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

Saturday, May 20, 2006
Posted 7:18 PM by

Federal judge may toss Pa. pay raise lawsuit

But should the federal judge, a former Pennsylvania official and prosecutor, even be hearing the unprecedented case? And will the state attorney general or the Supreme Court pursue its allegations further?

A federal judge and former Pennsylvania cabinet official may toss Common Cause's lawsuit alleging collusion between the state Supreme Court and the Legislature.A federal case pitting Common Cause against the leaders of the Commonwealth, alleging collusion between the state Supreme Court and key lawmakers, may be headed to a calamitous conclusion.

That's because a federal judge may soon chuck the good government group's novel lawsuit out of court.

After a two hour hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane said she would decide in about three weeks whether to dismiss the suit attacking how last year's legislative pay raise law was passed, according to the Associated Press.

Her announcement came three days after the court of public opinion rendered its own verdict on two of the lawsuit's defendents - state Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer and Senate Major Leader David Brightbill - by voting them out of office in Tuesday's primary.

Kane also dismissed state Treasurer Bob Casey and the Commonwealth itself as defendants in the federal case Friday.

Phone messages I left this morning for Common Cause, of which I'm a member, and its attorney, P. Anthony Rossi, have yet to be returned.

"The case was always a long shot," a fellow plaintiff, Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising Pa., told me this afternoon. "There really isn't a precedent for the federal government to do what we're asking. The only thing that comes close is civil rights stuff."

The lawsuit Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Potts and others filed in October alleges federal constitutional rights were violated when the pay raise law was pushed through at 2 a.m. on July 7 without public notice or debate.

"The case was always a long shot."

- Tim Potts
Democracy Rising Pa.
and federal lawsuit plaintiff

Legislative leaders used a similar method to legalize slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania in 2004 and the state Supreme Court later upheld it.

Although the state Constitution forbids lawmakers from giving themselves a pay raise during their two-year session, legislative leaders let their members take the raises early through "unvouchered expenses."

The raise also increased the salaries of judges throughout the state and high ranking members of Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, including state Attorney General Tom Corbett who has been asked to probe Common Cause's allegations.

The pay raise sparked a public outcry and the Legislature repealed it on Nov. 16. But some lawmakers didn't pay their unvouchered expenses back and the raise still counted toward their pensions even though it's no longer on the books.

The pay raise issue has been cited by many officials as the reason why 15 incumbent legislators, and possibly as many as 20, lost their seats in the primary election. The results were unprecedented in Pennsylvania political history.

The lawsuit also cites affidavits its claims proves justices on the state Supreme Court and Jubelirer, Brightbill, House Speaker John Perzel and other top legislators have been secretly working in collusion since 1999, exchanging favorable rulings on important legislation in exchange for higher judicial salaries.

Common Cause is seeking repayment of all unvouchered expenses, a judgment prohibiting lawmakers from enacting laws in an unconstitutional manner and a prohibition on "state justices and judges from engaging in discussions with members of the legislative or executive branches on legislation, since they may have to rule on such legislation at future times."

The group is also seeking an injunction barring the state Supreme Court from ruling on three other cases related to the pay raise law. Two are from judges seeking to have their pay hikes restored.

The third is from Gene Stilp, a taxpayer advocate and failed lieutenant governor candidate, who sued seeking to overturn the raise.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy has been cleared of wrongdoing in the pay raise by the Judicial Conduct board, but has been named as a defendant in Common Cause's federal lawsuit and in another one before the state Supreme Court brought by taxpayer advocate Gene Stilp.Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy recused himself before the justices heard oral arguments on those cases last month. Stilp also filed a complaint against Cappy for his role in the pay raise with the state Judicial Conduct Board, but it too was denied.

Despite the magnitude of the federal case - and the fact that Gov. Ed Rendell, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy and the state's top legislators are all still listed as defendants - the Associated Press did a horrible job covering the hearing and no other newspapers were there.

An AP article that ran in newspapers throughout Pennsylvania this morning, and which was widely reported on TV and radio, fails to detail what the lawyers were arguing about, why Casey and the Commonwealth were excused from the lawsuit, or on what basis Kane could dismiss the case.

Potts said most of the hearing was spent on lawyers arguing defense motions on why the case should be dismissed.

"The process that was employed was utterly unconstitutinal and we need to have a remedy somewhere," Potts said. "What I found interesting is that the defendants almost universally said that the remedy is to throw them out of office."

But Potts said Rossi argued "that's only a partial remedy. The same rules in place could let this happen again. We need a court to say the citizens of Pennsylvania have the right to participate in their own government other than at the ballot box."

After reviewing some of the court paperwork at my own expense, it's possible Kane could agree with motions to dismiss filed by multiple defendants.

