inquirer. But since this is all about Democrat dirty tricks, good luck finding any mention of this story.

And isn't it amazing how few complaints of voter fraud we had for the November 2006 elections? Could it be that this was a "fair election" because so many Democrats won?

Why is it that we need to have recounts and court challenges and investigations of voter fraud allegations only when Republicans win elections? File this one under liberal media bias.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Citizen activist continues the fight

Say what you will about Gene Stilp, the publicity-seeking, Harrisburg-area gadfly and occasional political candidate who has traveled the state with a giant inflatable pink pig. The man is persistent.

I'm sure a lot of politicians were hoping they'd seen the last of Stilp after his campaign for lieutenant governor went nowhere last year.

But Stilp won't go away. He continues to tilt at the windmills of privilege and perks in Harrisburg. And Pennsylvania is better for it.

Stilp, associated with a group called Taxpayers and Ratepayers United, has been busy these days writing letters to the members of the Pennsylvania House of Lords, otherwise known as the state Legislature.

There's no proof that anyone is paying attention, but give Stilp a pat on the back for continuing the good fight.

Some of Stilp's latest targets include the $5.1 million that Prince John Perzel, Speaker Emeritus, managed to remove from the Speaker's stash when it was becoming clear late last year that Prince John would be sent into exile.

"Unfortunately, even after the mistake of the pay raise, actions occur which are not normal in the view of the average citizen." Stilp writes. "It is amazing to the average citizen that a member of the legislature can move $5.1 million dollars from one account to another at his own volition."

Stilp wants each of the 203 members of the House to explain to their constituents how one individual (Prince John Perzel) can have sole control of $5.1 million in taxpayer funds.

Stilp has a lot of questions for lawmakers:

The account was said to be a "surplus" account that had been built up over the years. Why wasn't that taxpayer money returned to the taxpayers?

How do you clearly explain to the taxpayers back home the methodology that allows this to accumulation to happen?

How can you make sure these actions do not reoccur?

Can you give a clear history of the workings of the financing of the Speaker's office for the past decades that shows how these actions are taken?

Who else is involved?

Will you start the investigation of the $5.1 million surplus?

Can you prepare a resolution to accomplish this? Will you subpoena the former Speaker, now Speaker Emeritus?

Do you approve or disapprove of the actions that have occurred?

Does the former Speaker currently have access to the funds that he personally transferred?

What are the transferred funds currently being used for? Who now controls these funds if it is not the former Speaker?

What are you going to do to return the $5.1 million to the taxpayers and not to any House account?

Stilp isn't waiting by his mailbox for a reply from the Harrisburg crowd. What he is hoping will happen is for individual newspapers, radio and television stations across Pennsylvania to start asking some of those questions to legislators in their coverage area.

If this truly is a new era of reform in Harrisburg, we cannot tolerate the back-room dealing of people like Prince John Perzel or anyone else who treats the state treasury as their private ATM machine.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pa. residents finally get a say on reform

Here's a switch. Pennsylvania lawmakers want to hear what Pennsylvania residents have to say.

This is a new concept for the nation's most overpaid, under-worked and secretive legislature.

Pennsylvania lawmakers didn't ask voters what they thought of bringing casino gambling to the state. (Most residents don't want it).

They didn't ask anyone about raising taxes or rubber-stamping billions of dollars of new spending under Gov. Ed Rendell. (While Rendell is a popular governor, his policies will bankrupt the state).

The lawmakers haven't been listening to constituents when it comes to property tax relief (Adopt the Commonwealth Caucus Plan to eliminate property taxes).

And the legislature certainly didn't consult anyone when it came time to vote itself a pay raise at 2 a.m. on July 7, 2005. (Ask the 55 legislators who no longer have jobs if they'd reconsider their vote to give themselves pay raises).

Maybe the political aristocracy in Harrisburg is finally getting the message.

A House panel studying the need for legislative reforms has set up an e-mail address where citizens can send their ideas for improving the lawmaking process, according to The Associated Press.

Here's your chance to tell the members of the Pennsylvania House of Lords that it's time to return government to the people.

The Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform, a 24-member, bipartisan group of legislators, held its first meeting today and announced the e-mail address. The group will also hold hearings around the state.

"We want to make sure that we are sending a new signal" from the House, Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, one of two co-chairmen, told the AP.

Here's a few suggestions for ways to reform Harrisburg.

1) Convene a Constitutional Convention as soon as possible
2) Allow for voter Initiative, Referendum and Recall
3) Cut the size of the Legislature in half
4) Eliminate pensions for elected officials and all other lawmaker perks
5) Term limits on legislators, committee chairmen, legislative leaders
6) Redraw legislative districts to make them competitive
7) Real regulation of lobbyists and campaign finances
8) Eliminate legislative 'lame duck' sessions
9) Ban 'ghost voting' and all forms of 'proxy voting'
10) No more midnight votes; Do the people's business in the light of day

The e-mail address to send your suggestions is:

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ed Rendell's fuzzy economics

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell should send a thank-you card to President George W. Bush. Maybe some flowers or candy.

Thanks to the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, which have put more money into the hands of middle class Americans and small business owners, Pennsylvania's economy has added 162,000 jobs since January 2003. (That also happens to be when Rendell took office as governor, which is the only thing that counts in Rendell's book.)

Rendell, of course, didn't mention President Bush in his latest "pat-myself-on-the-back" announcement about job growth. As usual, Rendell took all the credit. Reality and Rendell are very far apart these days.

You don't create jobs by raising taxes. You don't create jobs by increasing government regulations or presiding over the largest increase in government spending in Pennsylvania history.

When it comes to economics, Rendell should be made to repeat his first term. (This is the same governor who was given an F for his economic achievements by both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Cato Institute. Independent rankings of business climate by state consistently have Pennsylvania in the bottom rung.

Rendell said Pennsylvania added 10,300 jobs in December, the largest one-month job gain in 2006 and the third straight year the state has added 50,000 or more jobs. (I'm also wondering how many of those new jobs were handed out to Rendell political cronies?)

"To sustain job growth, we must continue the strategic investments we have made in the past four years," Rendell said. "And, we must continue to look for new and innovative ways to bring more businesses and jobs to the state."

Which brings us to Rendell’s latest scheme — universal health care for uninsured Pennsylvanians.

Rendell wants to force state employers to provide health care for workers or pay a tax to the state so the government can subside health coverage for private sector employees.

