Pay Raise Remembered

It was seven years ago on July 7 at 2 a.m. that the Pennsylvania Legislature without debate voted itself pay raises ranging from 16% to 34% and, unwittingly, set off a chain reaction that would alter the state's political landscape.

But how much really has changed?

The immediate impact of the vote, which included a provision allowing lawmakers to take the money at once despite a prohibition in the state Constitution against doing so, was an awakening of public awareness of how the legislature operates.

It led to outrcy from grassroots groups such as Democracy Rising, Rock The Capital and PACleanSweep and much more media scrutiny.

Largely because of these groups, two top Senate Republican leaders, Bob Jubelirer and Chip Brightbill, were defeated in the 2006 GOP primary, and a House Democratic leader, Mike Veon, was defeated in the 2006 General Election.

The raise focused far more public and press attention on the Legislature than ever before and kicked off a period of investigations that led to indictments and convictions of dozens of lawmakers and staffers, including Veon and other leaders such as Vince Fumo, Bill DeWeese, John Perzel, Jane Orie and Brett Feeze.

So there's been change.

Since 2005, more than half the Legislature is new and 100% of the leadership at that time is either gone or in different legislative positions, according to a Temple sudy.

But some things haven't changed.

Rules that the Legislature put in place to prevent further late-night abuse are only rules and not laws and so are routinely violated or, as they say, "suspended" whenever they feel the need, as they did recently in order to pass the new state budget "on time."

And the online news service PA Independent reports that part of that new budget, which ends general assistance to tens of thousands of poor people, includes increases for House and Senate members' health-care coverage and still promises them annual cost-of-living salary increases in December.

(I'm always amused by lawmakers who rail against cuts in social services for the needy but never offer cuts in their own excessive benefits, perks and pay.)

The `05 debacle was a kick-starter towards needed housecleaning and at least some reforms. It shouldn't be forgotten. And it should serve as a reminder that more should be done.