"... A desire to get to the bottom of allegations in anonymous affidavits and unauthenticated e-mails does not substitute for a valid basis for federal court jurisdiction."

- Arlin M. Adams
attorney for Pa. Chief Justice Ralph Cappy

The one filed on behalf of the chief justice says, "Plaintiffs attempt to avoid dismissal of their claims against defendant Ralph J. Cappy by substituting rhetoric for analysis. In addition, plaintiffs seek to transform their complaints about state legislative procedures and allegations of state constitutional violations into due process and First Amendment violations, despite the lack of a single citation to relevant precedent supporting such an extraordinary result. The Court should reject these efforts and dismiss plaintiffs' complaint with prejudice because (1) the Court lacks jurisdiction over plaintiffs' claims, (2) plaintiffs are without standing to assert those claims in federal court, and (3) plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against defendant Cappy."

It later argues, "Plaintiffs' novel theory would make a federal case of every alleged violation of the state constitution. ... In addition to making the unsupported claim that alleged violations of the state constitution can transform into federal claims, plaintiffs appear to suggest that if they make scurrilous allegations (e.g., of "unsavory" conduct), they can avoid the jurisdictional defects in their complaint and obtain discovery. But a desire to get to the bottom of allegations in anonymous affidavits and unauthenticated e-mails does not substitute for a valid basis for federal court jurisdiction."

"It all depends how scared they are."

- Tim Potts
on the chances
Pa. Supreme Court justices
will reverse themselves
The Associated Press article also fails to mention that Judge Kane is a former secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of State (1995-1998) and an ex-state deputy attorney general (1986-1991).

Considering two deputies from Attorney General Tom Corbett's office - Daniel J. Doyle and Amanda L. Smith - defended the state in the lawsuit, Kane could have a conflict of interest and perhaps should have recused herself instead of hearing the case.

But Potts said, "I don't know if that would disqualify her. If anything that would make her understand it. I certainly didn't see her saying anything prejudicial."

Will Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett probe the allegations raised by Common Causes' federal lawsuit?Potts also said the Commonwealth's dismissal as a defendant from the federal lawsuit now frees Corbett up to investigate the suit's collusion allegations - a request he made to the state's top prosecutor in February.

"He could hire other people to look into it, or have an independent cousel," Potts said. "The question is whether he will do it."

If Corbett won't, Potts said he still holds out hope that the state Supreme Court justices might find "that their decision in the past (upholding the method by which the pay raise passed) was inappropriate."

Democracy Rising PA co-founder Tim Potts said Pennsylvania residents should have more say in how their government is run than merely voting.Asked how likely that is - even with Cappy out of the room while they deliberate - Potts said, "It all depends how scared they are.

"They saw one justice (Russell Nigro) lose his seat and another judge (Sandra Schultz Newman) almost. They could easily create a climate where no judge in the state is safe on a retention vote."


If you want to see the court papers state leaders filed in response to the lawsuit filed by Common Cause of Pennsylvania, it will cost you. To read why, click here.


Posted 7:12 PM by

Want to see federal court papers? Be prepared to pay

When is an online court record not a public record?

When it's locked away in a Web site with which you have to register, give a credit card number and then pay 8-cents per page just to look at it.

Athough federal tax dollars paid to start the national Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, that's how much the public is charged to access the information it contains.

The courts also charges lawyers fees for filing their court briefs, motions and other memoranda electronically. So the judiciary is really using public records to make a profit at both ends.

All of the paperwork is scanned into pdf (portable document format) files and placed on the Internet, where it costs the courts nothing additionally to let copies of them be downloaded.

I found all this out today when I wanted to review the court paperwork in the Common Cause of Pennsylvania's lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et. al.

Unbelievably, the Administrative Office of United States Courts has the gall to tout this advancement over 19th century record-keeping and 20th century copying charges as being inexpensive to system users.

"In 1853, the cost of a copy of a court document was set by Congress at 10 cents per page, a figure which, indexed for inflation, is now equivalent to almost $2," the AOUS says in a brochure about PACER. "To obtain a paper copy today, a person still must travel to the court and pay 50 cents per page. Technology and the work of court staff, funded by public access fees, have brought the courts closer to the citizens, allowing round-the-clock access to court information from anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost."

Excuse me?

If it cost 10 cents in 1853 to hand copy/carbon copy a page, why the heck should it cost 8 cents in 2006 to let people download one?

This in a court system that receives billions of dollars in federal funding annually and also charges lawyers to file the paperwork in the first place?

There are limits, however, to the federal courts' greed.

Users never pay more than $2.40 to download a document, regardless of its size, and no fee is owed until an account holder accrues charges of $10 or more in a calendar year. At 8-cents per page, that means you can download 125 pages before you get hit with a bill.

