Editorial writers and columnists have called it a mugging of state taxpayers, the Great Harrisburg Caper of 2005, an act of legislative thievery. “Greed gone wild,” snarled one angry voter.
Public outrage over a hefty pay raise Pennsylvania lawmakers voted themselves a month ago — in the dead of night — has nagged them throughout their summer vacation and shows no signs of going away.
Not only did legislators increase their salaries 16 percent to 34 percent to at least $81,050 — more than any state except California — they crafted the package in secret without debate or public scrutiny, then left town.
Even more galling to Pennsylvanians, lawmakers found a way around a constitutional provision barring them from collecting any salary increase during the term in which it is approved. The pay raise bill — based on the authority of a court ruling nearly two decades old — lets lawmakers start collecting the raises 16 months early.
“I’ve never seen this kind of anger,” said Sen. Patricia Vance, a Republican who received critical e-mails even though she voted against the bill and declined to collect her raise. “I’ve (been called) a lot of names.”
Ranting and rallies
Newspapers across Pennsylvania continue to publish angry editorials and letters from readers. A radio talk-show host is circulating a petition calling for the repeal of the raises, which also apply to judges and certain top executive-branch officials, and is organizing a protest rally for when lawmakers reconvene in late September. Two Web sites have sprung up, urging voters to overhaul the Legislature or toss out the incumbents.
“Pennsylvania legislative leaders and every legislator who voted for a 16 percent pay raise should hang their heads in shame,” William G. Williams wrote in a letter to The Patriot-News of Harrisburg. “It was a scandalous example of greed gone wild.”
“I’m .!.$..! livid,” wrote another.
All the pressure is having some effect: As of Tuesday, nine lawmakers had declared changes of heart and said they wouldn’t accept the increase this term. But nearly 150 of the state’s 252 sitting lawmakers are sticking to their decision to immediately pocket the raise of at least $950 a month.
Key question: When will it blow over?
Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who signed the bill into law, has received nearly 1,000 letters, e-mails and phone calls criticizing the decision. After having previously said only that the special payments were legal, on Tuesday he said legislators who turned them down “did the right thing.”
Politically, the big question is: Will the whole thing have blown over by next year’s general election?
“The hope is do it, get it done ... have people forget about it,” said Don Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.
Unlike 24 other states, Pennsylvania does not allow voters to try to override the Legislature by petitioning for a statewide ballot.
“It’s a cabal over there,” said Bob Durgin at WHP-Radio in Harrisburg, who has gathered more than 12,000 petition signatures and is organizing an anti-raise rally to greet lawmakers when they return from vacation. “It’s just a secret little society that does business behind closed doors.”
Media accused of overplaying story
House Speaker John Perzel, a Republican, defended the Legislature’s handling of the raises and accused the news media of overplaying the story.
“It’s been a slow news month,” Perzel said.
He and other supporters of the law say legislators were underpaid and that the raise merely brings their salaries in line with other top officials in the state.
The law links the present and future salaries of top officials in state government to similar posts in the federal government. Legislators’ $81,050 base salary is 50 percent of a U.S. representative’s salary. State Supreme Court justices get the same $171,800 as a U.S. circuit judge.
The raises also mean fatter pensions for lawmakers — at least $10,000 more per year for those retiring in 2008 — on top of already generous benefits, including as much as $7,800 a year in vehicle expenses and more than $125 a day for lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from the capital.
Adding insult to injury
Since the 2 a.m. vote on July 7, a number of developments have further agitated voters.
In a show of party discipline, the Democratic leader in the Republican-controlled House ousted from committee posts more than a dozen Democrats who voted against the bill. In their place, he put only those who voted for it, entitling them to extra leadership pay.
Pennsylvania’s chief justice, Ralph J. Cappy, dismissed as “knee-jerk” the negative reaction to the pay-raise plan, which he helped draw up. Taken to task over his remarks by the Philadelphia Daily News, Cappy allowed that he “probably used inappropriate words.”
A lawsuit has been filed in state court challenging the legality of paying the raises early as unvouchered expenses, though no hearing date has been set. A ruling against the unvouchered expenses would nullify the entire law, including the raises.