The government can "help employers help their employees be more productive by giving them the peace-of-mind they need when it comes to paying for visits to the doctor," Rendell said, trying to drum up support for his "Prescription for Pennsylvania."

"When we make quality health care coverage affordable, and accessible to everyone, we will make Pennsylvania the most attractive place to locate and expand a business and create jobs for our hard-working citizens," Rendell said.

Reducing the Pennsylvania's net corporate income tax rate (highest in the country) would help entice new businesses and job to Pennsylvania, but Rendell doesn't know how to cut taxes. He only knows how to raise taxes.

Regulating "for-profit" insurance companies would go a long way to reducing insurance costs for all Pennsylvanians, but the insurance lobbyists don't like that idea and have opposed bills introduced in both the House and Senate to level the playing field in Pennsylvania, which is one of only two states that do not regulate "for-profit" insurance companies.

That means some of the state's biggest insurance companies can raise their rates 35 percent a year.

Rendell's "Prescription for Pennsylvania" is the latest bitter pill Rendell is trying to force down the throats or the state's beleaguered business community.

Matthew Brouilette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, got it right in his assessment of Rendell's health insurance scheme: "This is why the governor's 'Prescription for Pennsylvania' will fail: He is prescribing treatment for the symptom rather than the cause. Expanding insurance coverage at taxpayers' expense without first addressing the factors that are driving up healthcare costs will only exacerbate our healthcare problems. Under the governor's scheme, neither the cost of healthcare nor the cost of insurance will ever become reasonably priced for the average Pennsylvanian."

Cutting taxes and slowing runaway spending in Harrisburg is the best way to keep the state's economy healthy.

Rendell's limited playbook of raising taxes, increasing spending and borrowing enormous amounts of money is a recipe for disaster.

Reinforcements for the reform movement

I'd like to welcome a new ally to the reform movement in Pennsylvania.

A new blog site -- -- has joined the campaign to help turn this state around. With its roots in Bucks County, the site puts a focus on the failing education system in Pennsylvania (No. 1 in teacher strikes) but its contributors have also been active in helping spread the word about our underachieving state government.

Here's a little bit more about the site from the horse's mouth: "This blog is updated daily to provide Bucks County taxpayers with an electronic way to read and comment on news stories from multiple media outlets, in one convenient location."

The chief blogger is Simon Campbell, a resident of Lower Makefield Township and president of the statewide nonprofit company, StopTeacherStrikes, Inc. Campbell's perspective is similar to mine. In his own words, "This personal blog is updated from the perspective of a fiscal conservative, with political correctness considered a vice."

Also contributing to the site is Joe Gable, a resident of Warwick Township in Bucks County. Gable is retired banker and ATM industry consultant. Gamble's pet peeve? "Elected officials who forget they work for the taxpayers, and taxpayers who complain but never vote!" Amen to that, Joe.

The third contributor to the site is Cory Steiner, another resident of Lower Makefield Township in Bucks County. Cory works in orthopedic sales and served in the Marine Corps.

I'd like to welcome Simon, Joe and Cory to the growing blogger community in Pennsylvania and urge you to bookmark their new site and check it out daily. The address is

The great thing about the reform movement in Pennsylvania (and by reform movement, I am speaking about the grassroots effort of political activists and newspaper columnist — not the phony reform that politicians are talking about) — is that politics doesn't matter. The goal is good government, not political power in the hands of a few

We are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Independents and Socialists. We are willing to put party labels aside and work for a better Pennsylvania. It's "Us" against "Them." The "People" vs. the "Political Aristocracy" that has plundered this state's resources for years. The movement is growing. The revolution is on.

"All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper."

— The Pennsylvania Constitution

The political aristocracy in Pennsylvania should be quaking in its shoes. We took out 55 of them in 2006. The job is not finished. We will be better organized and better financed by 2008. The movement is growing every day. We, the people, will not rest until we take back our government.

Friday, January 19, 2007

And the winner is ... Tony Phyrillas

It's award season. Although I was shut out at the Golden Globes, I have some good news to share with loyal readers.

I learned today that I won First Place for Best Opinion Column in the 2006 Editorial Contest sponsored by the Suburban Newspapers of America, a national trade association with more than 2,000-member newspapers.

My newspaper, The Mercury, won a total of seven awards in the contest. Although the list of winners is long and I just glanced through it, I believe The Mercury received more awards than any other newspaper in Pennsylvania.

I've received several state awards in the past, including two first-place Keystone Awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, but the SNA recognition is the first national award for me. It's always nice to be recognized by your peers.

I'll try to make my acceptance speech brief. I don't want to forget all the little people who got me here. First, I have to thank my readers, who started following me in the pages of The Mercury three years ago and continue to find me today on the Web. (I've had 4,000 visitors to this site in the past two months).

I'd like to thank all the bloggers who direct people to me, especially Chris Lilik at GrassrootsPA and John Micek, the maestro of Capitol Ideas. I start my day at both of those sites. (I mentioned the other blog sites I post to or that link to my columns in an earlier posting about my 2006 adventures in radio and television).

I also need to thank Ed Rendell and John Perzel for providing me with an endless supply of material to write about. And judging from the antics so far this year of the comedy team of Rendell and Perzel, I will be drawing from the same well for a long time to come.

The 2006 SNA contest was judged based on three writing samples. I don't have the actual columns in front of me, but I can bet they dealt with the sad state of affairs that passes for state government in Pennsylvania.

I'll try not to let all the attention go to my head, but does anyone know the name of a good agent?

Riding in style

So much for reforming the way things are done in Harrisburg.

The Associated Press reported today that nearly half of freshmen state House members and one new state senator have signed up for taxpayer-funded leased vehicles. These are the same people who ran last year on a platform to clean up Harrisburg. I guess they need to get to Harrisburg in luxury automobiles before they can start cleaning things up.

Twenty-three of the 50 freshmen members of the House have opted for the leased vehicles, according to a review of House records by The Philadelphia Inquirer. File this under "Do as I say, not as I do." Or file this under, "I told the voters what they wanted to hear to get elected. Now, I'm going to live it up on their dime."

Not everyone succumbed to the perk-mania that strikes legislators when they get to Harrisburg.

Freshman Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, R-Lebanon, chose to drive her own car, according to the AP. She will be reimbursed for mileage.

