"What's black and white and read all over?"

Thursday, May 11, 2006
Posted 10:58 PM by

Legislative pay raise pissed off Pa.

Tuesday is election day in Pennsylvania. To better prepare you for pushing the electronic buttons in a new-fangled voting booth, I've decided to look at an issue each day that you might want to factor into your decisions.

Last year's now repealed legislative pay raise in Pennsylvania is still the subject of voter anger, a federal and two state lawsuits and consternation for incumbent legislators.TODAY'S ISSUE: THE PAY RAISE. Some say it may be the major issue driving voters to the polls this year and could even effect Gov. Ed Rendell's bid for reelection.

Without any public debate, Pennsylvania legislators passed House Bill 1521 in the early morning hours of July 7, 2005. That bill raised their pay by at least 16 percent from $69,647 to a base salary of $81,050 - more than any other state except California. Here's a complete list of who voted for it.

Under the bill, committee chairmen were to receive a 29 percent boost to $89,155, while the top two leaders would make $145,553. The measure also increased pay to all state judges from 11 percent to 15 percent and hiked the salaries of all of the state's top executive branch officials, including the governor, lieutenant governant and cabinet secretaries.

Rendell signed the bill into law the next day, saying, "This legislation, particularly the concept of linking state salaries to a percentage of those paid equivalent federal officials, emanated from an idea put forth by our fine Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy. It was a very good suggestion."

Anticipating some voter opposition, many lawmakers said they deserved the raise, claiming it was their first since 1996. However, they actually received cost-of-living increases that pushed their salaries from $55,800 in 1996 to $72,187 this year.

It took four months of voter outrage and the historical ouster of state Supreme Court justice Russell Nigro, but the Pennsylvania Legislature repealed the pay raise on Nov. 16.

All but one lawmaker, state Rep. Michael Veon, D-Beaver County, voted for the repeal.

Yet, despite a state Constitutional provision prohibiting it, legislative leaders let lawmakers take the pay raise in advance in the form of "unvouchered expenses" and never required them to pay the money back after the repeal.

At least 14 state senators and 99 representatives took the money. House Speaker John Perzel refused to name them. Months passed. Some paid the money back. Some did not.

No one ever got a complete list of who didn't return the cash, but Pa. Clean Sweep, one of many grassroots political groups to form in opposition to the pay raise, managed to piece together a list it calls the "The Hall of Shame."

Perzel and Veon are still on it, as are House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, who initially voted against the repeal then caved in on the second vote, and House Majority Leader Sam Smith.

Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer is not. Although he originally championed the pay raise, his change of heart about the unvouchered expenses led, at least in part, to the full repeal. He paid his money back and wrote a written apology to his constituents. Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill is also listed as paying the money back.

The pay raise has been the subject of two lawsuits. One filed by taxpayer and lieutenant gubenatorial candidate Gene Stilp went to the state Supreme Court and was denied.

That didn't end the controversy, however.

The other lawsuit, filed by good government group Common Cause, was filed in federal court after two state judges filed their own lawsuits and demanded their raises be restored. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear their cases even though Common Cause is seeking an injuction, claiming a conflict of interest and alleging Cappy traded the justices' approval on other matters pending before the Legislature in exchange for the pay raise.

Meanwhile, incumbent lawmakers now find themselves facing primary opponents, some for the first time in decades.

One of them is state Rep. Kenneth Ruffing, D-Allegheny County, whose name still appears on PACleanSweep's Hall of Shame list.

Ruffin told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week that he did not return his $4,000 in illegal extra pay back to the state. Instead, the four-term representative from West Mifflin, who faces two challengers in Tuesday's primary, claimed he donated the money to an autism charity.

Ruffing said he made the donation because one of his sons is autistic. He promised to provide documentation on the donation after the primary, but declined to say why he couldn't do so before other than to say, "They want to remain anonymous."

State Rep. Ken Ruffing claims he turned over the $4,000 in extra pay he received in unvouchered expenses last year to an autism group, which he refuses to name or provide documentation.Tim Potts, co-founder of grassroots political group Democracy Rising PA, said Ruffing's claim defies belief. "It's nuts to say, 'Here's my defense. I can't prove it.' "

C.L. "Jay" Jabbour, a former Allegheny County and West Mifflin councilman who opposes Ruffing in the primary, said, "No one from the Autism Society, or other autism-related charities and organizations we contacted, ever heard of Ken Ruffing."

Labels: , ,

 |  0 comments  |  |  RSS Feed | Add to Technorati Favorites

This Week's Rants | The Daily Rant Archives

Creative Commons License
The Daily Rant by Dave Ralis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.