While that may seem like a lot, lawyers are verbose and court cases can take up millions of pages.

Meanwhile, the system doesn't allow you to just view the document before deciding if you want to download it. So, it's literally pay-per-view.

In 2003, the number of PACER's registered users exceeded 300,000, according to a report from the U.S. Supreme Court. You do the math.

Although the U.S. General Accounting Office briefly looked at the PACER system in 2003 to examine how close it was to meeting the E-government Act passed by Congress in 2002, the GAO did not study how much the system is really raking in from the public.

The crux of Common Cause's case against Pennsylvania's leaders is that they're abusing rules and trashing the state Constitution to hike their own salaries. Public tax dollars are also paying to defend the state's top leaders.

At the very least, the public should get to see the court paperwork its paying for without getting gouged yet again by the federal courts.


Common Cause of Pennsylvania could soon see its lawsuit against Pennsylvania's top officials over last year's legislative pay raise may be tossed from federal court. To read why, click here.


Friday, May 19, 2006
Posted 9:16 PM by

Another one bites the dust

Another incumbent Pennsylvania legislator has bitten the dust because of last year's legislative pay raise, raising the tally to 15. Five more lawmakers could also be toast once the recount in those races are complete.

State Rep. Patrick Fleagle, R-Franklin County, has conceded to masonry teacher Todd Rock, the Associated Press reported. Rock held a 122-vote lead with 40 military ballots and about a dozen provisional ballots uncounted.

However, official vote tallies in Monroe County and elsewhere could take at least another day.

Primary challenges involving five other incumbents remained too close to call Friday. The legislators are: Rep. Frank LaGrotta, D-Lawrence; Rep. Joseph Preston Jr., D-Allegheny; Rep. Bob Allen, R-Schuylkill; Rep. Joseph F. Markosek, D-Allegheny; and Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia.

How is it possible that even though most of Pennsylvania switched to electronic voting machines for Tuesday's primary and the recount still isn't finshed three days after the election?

To be fair, I should say that election officials statewide are pretty happy with the way the new machines performed for the most part.

All that is except for Luzerne County Election Bureau Director Leonard Piazza.

A write-in feature on the new electronic voting machines prompted some angry voters to voice their opinions using profanity, Piazza told the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.


Thursday, May 18, 2006
Posted 10:05 PM by

It's all how you spin it

Political pundits are probing the primary results looking for a deeper meaning to Pennsylvania's voter revolt, rather than simply accepting it at face value.

How bizarre is it that the party in control of the Legislature - Republicans - were the ones who seized reform as their issue, not the Democrats?

The spinmeisters are already hard at work trying to portray Tuesday's voter revolt against incumbent Pennsylvania legislators to their own benefit.

But for my money, most of the pundits are missing the obvious: Pennsylvanians - especially Republicans, who hold the majority in the state House and Senate - were simply pissed at the powers that be for working to better themselves, not the Commonwealth.

At least 14 incumbents were unseated, including three Democrats, due at least in part to sustained anger over the Legislature's repealed pay raise last year.

Twelve of the 14 incumbents ousted voted for the pay hike, as did six others in races that remain too close to call until recounts are done Friday.

Although it appears Republicans will maintain control, the upsets that befell Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer and Senate Majority Leader David J. Brightbill will leave a power vacuum.

Sen. Jake Corman, Senate Republican policy chairman Joe Scarnati and Senate GOP whip Jeffrey E. Piccola are all seen as potential successors to the top GOP positions, according to the Associated Press.

"Clearly the election was a mandate for government reform," Corman said. "If we want to stay in the majority, no matter who we put forward they've got to be about doing business differently than we have in the past."

Piccola told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The Republican Party must earn again the reputation as the party of good government. A legitimate government needs a legitimate and strong lobbying reporting law. Other crucial reforms of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches must follow."

However, the AP is also spinning a scenario where a rift between conservatives demanding reform and surviving Republican incumbents could leave Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow - a Democrat - in line to become president pro tempore.

I can't see that happening. More than that, I don't see any gains for the Democrats here, other than maybe a few backbench seats.

How bizarre is it that the party in control of the Legislature - the Republicans - were the ones who seized reform as their issue, not the Democrats?

That's traditionally a minority party's role, even more so when you consider Democrats are the ones who used to consider themselves progressive.

Then factor this in: House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese and Minority Whip Mike Veon both survived the primary. Both were heavily involved in designing the pay raise. Both voted for it. Both took the raise early in "unvouchered expenses" and both fought and voted against the repeal, with Veon the only lawmaker left dissenting in the end.

Yet, DeWeese's chief of staff, Mike Manzo, told the AP Thursday that Democratic hopes for the fall election were blostered by the loss of GOP centrists like Jubelirer and Brightbill, who often found common ground with minority leaders.