"The people saw these benefits as excessive and I felt an obligation to do my part to bring it back in line," Swanger told the AP.

Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist who unsuccessfully challenged the car leases in court last year, told the AP that the freshmen legislators of "just falling in line with what has been going on for years."

All of the House members below will be seeking re-election in 2008. You might want to save this list until then.

The Associated Press released this list (compiled by The Philadelphia Inquirer) of the state-subsidized vehicles that freshmen members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly drive and the monthly cost to taxpayers:

— Sen. Elisabeth J. Baker, R-Luzerne; 2004 Jeep Cherokee; $244
— Rep. Lisa Bennington, D-Allegheny; 2004 Ford Crown Victoria; $436
— Rep. Joseph F. Brennan, D-Lehigh; 2003 Chevy Trailblazer; $476
— Rep. Eugene A. DePasquale, D-York; 2006 Ford Escape; $442
— Rep. John T. Galloway, D-Bucks; 2005 Chrysler 300; $299
— Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence; 2004 Ford Taurus; $283
— Rep. Patrick J. Harkins, D-Erie; 2005 Chevy Uplander; $382
— Rep. John Hornaman, D-Erie; 2005 Dodge Durango; $370
— Rep. Chris King, D-Bucks; 2004 Jeep Cherokee; $427
— Rep. Deberah Kula, D-Fayette; 2005 Jeep Cherokee; $290
— Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer; 2003 Ford Taurus; $335
— Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fayette; 2004 Dodge Durango; $439
— Rep. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery; 2004 Ford Explorer; $419
— Rep. Jay Moyer, R-Montgomery; 2004 Ford Explorer; $419
— Rep. Michael H. O'Brien, D-Philadelphia; 2005 Chrysler 300; $299
— Rep. Eddie Pashinski, D-Luzerne; 2005 Chrysler 300; $299
— Rep. Tony J. Payton Jr., D-Philadelphia; 2005 Chevy Impala; $302
— Rep. Michael Peifer, R-Pike; 2007 GMC Envoy; $588 (private lease)
— Rep. Tim Seip, D-Schuylkill; 2005 Jeep Cherokee; $290
— Rep. Frank Shimkus, D-Lackawanna; 2004 Dodge Durango; $439
— Rep. Matthew Smith, D-Allegheny; 2004 Ford Explorer; $419
— Rep. Rick Taylor, D-Montgomery; 2003 Ford Explorer; $461
— Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery; 2005 Jeep Cherokee; $290
— Rep. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny; 2005 Jeep Cherokee; $290

Sources: Pa. House and Senate clerks.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Disband the Pennsylvania Legislature

The price tag for the Pennsylvania Legislature increased by nearly 9 percent in the last fiscal year to a staggering $308 million and there's no end in sight. That's more than $1.2 million for each of Pennsylvania's 253 legislators. I don't know about you, but I want my money back.

The cost of running the nation's largest full-time legislature is growing nearly four times the rate of inflation. The $308 million the political aristocracy spent in fiscal 2005-06, which ended June 30, 2006, is a dramatic increase from the $283 million spent in 2004-05.

Every taxpayer in Pennsylvania should be burning up the telephone lines and typing away at their keyboards today. Contact your local state representative or state senator and ask why it costs so much to support the Legislature. Demand a straight answer. And remind them that they work for you. Remind them that you're not getting your money's worth and are considering massive layoffs.

Ask those newly elected legislators who promised to go to Harrisburg to clean up the place what they're planning to do about the size and cost of the Legislature. In the House, 50 new members, or nearly one-fourth of the chamber, took the oath of office on Jan 2. That's 23 Republicans and 27 Democrats.

But nearly all of the new members fell into line immediately and supported either Bill DeWeese or John Perzel for Speaker, a sign that nothing is going to change. A vote for DeWeese or Perzel is a vote for the status quo. It's also a slap in the face of every Pennsylvania voter who went to the polls last May and November and kicked out dozens of incumbent legislators.

And I'm still not convinced that the eventual selection of Dennis O'Brien as Speaker of the House is a step in the right direction. O'Brien is Gov. Ed Rendell's choice for Speaker, so he's hardly a reformer.

If you're living in Southeastern Pennsylvania, demand accountability from so-called reformers such as newly elected Reps. David Kessler, Mike Vereb, Jay Moyer, Bob Mensch, Barbara McIlvaine Smith, Tom Murt, Duane Milne and Carl Mantz.

Ask veteran politicians like Tim Hennessey, Curt Schroder, Art Hershey, Dante Santoni, Doug Reichley, Tom Caltagirone and Carole Rubley what they're doing for us in Harrisburg besides collecting a big fat paycheck.

The voters managed to get rid of 55 career politicians in 2006, but that wasn't enough. We need to vote out another 200 of them in 2008.

It's bad enough we spend $150,000 per legislator in salary and benefits each year, but the entire cost of operating the legislature had reached $308 million. In addition to the 253 elected legislators (the largest full-time legislature in the country), there are 3,000 legislative staffers drawing a check from taxpayers.

On top of the $308 million in tax dollars the Legislature spent on itself, the Associated Press also reported that the Legislative leaders have $215 million in taxpayer dollars stashed away in slush funds they control. The slush funds grew by a whopping 34 percent in the past year.

I have a suggestion. Let's disband the Legislature.

We save $308 million right off the bat and we can get back the $215 million the politicians have siphoned from the public treasury. That's a half-billion dollars right there. That $523 million could be returned to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania in the form of property tax cuts.

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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Rendell legacy in 4 words

I scrutinized the 1,400-word speech Gov. Ed Rendell gave Tuesday at his inauguration and found only two passing references to "property tax relief."

What do Pennsylvania residents want most? Property tax relief.

When do they want it? Now.

How much of a cut in property taxes has Rendell delivered in his first four years in office? Zero.

What can we expect from Rendell over the next four years? See above.

The first mention of property tax relief came early in the speech when Rendell spoke of a "Commonwealth in crisis" before he took the reins as governor. Rendell said he inherited a Pennsylvania that had "a property tax system that threatened the ability of working citizens and especially the elderly to keep their homes."

Rendell claimed in the speech that he "enacted the most far-reaching property tax reduction in the state's history."

Did anyone see Rendell's nose start to grow as he uttered those words? Is this guy living in the same state as the rest of us? How many Pennsylvania residents have lost their homes in the past four years when property taxes rose by $2 billion under Rendell’s watch?

