Political Hay

Political Meltdown in Pennsylvania

A judge learns first hand what happens when voters play judge and jury.

By 11.14.05

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PITTSBURGH -- "Politicians should be changed regularly, like diapers, and for the same reason," said Richard Davies, a Welsh Biblical scholar, five centuries ago. On election day in Pennsylvania this year, more of us than ever before agreed with Davies.

On the morning after the election, the front pages of the newspapers told the results of an unprecedented wave of voter anger: "It is the first time in more than 200 years of Pennsylvania history that an incumbent judge has lost his bid for re-election to the bench."

The defeated judge, state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro, said the electorate that turned him out was "blinded by rage." The "rage," hardly blind, was initiated four months earlier in a post-midnight, no-debate, no-public-input vote in Pennsylvania's General Assembly that awarded pay hikes of 16 percent to 54 percent to the state's legislators, the governor's Cabinet, and more than 1,000 judges across the state (and that was on top of a 5.2 percent cost-of-living raise the legislators received in January, a pay increase that was nearly double the rate of inflation).

The raises made the Legislature in Pennsylvania the most expensive in the country and the state's judges the nation's most highly compensated. In terms of just the number of politicians we're paying for in Pennsylvania, for instance, the state Legislature is nearly double the size of Ohio's state Legislature, with a total of 253 state Senators and House members in Pennsylvania compared to a total of 132 in Ohio.

With a population in Pennsylvania that's only 10 percent larger than Ohio's, it turns out that Pennsylvania's legislators in Harrisburg are representing, on average, far fewer citizens than Ohio's legislators --- nearly 40,000 fewer constituents per legislator than is the case in Ohio.

Additionally, Pennsylvania's taxpayers are paying a base salary to their state legislators that's approximately $40,000 higher, on average, than what state legislators are receiving in Ohio.

For Pennsylvania's legislators, in short, it's a gravy train of less work and more money -- 40,000 fewer constituents and $40,000 more in base pay. And it's a job, at least until this year, where those of us who are picking up the tab weren't paying much attention to how much work was getting done or how much money was being pocketed.

The definition of politics by Robin Williams applies especially to Pennsylvania: "Politics: 'Poli,' a Latin word meaning 'many'; and 'tics,' meaning 'bloodsucking creatures.'" In other words, too many leeches in our wallets.

WHAT GOT THE PUBLIC'S attention this year is that the leeches got too greedy. The pay hike that the politicians voted to themselves set off an unprecedented explosion of protest that's now blown a hole in the political climate of the state.

Explained Tony Phyrillas, an editor and columnist at the Mercury newspaper in Pottstown, outside Philadelphia: "The Legislature made sure everybody enjoys the spoils of the July 7 raid on the public treasury, including Gov. Ed Rendell and state judges, who are now the highest paid in the country. Ralph Cappy, Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, saw his salary rise from $152,448 to $176,800. This is the same Ralph Cappy who billed taxpayers $36,894 in expenses over the past year. Does he buy a new robe every day?"

Cappy said the pay-jackers showed "enormous and significant courage" in voting to inflate their own paychecks, and his. Rendell said the legislators had "a reasonable right to expect periodic raises, which they deserve" -- raises of up to 54 percent, paid for by people who are lucky to get raises of 2 percent.

Republican State House Speaker John Perzel defended the money grab by explaining that Pennsylvania's legislators aren't doing much better than the guys who milk cows for a living. "The people who are milking the cows in Lancaster county are making between $50,000 and $55,000 a year," explained Perzel. "They are immigrant workers."

In response, Larry Breech, president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he knows farmers who "work their tails to the bone" and are losing their houses. Few farmers in Pennsylvania, he said, let alone their workers, earn $55,000.

Pedro Martinez Cruz milks cows for a living. The Inquirer reported that Cruz, 43, "works 60 hours a week, takes home about $8 an hour, and sends every dime he can spare back to his wife in Chiapas, Mexico."

In contrast, Mr. Perzel, following the July 7th pay grab, was milking the state's taxpayers to the tune of $145,553, plus the free car, money for a bloated staff, free gas, a no-receipt expense account, free prescriptions, a large stack of "walking around money" to hand out in his district, an overly generous pension, free parking, an extra $128 per day for no-receipt expenses for every day the Legislature is in session, and free health insurance, free dental and vision coverage, and a free policy for long-term nursing home care.

All in all, the politicians tried to take the public to the cleaners and now they've set off a backlash that has them all shaking in their boots.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.