"The more they squeeze these people out, the more trouble (the Republican) party is going to be in," Manzo said. "We're thinking big. We're thinking majority."

"We're thinking big. We're thinking majority."

- Mike Manzo
Chief of staff for
H. William DeWeese

State Rep. T.J. Rooney, chairman of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania, spun it this way to the Philadelphia Inquirer: "When Republican voters oust their own at this rate, it's more than just anti-incumbency. It's a paltry record of accomplishments coupled by resentment for not getting things done when they had the power to do so."

I think Manzo and Rooney are dead wrong and made a mistake by not embracing the reform movement. They're symbolic of the problems in Harrisburg that voters hope to cure, not the solution.

I also think Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat running for a second term, is in for major problems.

Rendell, who signed the pay raise into law, defended it last month by saying, "If I didn't sign it, I might have been governor for the next five years but I would have gotten nothing done, literally, because I need the cooperation of the Legislature. I've had remarkable success in getting seven major initiatives enacted into law. ... So you have to kiss a little butt."

Republican gubernatorial challenger Lynn Swann, whose campaign previously was floundering, has already seized on the issue, saying "He offered the pay raise... . He signed it."

What's ironic is that even if Rendell wins reelection, which is still likely, he may now face a state Senate that's far less willing to work with him - partly because he approved the raises its last leaders wanted.

Meanwhile, some pundits are actually trying to apply what happened here to federal races. As evidence, they point to the fact that Swann received 22,000 more Republican votes than U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in the primary.

To me that's a whole other kettle of fish. Santorum is far more conservative than most Republicans in Pennsylvania. He also faces ethics questions concerning the mortgage on his home as well as his connections to lobbyists in Washington.

Yet, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who will challenge Santorum in November, said he thinks Pennsylvania voters were expressing dissatisfaction Tuesday with political leaders from Harrisburg to D.C.

"We've got Washington politicians saying, 'What are you worried about? Let's stay the course, stay with the president and all will be well,'" Casey said. "I think they got a message last night that said, 'No, it's not well, and we've got to take a different course.'"

But Dan Ronayne, spokesman for National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, "I think it probably means some trouble for Casey. Pennsylvanians demonstrated their anger at political opportunism. He's the person who signed the checks."

What else was the state treasurer supposed to do?

Unlike President George Bush, who has been ignoring new federal laws he disagrees with by simply filing signing statements, Casey could not refuse to sign paychecks just because he disagreed with the law that established the raise.

Instead, in a court brief filed in response to a lawsuit seeking to overturn the raise, Casey said, "...the General Assembly repeatedly violated Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution" in the way it passed the pay raise.

"Clearly the election was a mandate for government reform."

- Jake Corman
State Senator
The state Supreme Court, which allegedly worked in collusion with legislative leaders to get the raise passed because it also meant pay hikes for judges, disagreed with Casey and let it stand.

What happened Tuesday was merely the voters of Pennsylvania telling the high court and the high and mighty they were wrong.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Posted 9:59 AM by

Good, bad and ugly of Pa. primary '06

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader David 'Chip' Brightbill (left) and Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer became the first Pennsylvania legislative leaders ousted since 1964.THE GOOD: Obviously, the election day losses of Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer and Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill were good things.

Their ouster marked the first time since 1964 a state legislative leader has been thrown out by voters. It sent the clear message Tuesday that business as usual in Harrisburg will not be tolerated.

No more last-minute-before-adjournment pay raises, or anything else for that matter.

No more hiding important bills in other legislation and forcing them to a floor vote without debate late at night.

No more ignoring the state Constitution to get what legislative leaders want.

No more backroom deals with Supreme Court justices to trade high court approval for something the men in black want.

No more.

Of course, that's after Jubelirer and Brightbill vacate the Capitol in January. Until then, everybody better keep a sharp eye on those two, who could do some real damage on their way out the door.

And speaking of keeping a watchful eye, Philadelphians did almost the unthinkable by giving the city's Ethics Board, its banished-to-the-backyard watchdog, some actual teeth.

By a 4-1 margin, city voters agreed to amend the City Charter to make the board financially independent, to give authority to launch investigations, convene hearings, and issue steep fines to any elected official in Philly.

That's not saying the board might not eventually be corrupted, or at the very least, coopted by politics. It just may take a while.

THE BAD: While Republican voters in Pennsylvania largely held up their end of reform, Democrats mostly turned a blind eye Tuesday to the shennanigans of their party's legislative leaders.

Why did Democratic Party voters fail to unseat House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese (left) and Minority Whip Mike Veon?How else can you explain favorable results for House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese and Minority Whip Mike Veon, albeit by far slimmer margins against relatively unknown challengers than either veteran lawmaker is used to?