The only thing Rendell has done over the past four years is come up with various schemes to shift the tax burden. It's a classic shell game. We went from Act 72 to Act 1 and borrowed money from the state lottery fund in between to give rebates to a few senior citizens.

That's what Rendell is calling "the most far-reaching property tax reduction in the state's history?"

Somebody should have given Rendell a Golden Globe award for his impersonation of a governor. Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat" was more convincing in his role as a Kazakh journalist than Rendell has been in pretending to have accomplished something during his first term in the Governor's Mansion.

The speech got worse. At one point, Rendell actually said: "Fellow citizens, Pennsylvania is poised for greatness."

This is a state that is about to go belly up because of (pick one) a $3 billion shortfall in pension obligations; a $1.7 billion toll in needed transportation upgrades; billions in welfare spending; a $2.1 billion blank check to unionized state workers; a Legislature that has rubber-stamped massive new spending under Rendell.

And what is Rendell planning for his second term? More government spending programs. (And although he didn't say this during the speech, higher taxes to pay for his spending).

"To accomplish this vision, in the next 30 days, I will set forth an Agenda for Pennsylvania Progress that calls for major new strategic investments in education, in alternative energy development, in transportation and in growing our economy," Rendell proclaimed.

Rendell will begin the state's death march toward insolvency on Wednesday by announcing a massive new government-sponsored health care plan. Can you say, Hillarycare?

Dr. Rendell will unveil his "Prescription for Pennsylvania," whereby he will magically offer health insurance to 1 million Pennsylvania residents and "eliminate billions in wasted health care dollars." Afterwards, Dr. Rendell will offer his cure for the common cold.

If you think Rendell is going to solve the state's health care crisis, you must be the same person checking your mailbox every day waiting for that property tax rebate Rendell promised.

The rest of the speech was about everyone's favorite new buzzword, "reform." Never mind that Rendell has been one of the biggest obstacles to good government over the past four years, making back-room deals with Legislators on both sides of the political aisle and appointing political cronies to various state offices. It's hard to feel safe when the fox is promising to guard the chicken coop.

When a man who amassed $32 million in campaign contributions last year from lobbyists, lawyers and big business tells you, "We need controls on campaign contributions to level the playing field," grab your wallet and run away as fast as you can.

When the man who helped orchestrate the July 2005 payjacking tells you, "We need laws and rules that guarantee that all bills or amendments are carefully considered by those who cast the votes and by citizens who have the right to express their opinion before legislative action is taken," lock the door and pull down the shades. Whatever he’s selling, you don't need.

Rendell also suggested, "We should amend the constitution to take politics out of the defining of legislative districts and leave it solely in the hands of the citizens. We should establish a bipartisan commission to study and recommend the appropriate size for a smaller legislature. And finally, I believe we should amend our constitution to establish term limits for every state office."

All this talk of cleaning up the way the people's business is conducted in Harrisburg from the man who cooked up the plan to install a Philadelphia Republican the new Speaker of the House so Rendell could control the flow of legislation in the House.

Rendell could have kept his speech much shorter Tuesday. Instead of 1,400 words, he only need four to sum up his tenure as governor: Empty promises. Hollow words.

Monday, January 15, 2007

State workers have a friend in Pennsylvania

On the eve of his inauguration to a second term, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell figured out a way to spend a couple billion of our tax dollars. What's another $2.1 billion among friends?

I'm not sure how to greet the news that 45,000 state workers will get pay increases averaging 22.4 percent over the next four years, including a cash bonus of $1,250 for agreeing to take those hefty raises.

It's very generous of Gov. Rendell to share the wealth. For the past two years, we've only been hearing of state politicians and judges getting big fat paychecks from the taxpayers of Pennsylvania. (I hate to keep rubbing it in, but that $1,250 cash bonus is $1,250 more than I got back from the tax cut Ed Rendell promised me when he first ran for governor in 2002).

At least the deal with Council 13 of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, means that working people will also see a boost in their take-home pay.

Under the agreement, which would take effect July 1, state workers will receive a bonus of $1,250 in the first year, followed by pay increases of 3 percent, 3 percent and 4 percent in the second through fourth years, according to the Associated Press.

The tentative agreement, given overwhelming support from the union's Policy Committee on Jan. 13, provides for bonuses and wage increases of 22.4 percent for the average state employee over the life of the four-year agreement, according to union officials.

The total cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers is $2.1 billion. And this deal covers only 45,000 of the state's 80,000 workers. The pay raises are higher than the rate of inflation and much higher than the typical 1.5 percent or 2 percent many private sector workers are seeing in their paychecks for 2007.

And let's not forget that Pennsylvania workers also enjoy one of the best benefits packages in the country and one of the highest pensions when they retire.

This is why Pennsylvania is facing a massive pension crisis over the next five years when the pension fund for state workers, retired teachers and politicians is expected to experience a shortfall of several billion dollars. (Unlike most states, Pennsylvania provides lifetime pensions for elected state politicians and judges who serve a minimum of 10 years in office).

The state's looming pension crisis was recently documented by The Associated Press in a five-part series of articles. The taxpayers' share of the state's two large public-sector pension plans is expected to reach $3 billion a year by 2012. That's five short years from now.

The only good news for Pennsylvania taxpayers in Monday's contract announcement is the fact that state workers will be asked to contribute more toward their healthcare costs. Employees would increase contributions toward their health coverage from 1 percent to 3 percent of their pay, according to officials.

State workers are still coming out ahead. Private sector employees often pay 10 percent or more of their pay to cover healthcare costs. And more than 1 million working Pennsylvanians have no health insurance coverage at all, something Rendell has failed to address in the past four years.

As Gov. Rendell takes the oath of office on Tuesday, let's remember that he got most of his support — votes and campaign contributions — from unionized workers, so it should come as no surprise that the governor is paying back his political supporters. (Council 13 of AFSCME reportedly kicked in $50,000 toward the cost of Rendell's inauguration festivities.)

Just keep your checkbook handy, folks. We'll be paying for Rendell's spending orgies for decades to come. And when you're writing that check out to pay your taxes later this year, be sure to thank everyone you know who voted for Ed Rendell.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The other half of the school tax problem

Ask the average Pennsylvania resident what they consider to be the most important issue facing the state and nearly all will tell you it's high property taxes.

