Brennan: Little reason for special election 6 weeks before primary

The Republicans who control the state House so often seem to hate spending taxes on just about anything.

So why did they authorize spending some $350,000 to hold special elections in Philadelphia on Tuesday for two vacant state House seats just six weeks before a primary election?

I wanted to ask House Speaker Mike Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican who rarely misses a chance to cast himself as a fiscal conservative, that question, but he declined to be interviewed.

Maybe he has a soft spot for special elections. He won his House seat that way in 2001.

Turzai's spokesman, Jay Ostrich, said the speaker thinks "all voters are entitled to representation sooner rather than later."

Let's consider the calendar and then the math.

On Dec. 23, Turzai called for a special election in the 192nd District, one week after State Rep. Louise Bishop, a Democrat, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge in a public corruption case.

Then Turzai added another special election, in the 200th District, on Jan. 5, one day after State Rep. Cherelle Parker, a Democrat, was sworn in on City Council.

That same day, he also called for a special election in the 57th District in Westmoreland County after a state representative there, a Republican, resigned to become a judge.

In Philly, the 192nd and 200th seats have now been vacant for 12 weeks and 10 weeks, respectively, but Turzai thinks they can't be left that way for six more weeks? The 57th District in Westmoreland County also has been vacant for 10 weeks.

Democrats hold overwhelming voter registration edges in the two Philadelphia districts: 89 percent in the 192nd and 88 percent in the 200th.

Westmoreland County is more competitive, with 47 percent of the voters registered as Democrats and 41 percent as Republicans.

There's a fiscally conservative argument to be made for holding the special elections in conjunction with the April 26 primary election.

That's what the state Senate did for the Ninth District in Delaware County when State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, a Republican, resigned to become a judge.

These will be the fourth and fifth special elections in Philadelphia in seven months. Turzai ordered elections for last Aug. 11 for three vacant state House seats.

The City Commissioners, who oversee elections in Philadelphia, put up the money to hold special elections and then are reimbursed by the state.

The city has asked the state to reimburse $520,729 for the Aug. 11 elections - $173,576 each.

That included $234,991 for advertising, $184,235 for personnel, $36,962 in printing, and $34,329 in rental costs.

Based on those costs, we can estimate that Tuesday will cost about $347,152.

The city and state now are trying to hash out budgets with more things to pay for than tax dollars to spend. What could $347,152 buy instead of special elections?

Ostrich, Turzai's spokesman, rejects the notion that the expense of special elections runs counter to Turzai's claim to fiscal conservatism.

"Speaker Turzai leads from the front in fiscal responsibility, but with very important votes coming on issues like the budget and taxation, we will not disenfranchise 60,000 people from each district by leaving them without a voice and a vote," he said.

Disenfranchisement is an interesting defense.

Let's see how it holds up - and what we got for our $520,000 - from the Aug. 11 special elections.

Voter turnout in the 170th that day was just 10.7 percent - pathetic by regular standards, but the best of the day. Turnout in the 195th District was 6.4 percent. The 191st District hit just 5.5 percent.

Special elections, held on unusual days in only part of the city, don't tend to draw much attention.

Here's what should get more attention: a fiscal conservative blowing $350,000 in tax dollars.

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973@ByChrisBrennan