Both DeWeese and Veon were heavily involved in designing the pay raise, both voted for it, took the raise early in "unvouchered expenses" and each fought and voted against the repeal.

DeWeese later chickened out on the second vote, leaving Veon hanging in the wind.

Veon, who champions gambling expansion to include table games and riverboat gambling, has also set up his own non-profit company which accepts state grant money.

Republicans did make one mistake, though.

Sixty-one incumbents in the 253-member legislature faced primary challenges Tuesday, the most since 1980. Unfortunately, one of them was not House Speaker John Perzel, who skated unchallenged.

Perzel made the time last year to call rank-and-file House members into his office to issue not-so-veiled threats about cutting off state grants to their areas in order to coerce the lawmakers to vote for the pay raise, State Rep. Matthew Good told the Erie Times-News last week.

Recalling his first and only private meeting with Perzel, Good said, "It wasn't necessarily a threat, in a sense, but, definitely, 'Hey, we're going to help those who made this vote a little bit more than the others. Grants and certain things you've got for sewer projects and water lines, you're going to have to think about if your constituents want to live without those things.'"

Yet two weeks ago, when a floor vote on tax reform was about to be called in the House, Perzel was in Florida collecting thousands of dollars from his part-time job as a board member of a prison management firm.

He also has barred any attempts at lobbyist reform, insisting he can do it better. Instead, Perzel's unnamed "research staff" is now writing a weak lobbyist disclosure bill behind closed doors.

House Speaker John Perzel went unchallenged in the primary but spent $200,000 anyway, largely to play kingmaker in other races.Freed of the need to campaign, Perzel still spent nearly $200,000 this election cycle - $85,000 went to the House Republican Campaign Committee, $9,036 went to pay for his annual speakers ball on Jan. 4 (from which he raised $5,250 in cash gifts) and the rest as contributions to other candidates. His campaign committee still has more than $240,000.

Here's hoping that despite their large cash advantages and the power of inscumbency, all three get sent packing in the November general election.

THE UGLY: We have seen the future of tax reform in the state and it is this: When given a choice on whether to raise their own property taxes to support their school district's budget, Pennsylvanians will likely vote against it - overwhelmingly.

Voters in the Bristol Township School District became the first in the state to reject a portion of a property tax increase by referendum.That's what folks in the Bristol Township School District did, turning down a small portion - the only part they had a say in - of a much larger tax increase the district proposed, by a 7-1 margin.

Only 111 of the 501 school districts in the state opted in to Act 72, the Homeowner Tax Relief Act. It was the last failed attempt at statewide tax reform in 2004 which passed at the same time as slot machines were legalized.

And of those 111 districts, Bristol's was the only school district to press its luck with an angry electorate by hiking taxes beyond the maximum allowed by law, forcing a referendum.

Taxes will still rise by about $152 for someone owning a home assessed at $16,000, the district's average, to about $2,712. But they won't jump by the $200 that the school district was asking for.

The whole thing was so complex that state officials had to crunch the numbers before they could be printed on the ballot.

Philly will likely join other large cities by installing surveillance cameras all over the pass after a nonbinding resolution passed overwhelmingly Tuesday.Finally, Philadelphia, the cradle of our nation's liberty, overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding referendum 4-1 in favor of installing video surveillance cameras throughout the city.

Oh well, at least it might give the ethics board some videotape to look at.

I hope the city eventually recoops its investment in the cameras and its lawyers fees for fighting the ACLU by selling a best of Philly bloopers tape of its residents.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Posted 10:59 PM by

Pa. primary voters send a message

"The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."
- From Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)
Of course, we all know what happened to Casear in the end. Now, for some would-be Caesars who also deserved their comeuppance.

Despite a light turnout, reformers and vengeance-minded voters in Pennsylvania can claim victory in Tuesday's primary election after Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill conceded his race to Mike Folmer shortly before 10 p.m.

Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer, whom some call the architect of last year's legislative pay raise, appeared to be defeated last night by former Blair County commissioner John Eichelberger.And with three-quarters of the vote counted in Blair County, Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer appeared to be on his way to defeat too, trailing former county commmissioner John Eichelberger, 7,023-4,877.

Jubelirer, who some call the architect of last year's legislative pay raise, was also partly responsible for its repeal in November.

All of this comes after veteran state senator Vince Fumo predicted no incumbent legislators would lose reelection in the wake of taxpayer outrage over the pay raise.

"I think it's one thing to say you're mad at your current legislator or senator over the pay raise," Fumo told the Pennsylvania Press Club last month. "But when you get into the heat of the campaign and people are going to be reminded of everything else they've done for that district in the past ... I think in the end, [the incumbents] are going to be successful."