Most blame the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell for failing to provide meaningful tax relief despite years of promises. You remember Rendell's famous tap dance during last year's debate with GOP challenger Lynn Swann: "Let's begin with the proposition that no governor over the past 50 years who promised tax relief" kept his word. I guess that lets Rendell off the hook when he promised to cut property taxes by 30 percent for every Pennsylvania homeowner.

Not a single Pennsylvania resident saw property tax relief during Rendell's first four years in office. And don't hold your breath Rendell will push for tax relief over the next four years. It's not on his radar screen. He'll be busy raising the sales tax or the gas tax or selling off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to fund his voracious spending appetite.

Same goes for the Legislature. Now that House members are safely back in office until 2008 and half the Senate has been returned to office for another four years, the urgency to do something about property taxes is gone.

Blame yourself for re-electing so many incumbents, especially Democrats, who have only given lip service to property tax reform. (Only 10 of 94 House Democrats supported the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes by raising the sales tax when it last came up for a vote on June 13, 2006.)

The only recourse for voters in 2007 is to go after the other half of the problem. While state politicians have failed miserably to deal with property taxes, the people most directly responsible for burdensome taxes are the men and women who serve on your local school board.

Some 2,000 school board seats will be up for grabs across Pennsylvania in 2007. Here's your chance to make the incumbents who have voted repeatedly for double-digit property tax increases accountable for their actions.

And thanks to Act 1, also known as the "Rendell-Perzel Property Tax Shift of 2006," your local school board will soon be deciding which tax hike referendum it will put on the ballot for the May primary. Will you choose to pay more in earned income tax or personal income tax so a few senior citizens may see a few hundred dollars in savings on their tax bill?

That's essentially what Act 1 is: A plan to raise taxes on working Pennsylvanians so a few retirees can save on taxes. That's the best Rendell & Co. came up with in that "special legislative session on property tax relief" in 2006.

You can gripe all you want about high property taxes, but unless you're willing to run for your local school board with other like-minded residents who’ve had enough with runaway school spending, then don't complain.

Does Pennsylvania need 501 school districts, each employing a superintendent who makes $114,000 a year? That's just the average. Some superintendents are pushing the $200,000 mark. The highest paid superintendent in Pennsylvania earns $242,000 a year.

And every school district has a bunch of assistant superintendents who earn much more than the average worker in that district. Each district has a business manager and a transportation director and somebody in charge of the cafeteria, etc. Every one of those administrators enjoys high pay and great benefits, including pensions not available in the private sector.

Here's a few more interesting statistics about administrative costs from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association:

· Nearly three-fourths of school management positions earn in excess of $74,000 annually.
· The highest management salary reported was $243,360 for district superintendent.
· 74 percent of the 142,890 bargaining unit positions (primarily teachers) reported annual salaries of $42,000 or higher.

The nine members of your local school board are also the people who approve those multi-million-dollar "Taj Mahals" that pass for school buildings these days. And let's not forget the athletic facilities that could qualify to host the Olympic Games.

How much of your tax dollar goes to fund education (teachers, books, supplies) and how much goes to pay the salaries of administrators or covers the upkeep of grand palaces that school districts construct?

While I have the utmost respect for the job most teachers do, I still can't figure out why Pennsylvania leads the nation in teacher strikes when Pennsylvania teachers are among the highest paid in the country. The average teacher in Pennsylvania is paid $54,000 a year. Those numbers are from the 2005-06 school year, the most recent figures available. And while most teachers give 100 percent, few jobs allow you to take off three months in the summer. (The only other one I can think of is Pennsylvania legislator).

Not to get sidetracked, but for more information about why Pennsylvania usually leads the country in teacher strikes, check out this interesting Web site:

The politicians in Harrisburg are safe for now, but it’s time to send a message to the school board members that "Enough is enough!"

Tuesday, Feb. 13, is the first day to circulate nominating petitions for school board elections in 500 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts (Philadelphia has an appointed board).

More than 2,000 school board positions across the Commonwealth will be on the May 15 Primary Election ballot, according to the Education Policy and Leadership Center.

Candidates can cross-file as both Democrats and Republicans, so these four-year terms on school boards are often won in the primary. There's no pay involved in serving on a school board, but somebody has to be the first line of defense in Pennsylvania's losing struggle with burdensome property taxes.

The battle is often won or lost at school board meetings.

Whenever a lie is told

A man died and went to Heaven. As he stood in front of the Pearly Gates, he saw a huge wall of clocks directly behind him.

Since St. Peter was standing right next to the man, the man asked him, "What are all those clocks?"

"Those are Lie-Clocks," St. Peter said. "Everyone on Earth has a Lie-Clock. Every time you lie, the hands on your clock move."

"Oh," said the man. "Whose clock is that?"

"That's Mother Teresa's," replied St. Peter. "The hands have never moved, indicating that she never told a lie."

"Incredible," said the man. "And whose clock is that one?"

"That's Abraham Lincoln's clock," St. Peter said. "The hands have moved twice, telling us that Abraham told only two lies in his entire life."

"Where's Ed Rendell's clock?" asked the man.

"Ed Rendell's clock is in Jesus' office," said St. Peter. "He's using it as a ceiling fan."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Gambling board is a losing proposition

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has run out of money. Again.

This is the same board that ran out of money in 2005, the same board that ran out of money in 2006. The very same board that had to borrow money on several occasions from other state agencies to keep its doors open. It's 2007 and the board is out of money again.

And these are the people we are entrusting to oversee Pennsylvania's fledgling gambling industry?

Did the gaming board lose the money playing the slots?

The news that the gaming board is broke came in an Associated Press story that moved Thursday. The AP says that the gaming board wants to take 5 percent of slot-machine revenues from existing casinos to stay in business.

The only problem is that the casino owners don't want to pay the 5 percent fee (which is four times higher than what New Jersey casinos pay). And some Legislators, who never liked the idea of gambling in the first place, are siding with the casino owners.

Except for Gov. Ed Rendell, the state's biggest gambling booster, not everyone is sold on the idea of paying for public services through gambling loses at casinos. See for more information.

The last time the gambling issue came before the Pennsylvania Legislature, 85 House members voted to repeal the entire gambling law, first approved in July 2004. Unfortunately, it takes 102 votes for a majority in the House. But 85 votes against the casino industry is not insignificant.

