- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — 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 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 abating.

Not only did legislators increase their salaries 16 percent to 34 percent to at least $81,050 — more than any state except California — but they also crafted the package in secret without debate or public scrutiny and then left town.

Even more galling to Pennsylvanians was that 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.”

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.

“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.”

All the pressure is having some effect: As of Tuesday, nine lawmakers had declared changes of heart and said they would not 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.

Democratic Gov. Edward G. 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, he said Tuesday that legislators who turned them down “did the right thing.”

Politically, the big question is: Will the matter have blown over by general election next year?

“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.

House Speaker John Perzel, a Republican, defended the legislature’s handling of the raises and accused the press of overplaying the story.

“It has been a slow news month,” Mr. 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. The $81,050 base salary of legislators is 50 percent of a congressman’s salary. State Supreme Court justices get the same salary — $171,800 — as a U.S. circuit judge.

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