Brightbill ran a negative primary campaign against Folmer, a relative political newcomer and produce store owner, at one point dredging in Folmer's former paramour from while he was separated from his wife.

The six-term incumbent had reason to be running scared.

Brightbill not only supported last year's pay raise, he took it early in the form of "unvouchered expenses." After it was repealed in November, he opted to pay it back.

In the wake of outrage over the raise, though, Brightbill's name became infamous around the state for taking $18,000 worth of per-diems. The $141 per day allowance is designed to help lawmakers who travel to Harrisburg from more than 50 miles away. But Brightbill only lives 26.2 miles away from his Senate office.

Brightbill also made news for returning $20,000 in campaign contributions from companies owned by slots parlor hopeful Louis DeNaples, in part because they arrived after the slots law was passed in 2004 and were therefore illegal.

The law barred political contributions from slots parlor interests, but did not bar lobbying by them or contributions laundered through other organizations.

Although Brightbill opposed the slots bill, he reportedly accepted more than $52,000 from lobbyists and individuals with ties to gambling interests before it was passed.

Senate Majority Leader David 'Chip' Brightbill was the first of at least two legislative leaders to be ousted from office Tuesday by angry voters.Jubelirer, another slots parlor opponent, also accepted $20,000 from companies owned by DeNaples, a Dunmore banker and owner of a landfill and auto parts store.

DeNaples, who is also a felon, gave more than $1 million to the state's top politicians since 2000 in hopes of receiving one of two standalone slots parlor licenses for Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos.


After the November general election, new legislators will have their hands filled fixing problems leftover from this session and many others. Among them:


Labels: , , , ,


Monday, May 15, 2006
Posted 11:04 PM by

Pa. victors get plenty of spoils - at taxpayer expense

TODAY'S ISSUE: THE PERKS & BENEFITS Besides the ability to vote yourself a pay raise when the public's back is turned, being a Pennsylvania legislator carries with it a lot of extra perks beyond the standard $72,187 salary.

RANTER'S NOTE: 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.

This is what $1 million looks like. Multiply it 500 times and you now know how much the 253 lawmakers in Pennsylvania spend annually - on themselves.When you go to the polls Tuesday ask yourself the same question the Towanda Daily & Sunday Review posed in an April 25 editorial, "At an annual cost of nearly a half-billion dollars, is Pennsylvania getting the top-notch Legislature it's paying for?"

That's not the cost of the entire state budget. That's just how much the state's 253 lawmakers are spending on themselves each year.

Perhaps Tim Potts, the founder of Harrisburg watchdog group Democracy Rising PA, said it best last month, "It's one of the first things legislators learn in freshman orientation: Maximize income, minimize expenses, leave rich."

Potts failed to add the words "and pretty young."

That's because Pennsylvania's lawmakers are completely vested in their pension program after only five years in office and are eligible to retire at age 50.

And although lawmakers repealed last year's pay raise after four months, the extra money they got in their base pay still counts to bolster the monthly checks they will receive for the rest of their lives once they leave office. There are no bills pending to prevent it.

On top of that, a legislator who leaves office after 10 years receives premium health insurance - valued at $15,000 - not just for himself, but his entire immediate family, for life at taxpayer expense.

While they're in office those benefits cost taxpayers $669 a month per legislator last year or $2 million a year. It also includes: dental benefits, $72 a month; vision, $17.30 a month; prescription drug coverage, $258.47 a month; a group life insurance policy with a death benefit of up to $50,000, $10.48 a month; and long-term care in a nursing home or assisted living facility, $70.17 a month.

Of course, those first 10 years would be a bit expensive, that is, if Pennsylvania legislators didn't also receive up to $650 a month for a car lease - up to $7,200 annually per member in the House and $7,800 in the Senate.

Lawmakers say they need reliable transportation to get to and from meetings at the Capitol, where they get free parking, and to conduct legislative business in their districts. But California is the only other state to pay for its legislators' cars.

In Pennsylvania, if a lawmaker just shows up at the Capitol he or she is instantly $141 richer. That's the "per diem" or daily allowance most lawmakers get - providing them $96 to cover lodging and $45 for meals, no matter if they drive home at night and brown bag it. It costs taxpayers $2.7 million a year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last month.

The House of Representatives has a rule that only members who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol can collect a $141 per diem. Those who live within 50-miles still get $47 a day.

The state Senate sets no minimum distance to collect the $141 per diem. As a result, Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill, who sets the rules for the Senate, has collected about $18,000 in per diems over the last two year session even though he lives just 26.2 miles away from his office.

Lieutenant governor candidate Gene Stilp knows the distance to a footfall, having walked it on April 12 to protest Brightbill's per diems. "He does not stay in hotels in Harrisburg, he merely pockets the money," Stilp said.