For now, we're stuck with casino gambling in Pennsylvania and a couple casinos have opened their doors, although projected revenues are less than what Rendell predicted. Other licenses were granted in December, so more casinos are on the way.

But that doesn't solve the problem of the gaming bureaucracy set up to regulate the industry. About 200 well-paid employees work for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. The number of gaming board worker will continue to rise as more casinos open, to as many as 350 by 2008. The idea was that the casinos would end up funding the gaming board, but that hasn't worked out so far.

Bills are coming due from the wild spending by the gaming board (including $25 million in spent in 2006 in bonuses and perks for its employees). The gaming board approved a $34 million budget for 2007, a nearly 30 percent increase over what it spent in 2006. Where that money will come from remains a mystery.

The current law says the gaming board can tap into slots revenues to fund casino regulation, but the legislation that legalized slots gambling did not explain how to do it, according to the AP. That's what happens when you pass a 150-page bill in the middle of the night before anyone had a chance to read it. That's the way the Pennsylvania Legislature likes to tackle important business.

The pay raise bill in July 2005 that led to 55 new legislators being elected in 2006 was not the first time the Legislature passed a middle-of-the-night bill. In July 2004, the bill establish legalized gambling in Pennsylvania was passed after midnight with few of the lawmakers in attendance having an opportunity to read it.

Gov. Rendell, more concerned with his re-election and paying back the casino lobbyists who would help fund his 2006 campaign, promptly signed the slots bill, opening the floodgate for 61,000 slots in the state.

As a result, the Legislature has been trying for two years to fix all the loopholes in the gambling bill. Not setting up a source of funding for the gaming board would appear to be a giant loophole. Just like that big hole between the ears of the Legislators who passed the casino bill and the governor who signed it into law.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

John Perzel is a plague on Pennsylvania

Are members of the Pennsylvania Legislature subject to random drug testing? Is there some sort of mental health screening available in the General Assembly?

How else can you explain the absurdity of bestowing the title of "Speaker Emeritus" on ousted Speaker John M. Perzel, who lost his post Jan. 2 when 99 Democrats and 6 Republicans voted for Dennis M. O'Brien as the Speaker for the next two years.

The repudiation of Perzel sent the Philadelphia Republican on a week-long downward spiral from the most powerful leadership post in the House to rank-and-file member, one of 203 representatives in the most bloated, under-worked and overpaid legislature in the United States.

One week after Perzel's demotion, the Republican Caucus, which is now in the minority in the House thanks largely to Perzel, voted to make Perzel the "Speaker Emeritus" of the House. Or at least half the House. There's no indication that the 102 Democrats in the House -- or Speaker O'Brien -- recognize Perzel's honorary title.

Let's review what John Perzel has done in the past four years as Speaker of the House.

* Perzel pushed through the massive increase in the state income tax proposed by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003 through the House.

* Perzel ushered in the flawed casino slots bill proposed by Gov. Ed Rendell in July 2004.

* Perzel orchestrated the July 2005 pay raise along with Gov. Rendell and Ralph Cappy, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

* Perzel helped Gov. Rendell increase state spending by billions of dollars over the past four years, setting the state up for financial disaster.

* Because of Perzel's miscalculation of the public backlash to the pay raise and his steadfast refusal to consider repealing the payjacking, 50 House members were voted out of office or forced to retire in 2006.

So what do the remaining Republicans do? They reward Perzel for his ignorance and arrogance. They refused to dump Perzel despite losing their 13-seat majority in the House. Republicans could have pushed Perzel overboard after the primary election or after the general election or at any point up to the Jan. 2 Speaker vote.

It finally took 99 Democrats to toss Perzel out of office on Jan. 2 when they found a moderate Republican they can live with in Dennis O'Brien. But how do you explain the fact that 94 Republicans voted to put Perzel back in the Speaker's office after all the damage he has done to the party and the House?

I'm beginning to question the mental stability of the 101 members of the Republican Caucus in the House of Representatives.

Pollster and political analyst Lowman Henry, writing today in his Lincoln Blog, gets it: "The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting you have one. Some members of the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus are urgently in need of a 12-step program, with step one being how to deal with denial. While the position will carry with it no increase in pay, and only a few additional staff members, the very creation of it signals the continued unwillingness of certain House Republicans to face up to the fact that John Perzel has been an unmitigated disaster for their diminished caucus and for the Republican Party as a whole."

John Perzel is the reason the Republican Party lost the majority in the House. Perzel is the reason 55 lawmakers, mostly Republicans, are no longer serving in Harrisburg. Perzel is a walking, talking disaster area.

Perzel is a malignancy on the Pennsylvania Legislature. He will continue to infect lawmakers as long as they keep him in power. And the people of Pennsylvania are the losers. Again.

By creating the post of "Speaker Emeritus" and allowing Perzel to influence the business of the House, by turning their backs on reform and allowing lobbyists to continue running state government, Republicans guaranteed they will remain the minority party in the House in 2008 and beyond.

That's why the 101 House Republicans need to have their heads examined.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

It was a very good year for ... me

While I never have a shortage of opinions, I don't talk about myself much. Today, I'm making an exception.

Professionally, 2006 was a good year for me. In 12 months, I went from a small but loyal following at a regional newspaper to a much bigger audience in every corner of Pennsylvania (and beyond).

After toiling in front of a computer for years, I was able to get out of the office and share my views in a variety of new ways. I expanded my horizons in 2006 to include radio (21 apperances) and television (3 invitations on "Journalists Roundtable" on the Pennsylvania Cable Network) and all over the Internet (at least 20 Web sites and blogs carry my columns or link to them on a regular basis.)

I also found myself enlisted in a hard-fought political campaign. Rep. Jim Gerlach used quotes from my columns in his campaign mailings, newspaper ads and television spots during his battle with Lois Murphy in the 6th Congressional District. I can't tell you how many people came up to me and asked if I was the same Tony Phyrillas they saw quoted on the ads (like there could be another). I even had a person from New Jersey that I used to work with e-mail me to say he saw the Gerlach commercials on the Philly TV stations.

For the record, while I voted for Gerlach, I had nothing to do with his campaign. Nobody informed me ahead of time they were going to use my endorsement in the political advertising. But the fact that Jim Gerlach won re-election while most of the other GOP Congressmen in Pennsylvania lost leads me to one conclusion. I put Gerlach over the top. (I'm still waiting for a 'thank you' card, Jim.)

