The Buck Stopped Here

If you want to save money, don't ask Pennsylvania politicians to help. As history shows, their greed gets the better of them.

By Richard Fellinger
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Sep. 17, 2008

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One of the newspapers I worked for was the Lebanon Daily News, which meant I covered Chip Brightbill, a Republican from sleepy Lebanon County. When I took the job five years earlier, the editor told me to be on the lookout for dairy news. But Brightbill had ascended to majority leader just months later and I instead spent a good chunk of my time tracking him.

Jubelirer had been the top advocate for the pay raise. Brightbill, his top lieutenant, was 62, a snippy 24-year political veteran, the son of a restaurant owner and the darling of the Chamber of Commerce set.

After calculating Brightbill's new salary--$134,771, up from $100,911--I could only imagine how that would go over when published in his hometown paper.

As the night wore on political leaders lined up the votes and decided to ram the raise through. At around 2 a.m. votes were called in both chambers. There was no debate. The vote was 119 to 79 in the House and 27 to 23 in the Senate. Lawmakers left Harrisburg for their summer recess as soon as it was over.

Instead of the light-of-day vote Drew Crompton had recommended, it had become a sneaky, smelly, dark-of-night pay grab. Gov. Ed Rendell signed off on the pay-raise, promising to reject his own raise. But, he said, his Cabinet secretaries were seriously underpaid and lawmakers deserved better pay for their "period of unprecedented legislative productivity"--listing a beefed-up prescription drug plan, an economic stimulus package and the legalization of slot machines as examples.

Ten months later Rendell would reveal why he backed the raises in one of his famed moments of candor. Speaking to a group of Bucks County businessmen, Rendell said how difficult it was to push his own agenda with Republicans controlling things, and then said he approved the raises "to kiss a little butt."

The lawmakers knew they'd take flak for their raises but figured it wouldn't last long. But their raises amounted to pay hikes of 16 to 54 percent and came at a time when most people had grown accustomed to modest cost-of-living raises at their jobs.

Angry citizens wrote letters to the editor and talk radio shows boiled over in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, York and Altoona. In mid-August a Harrisburg radio host estimated that at least 70 percent of his calls were about the pay raise.

Legislators who voted for the raise responded with a strategy that only made things worse. Many, including Brightbill, ignored phone calls from reporters asking for explanations. Many accepted the raise immediately, even though it wasn't due until January, through a murky billing mechanism called "unvouchered expenses." (It basically allowed them to claim their extra pay as a job expense.)

John Perzel, the bulldog Republican from the Northeast, touched off more negative press when he defended the raises by saying dairy workers in Lancaster County earned almost as much as legislators. It was just one of Perzel's many missteps. In August, his first public appearance since the pay raise came when he announced his awards for innovative school programs. Reporters attended not to ask about school programs, but for an explanation for the pay raise. "There's nothing to talk about," Perzel squealed.

On the morning of the pay raise, an activist named Gene Stilp was awakened by a phone call. On the phone was Inquirer reporter Mario Cattabiani. Stilp had unsuccessfully sued the state legislature in 1995, the last time the lawmakers hiked their pay. Cattabiani wanted to know if he would sue again.

Yep, he said, not missing a beat.

Stilp was one of several activists and government watchdogs that had banded together to remind voters of the pay raise story. There was fiery Lebanon County businessman Russ Diamond, who started an Internet movement called PA CleanSweep, urging people to vote out all 253 lawmakers; and Eric Epstein, a wisecracking nuclear activist who started a protest group called RockTheCapital; and Barry Kauffman, a mild-mannered head of the respected group Common Cause; and Matthew Brouillette, a sharp-dressing president of a conservative think tank called the Commonwealth Foundation.

When the politicians returned to Harrisburg from their summer recess, Stilp was waiting. With a pig. A. Big. Pink. Inflatable. Rubber. Porker.

It was 25 feet high. A former hot-air balloon pilot for Greenpeace, Stilp made the pig years earlier to protest corporate greed on Wall Street. Now it was the perfect symbol for the Pennsylvania politicians who got caught with their hands in the public trough.

Stilp inflated the pig behind the Capitol and strapped a sign across its belly that read, "REPEAL THE ILLEGAL LEGISLATIVE PAY RAISE." Stilp himself was dressed in a cow suit--homage to the dairy-worker gaffe that the Perzel had made over the summer.

Stilp, 55, looked like a middle-aged elf. He regularly wandered through the Capitol news bureau in faded jeans or ragged shorts. He wore crummy sneakers and sometimes his socks didn't match. He had a law degree, had worked for Greenpeace and was a political aide. Yet he was better known for his protests and publicity stunts.

He liked to needle Rendell about his weight: On Groundhog Day one year Stilp passed out bumper stickers that read, "PLEASE GOV. RENDELL, DON'T EAT THE GROUNDHOG."

As Stilp milled around beside the pig, state workers walked by and shook their heads in amazement while drivers slowed down to gape. Stilp generously gave quotes to TV reporters like, "The greediness of senators puts pigs to shame."

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1. Average Joe said... on Nov 4, 2008 at 05:13AM

“I'm a little surprised. My wife and I have been trying to find a list of who voted for the payraise (yes, I know it was a while ago but we still remember) but have been unable to find one.”


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