Brightbill defended his per diem, saying, "I owe it to my family to take legitimate compensation that is offered."

And Brightbill isn't even a per-diem leader. State Rep. Gaynor Cawley, D-Lackawanna County, holds the top spot. He collected $53,030 over the last two years. For a complete list of the per-diem top 10, click here.

State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, ranks third on that per-diem list. He also happens to be a bibliophile. He charged $28,200 worth of books to taxpayers over the last two years - more than what the Philadelphia School District spent to stock library shelves at ]two high schools and two middle schools in his legislative district.

For those who like the nightlife, there's always free tickets from lobbyists to shows, sporting events, museums, ski passes - even the Super Bowl.

And if a Pennsylvania legislator doesn't mind ignoring those pesky, whining and demanding constituents, there's always time to take a second job considering the Legislature averaged only 77 days in session per year over the past five years.

There's also one other perk that nobody really talks about - the ability to play kingmaker with all those leftover campaign contributions once any state politican leaves office.

Former Lt. Gov. William Scranton III, who ran unsuccesfully for the Republican nomination for governor this year, did it last week when he reportedly donated $50,000 - from the $517,675.36 he still has left in his campaign committee - to former Blair County Commissioner John Eichelberger, who is opposing Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer in the Republican primary there.

If the report is true - there have been no campaign expense reports filed since May 1 - Scranton would be the biggest contributor by far to Eichelberger's campaign.

Jubelirer championed last year's pay raise, but his change of heart eventual led to its repeal.


It's hard to wrap your mind around the annual cost of Pennsylvania's Legislature at $500 million. To read about a few things with which you can compare it, click here.



Posted 10:32 PM by

What else would $500 million buy?

It's hard to wrap your mind around the annual cost of Pennsylvania's Legislature at $500 million, so here are few things to compare it to in order to keep perspective:

Pennsylvania could almost afford to build one Lincoln Financial Center a year if it didn't pay its Legislature.Heinz Field, where the Super Bowl champion Steelers play, cost $281 million to build.

Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies play, cost $346 million to build.

Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play, cost $512 million to build.

Nike revenues from every Air Jordan sneaker made in a single year.

The price Merck paid to buy research companies GlycoFi and Abmaxis last week.

Kuwait's donation to Hurricane Katrina efforts.

Howard Stern's contract with Sirius Satellite Radio.

The contribution of New York and New Jersey for a World Trade Center memorial.

Habitat for Humanity's fundraising goal for building 100,000 new homes over five years.

The U.S. contribution to fight global warming.

Congress contributed $500 million to all 50 states to help pay for electronic voting machines, which most Pennsylvanians will be using for the first time on Tuesday.The United Nation's entire disaster relief fund.

Atlantic City casinos' rake and winnings from last August - the entire month.

Congress' total contribution in all 50 states for the new electronic voting machines Pennsylvanians will be using for the first time Tuesday.



Sunday, May 14, 2006
Posted 11:04 PM by

Taxed reform, patience and credibility in Pa.

TODAY'S ISSUE: TAX REFORM The Legislature failed, yet again, to fundamentally change how Pennsylvania pays for its schools in its fourth attempt at property tax reform in nearly 20 years. There's slots to be angry about.

RANTER'S NOTE: 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.

Pennsylvania's method of taxing property to pay the bulk of school districts costs is arguably the worst in the nation and has been getting worse for decades, according to G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University.

"No issue quite intimidates politicians, as does the subject of tax reform. They fear it and the wrath of voters should reform be perceived as a tax increase," Madonna wrote in an opinion piece five years ago that's still posted on his Web site at the college.

It's as true today as when he first wrote it.

The state is supposed to pay half of all school district costs. The 501 districts are supposed to pick up the other half with local property taxes, and to a lesser extent, various income taxes.

But as education costs have risen, the state's share of paying them has dropped every year. It's now down to about 36 percent, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in January. Only Connecticut and Nebraska contribute a smaller share.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania annually ranks among the highest states in education costs in the nation as new contracts to pay unionized teachers - which account for as much as 60 percent of a school district's annual costs - continually push their average pay higher. The National Education Association now reports Pennsylvania's average teacher salary to be $53,258, while the national average is $47,808.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that does not either restrict its school boards ability to tax or spend, or leave it up to local voters to decide.

"The inevitable result: local property taxes have been going up steadily, and in some cases, sharply, year after year as local school districts are forced to cover more and more education costs," Madonna wrote in 2002. "Politically, state officials are winners by 'exporting' the problem to local government, but policy wise education funding is a mess. It's a classic example of good politics making bad policy.

"... Pennsylvania's population is aging at the same time education costs are rising. The increasing share of education costs are being borne by the property tax at the exact time that aging local tax payers on fixed incomes are less able to pay."