The biggest thrill for me in 2006 was being a panelist on "Journalists Roundtable." Some people dream of being on "American Idol" or "The Apprentice." My dream was alway to be on "Journalists Roundtable." And to be invited back twice was just icing on the cake. By the way, it's true what they say about television adding pounds. I'm really not that big.

(I'd like to thank Bill Bova and the wonderful staff at PCN for inviting me on the program last May, July and September.)

The Internet is amazing. I've been posting opinion pieces on this blog for the past two years without really knowing if anybody reads them, but during 2006, hundreds and then thousands of people started finding me. I've had more than 3,500 visitors to this blog in the past month alone.

My columns also started popping up in all sorts of Web sites, including Web sites for Lynn Swann, Rick Santorum, Russ Diamond, William Scranton, Pat Toomey, Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, Operation Clean Sweep, CasinoFreePa, The Club for Growth, the Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition, the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, the Green Screen and the American Center for Voting Rights.

Politicians, take note. My columns were e-mailed all over Pennsylvania by people who wanted to share them with friends and relatives. One person can e-mail 100 others in seconds. I started hearing from people in places I never knew existed. Maybe politicians should stop putting so many campaign signs along roads and start using the Internet more.

The other neat thing that started happening in 2006 is that I began receiving invitations to speak to groups. While nobody is paying to hear me speak, I can proudly say that nobody has walked out during my rambling talks.

I'd like to thank the Spring-Ford Rotary Club, the Pottstown Area Senior Citizens Discussion Group and the Kiwanis Club of East Penn Valley for inviting me to speak at their meetings. I also visited journalism classes at Coventry Christian School and Owen J. Roberts High School to talk to young people about the future of this business. What future, you're probably thinking.

I mentioned earlier about my budding career in talk radio. Here's some memorable radio apperances from 2006:

The Mike Faust Show on WEEU 830 AM in Reading
The Bob Durgin Show on WHP 580 AM in Harrisburg
The Fred Honsberger Show on KDKA 1020 AM in Pittsburgh
The Lowman S. Henry Show on WHYL 960 AM in Carlisle
The Nick Lawrence Show on WPAZ 1370 AM in Pottstown
The Bruce Elliot Show on WBAL 1090 AM in Baltimore
The John McGinnis Show on WRTA 1240 AM in Altoona

Nick Lawrence even invited me to guest host his show while he was on vacation. I have a newfound appreciation for talk radio hosts. It's not as easy as it looks. Thanks Nick.

I also won an award for column writing in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Philadelphia Chapter. While it's always nice to be recognized by peers, the biggest honor of 2006 is having been named twice to the list of "The Top 10 Conservative Idiots" in the United States by the Democratic Underground, which is some sort of liberal political action group.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Everything I know about Dennis O'Brien

Here's everything I know about Dennis M. O'Brien, the newly-elected Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

O'Brien supported the July 2005 legislative payjacking. Strike 1.

O'Brien is from Philadelphia. Strike 2. (Philadelphia politicians care only about Philadelphia. Their only goal is to bring more of our tax dollars back to Philadelphia, where the money will be squandered by other corrupt or incompetent politicians. See Ed Rendell for numerous examples of this).

O'Brien says he has "chemistry" with Gov. Ed Rendell. Strike 3. (Anybody eager to work with Ed ‘Tax Hike’ Rendell scares me.)

O'Brien was nominated by Democratic Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, one of the architects of the payjacking and a man who has opposed Legislative reform for 30 years. Strike 4.

O'Brien, a Republican, was voted into office by 99 House Democrats. Strike 5. (Something doesn't smell right when Democrats want a Republican to lead the House.)

While nobody is happier than I am to see Republican John Perzel finally ousted as Speaker, his replacement has a long way to go to win the public's trust and restore some sense of integrity to the Legislature.

I'm not convinced the members of the Pennsylvania Legislature who gave us the July 2005 payjacking and have resisted reforms for decades woke up on Jan. 2 and finally "got it" after paying lip service to constituents for the past 18 months.

I tend to side with this assessment from the editorial pages of The (Delaware County) Daily Times about the sudden burst of bipartisanship in the House and promises of reform: "Only a 'cockeyed optimist' would believe that was what happened in the state House. What happened in Harrisburg was Pennsylvania politics as usual. One back-room deal after another, reminiscent of the closed-door meetings that lead to the middle-of-the-night pay raise that so angered the electorate."

Let's wait until the smoke clears before we decide if the Legislature got the message or we have to continue to sweep out career politicians.

Let's see some results before we decide of Dennis O'Brien is a true reformer or just Perzel-light. Is he the man who can usher in a new era of good government or is he a puppet of status quo politicians like Ed Rendell and Bill DeWeese?

The ascendancy of Dennis O'Brien comes at the expense of fellow Philadelphia Republican John Perzel, who refused to heed the adage, "Be careful who you step on as you climb to the top. You'll meet them on the way down." Has any political figure fallen as rapidly as Perzel in the past year?

I was reading an article a few days ago about the demise of Saddam Hussein when I came across this sentence. "His arrogance led him to disastrous misjudgments." Those seven words jumped out at me. I immediately thought of John Perzel.

Perzel wielded immense power just a few months ago, but he squandered it. Voters sent Perzel (and his Republican minions) a clear message in November 2005, May 2006 and November 2006, but Perzel refused to listen. The result? Republicans lost control of the state House for the first time in 12 years. And Perzel lost his post as Speaker.

Just for laughs, you should contact your state representative and ask why he or she voted for Perzel as Speaker. Except for six maverick Republicans, the rest of the GOP caucus (94 members) supported Perzel for another term even though he single-handedly destroyed the Republican majority.

Ask your state representative why he or she felt compelled to support such an arrogant, vindictive politician when nothing Perzel has done over the past four years as Speaker (orchestrating the pay raise, blocking meaningful tax relief, pushing aside calls for reform, supporting the Rendell tax hikes and runaway spending) has been good for Pennsylvania.

Is your state representative looking out for you or covering their behind and bowing to tyrants like Perzel?

Fifty-five new lawmakers were sworn in Jan. 2, but nearly 200 incumbents returned to Harrisburg. The purge of 2006 was a solid start, but more career politicians need to be removed to end the culture of corruption in Harrisburg. All 203 members of the House and 25 Senators will seek re-election in 2008. Start the countdown.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

No vigil for Phila. murder victims?