In Pennsylvania, county commissioners set the assessment rates on property while schools have no limit on how their tax rates, known as millage, are applied to those assessments. A mill is a tax of $1 for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value. For example, a homeowner whose house is assessed at $100,000 and taxed at 30 mills would pay $3,000 in property taxes annually.

Despite complaints from taxpayers, many county boards have put off expensive reassessments of the property within their borders for decades - even though over time it produced unfairness in the way newer properties are taxed - in the hope that statewide reform would one day become law and shift the burden away from property taxes entirely.

In 1987, then Gov. Bob Casey tried to do just that.

Casey proposed an amendment to the state Constitution shifting the local tax base from property owners to wage earners. His bill swiftly passed in the Legislature. But the state's Constitution requires that any change in the method of taxing residents must first be approved by voters before it can become law.

The popular governor championed the change, but even he could not prevent the referendum from being shot down in flames - by a four-to-one margin.

"Since then our state political leaders have seemed timid if not downright skittish about the issue," Madonna wrote.

Ten years went by before lawmakers tried again.

In 1997, the Legislature passed Act 50, known as the Homestead Exemption Act. It permitted increases in the earned income tax in exchange for reductions in nuisance taxes and property taxes.

But a year later, only three districts opted to enact it, because the law required districts to get voter approval in a referendum if they wanted to raise taxes in future years.

The issue was shelved again until 2004, when the Legislature passed a bill, S.B. 292 later known as Act 71, legalizing 61,000 slot machines in 14 parlors across the state in exchange for an estimated $1 billion a year in new tax revenue.

The measure was not put to a statewide referendum. Instead, legislative leaders, who took millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying gifts for years from gambling interests, hid the bill from public view.

They merely slid its 145-pages into an unrelated two-paragraph bill before they brought it to the floors of both the House and Senate for votes without any public comment late at night before adjourning for the July 4 holiday weekend.

Anti-casino groups sued, seeking to overturn it. Although the slots bill's passage appeared to violate the normal Constitutionally-required process, the state Supreme Court upheld it.

Common Cause, a bipartisan group advocating good government, is now suing legislative leaders alleging they and Supreme Court justices have been acting in collusion in exchange for a pay raise for all judges in the state. The raise was passed last year along with pay hikes for the legislators and executive branch employees. But voter outrage forced the Legislature to repeal all of the raises four months later.

At the same time the slots bill was passed, the Legislature introduced and voted on Act 72, the Homeowner Tax Relief Act. School districts that "opted in" under the act would get a share of the state's $1 billion from slot machines, if they enacted a 0.1 percent Earned Income Tax (EIT), which in turn would pay for local property tax relief. Each district's share of the slots money would then be used to further reduce property taxes.

The measure promised to curtail property taxes, not eliminate them. But under it, the average property tax bill statewide would be reduced "by an average of $330" a year, Gov. Ed Rendell predicted at the time.

However, to get the slots money, the districts also had to promise that if they needed to raise taxes more than the rate of inflation in future years, the final decision would be put to each district's voters in a referendum.

Fearing their future taxing power would be sapped, only 111 of the 501 school districts in the state opted to take the slots money and put their future budgets potentially at the whim of voters.

Act 72 "is a mess," Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Altoona, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last year. "There's no other way to put it."

The trouble is, property-tax relief was the main justification for legalizing the slot machines, which are expected to begin generating revenue next year. So lawmakers tried tax reform again two weeks ago with H.B. 39.

That bill is similar to Act 72, only this time the school districts are not given any way of opting out.

Each school district would get a share of the slots largesse, but with a catch - they are required to put a referendum on the May 2007 primary ballot asking local voters if they want to switch up to 25 percent of their school district's property tax revenue to either an earned income and net profits tax or a personal income tax.

If voters approve, the district would then be limited in how much it could raise the new income tax based on the increase in statewide wages as calculated by the state and federal labor departments.

By law, the new tax could only climb as fast as taxpayers might be able to pay it.

However, under H.B. 39, the districts would be getting less of the slots money the state receives with which to reduce their millage rates.

Pennsylvania school districts would get less slots money under the proposal the House tabled two weeks ago then they would under a measure that was passed two years ago and rejected by most of the districts.Under a proposal championed by Rendell, about 25 percent of the slots revenue would go to a special property tax rebate program just for seniors who make less than $35,000 a year.

That meant the property tax break for the average homeowner was reduced to about $200 a year. Meanwhile, renting wage earners would be paying a lot more.

On May 2, the measure passed the Senate, 40-9. But House Republicans refused to bring it to a floor vote a day later.

"We can do better than this bill," House GOP leader Sam Smith said after adjourning the session for a month.



This Week's Rants | The Daily Rant Archives

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.