It was interesting to see a group of Iraq war protesters gather at peace vigil outside Philadelphia City Hall Tuesday to observe the Iraq War milestone of 3,000 U.S. dead since the U.S. invasion on March 20, 2003.

It was one of many protests staged simultaneously around the country Tuesday by anti-war activists. The Philadelphia vigil was organized by a group called Brandywine Peace Community, based in affluent Chester County.

The vigil drew widespread coverage from the Philadelphia TV stations and newspapers.

I don't have a problem with remembering the men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country. And I don't have a problem with protesting the war. It's a free country. But I'm curious about a few things.

Why hasn't the Brandywine Peace Community staged a vigil for the nearly 2,000 shooting victims in Philadelphia during 2006? Why aren't these peace activists commemorating the deaths of 406 people murdered in Philadelphia in 2006?

Some may argue there is no comparison between U.S. citizens killed in battle and U.S. citizens gunned down on the streets of a major city. Why? Would the far left be protesting deaths in Iraq if Bill Clinton had started the war?

The murders in Philadelphia are a lot closer to home than the 3,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq over three years. Why isn't the peace group marching to the mayor's house or the governor's mansion in Harrisburg?

Why are Democratic Mayor John Street or Democratic District Attorney Lynne Abraham or Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell not being held accountable for the bloodshed in Philadelphia during their watch?

Why hasn't the Philadelphia news media asked some of these questions? The coverage of the carnage on the streets of Philadelphia is usually relegated to back pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer. On some days, the Inquirer didn't bother writing about a murder. It just ran a tally of victims in a small box, reducing the taking of another human life to a sports boxscore.

Just a few questions I have as I sit and ponder the perpetual riddle of liberal hypocrisy.

The nation's worst roads

We're No. 2!!!! We're No. 2!!!

Pennsylvania no longer has the distinction of having the worst roads in the United States. After holding the No. 1 spot for the worst roads during each of the past four years of the Rendell administration, the Keystone State has dropped to No. 2.

It took Hurricane Katrina to push Pennsylvania out of the much-deserved top spot in the annual Highway Report Card published by "Overdrive," a trucking industry magazine.

Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is No. 1 on the latest list of the worst roads and highways, according to a survey of truckers.

Pennsylvania, which was hit by its own natural disaster in 2006 (the re-election of Ed Rendell as governor), was a close second on the list. Rounding out the list of states making the list of 'Top 5 Worst Roads' are California, Illinois and Michigan.

(The best roads, according to the survey, are in Texas and Florida.)

After ignoring the problem for four years, Gov. Rendell has come up with a plan to fix the state's roads and bridges for a mere pittance ... $1.7 billion.

And where will our intrepid governor come up with the money? First, he’d like to raise the state's gas tax (already the highest in the country) by 12.5 cents. And if that won't fly past the Legislature (chances are slim and none and slim just left the state), Rendell plans to sell or lease the rights to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company.

A big chunk of the money the state could get by privatizing the Turnpike would go to one of Rendell's pet projects, subsidizing the state's failing transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, so there's a good chance Pennsylvania will return to the No. 1 ranking of worst roads.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A fresh start for Pennsylvania?

"Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"
— William Shakespeare
(Henry IV, Part II)

The reign of John M. Perzel ended Tuesday when the Pennsylvania House of Representatives elected Philadelphia Republican Dennis M. O'Brien as Speaker of the House, the post Perzel has held since April 2003.

The vote to give O'Brien the powerful job of Speaker was 105-97, ending a week of political intrigue that included a veteran Democratic legislator publicly announcing he would vote for Perzel, effectively denying the Speaker post to Democratic House Leader Bill DeWeese.

Six Republicans broke ranks with their leadership, ending Perzel's iron grip on power. They are Reps. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Center), Jim Cox (R-Berks), Brad Roae (R-Crawford), Sam Rohrer (R-Berks), Curt Schroder (R-Chester) and David Steil (R-Bucks).

They outnumbered the three Democrats -- Reps. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks), Angel Cruz (D-Phila.) and Rosita Youngblood (D-Phila.) -- who voted for Perzel.

The fallout from Tuesday's explosive leadership vote will take days, maybe weeks, to settle. It could signal a fresh start for the beleaguered Legislature, which has been under siege since July 7, 2005, when lawmakers voted themselves pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent in a middle-of-the-night vote that led to a political backlash that cost 55 legislators and a Supreme Court justice their jobs.

Perzel was blamed for orchestrating the pay raise and losing Republican control of the House. Before the Nov. 7 election, the GOP enjoyed a 109-seat majority in the chamber. Democrats now control the House by a 102-101 margin, but DeWeese was unable to hold the Democratic caucus together.

The House welcomed 50 new legislators Tuesday and many of them ran on a platform to clean up Harrisburg. The rejection of Perzel and DeWeese could signal the end of the "business-as-usual" mentality promoted by these career politicians.

Perzel and DeWeese brought all sorts of baggage to the leadership vote. Perzel's arrogance and habit of saying stupid things cost him support in his own party. DeWeese demoted 15 Democratic committee chairmen in 2005 after they refused to back the pay raise.

O'Brien, who has served in Harrisburg for 30 years, has kept a low profile and apparently was a compromise candidate both parties could support. After realizing he did not have the votes to win the Speaker post, DeWeese himself nominated O'Brien for Speaker. DeWeese hailed O'Brien as "a fine-hearted idealistic Republican" who is well-suited to lead "a clean slate" in House leadership, which Republicans have controlled for 12 years, according to The Associated Press.

Unlike Perzel and DeWeese, who have blocked reform for much of the past decade, O'Brien immediately promised to preside over a more open House.

"You have my pledge. I will move reform issues forward and I will try to be as fair as I possibly can," O'Brien was quoted by The Associated Press.

What a difference a year makes. The smackdown of Perzel and DeWeese follows on the heels of last year's ouster by the voters of the Senate's top two GOP leaders. The only politician who helped orchestrate the payjacking who survived the voters' wrath was Gov. Ed 'Teflon' Rendell, who will be sworn in to a second term on Jan. 16.

More discussion on the radio

I'll be the guest Saturday at 9:05 a.m. on the Lowman Henry Show on WHYL AM 960 in Carlisle. The surprising developments in the Pennsylvania Legislature will be a topic of discussion.

The program can also be heard over your computer at

You can also listen to the broadcast next week by going to