Monday, October 16, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: Republicans back reform agenda

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Ten Berks County candidates have combined forces to run as a reform coalition for the state Legislature. The group includes three incumbent legislators and an assortment of political newcomers. All have signed a formal statement titled "Promise to Berks."

The candidates have a few things in common besides their focus on reforming state government. They're all Republicans and their districts include portions of Berks County.

The group also has some differences. Three of the 10 either voted for the 2005 legislative pay raise or took the money as unvouchered expenses, a practice the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. Several of the first-time candidates in the coalition condemned the pay raise vote and defeated heavily-favored Republican incumbents in the May primary.

The coalition candidates are willing to put their differences aside because keeping a Republican majority in the Berks County legislative delegation is important to them. Only three of the dozen seats in Berks are held by Democrats. Berks has been a key battleground in the people's revolt against incumbent politicians since the Legislature voted itself pay raises of up to 54 percent in July 2005.

Four of the five incumbents who voted for the pay raise and had opposition in the primary were defeated by voters. The only incumbent who survived the voters' wrath was Democrat Rep. Dante Santoni Jr., who won the nomination for the 126th District because he had two challengers and his opponents split the majority of the vote. Santoni attracted just 45 percent of the vote from his own party.

Santoni is vulnerable not just for voting himself a pay raise, but he's one of the biggest underachievers in Harrisburg, unwilling or unable to introduce a single bill in 13 years. Santoni's opponent in November is Republican Hal Baker, a respected former Berks County government administrator who defeated two other Republicans in the primary to win the GOP nomination.

The members of the reform coalition are incumbent state Reps. David Argall, Doug Reichley and Sam Rohrer, incumbent state Sen. John Rafferty (44th Dist.) and six political newcomers: Baker, Jim Cox (129th Dist.), Mike Folmer (48th Senate Dist.), Gary Hornberger (125th Dist.), Carl Mantz (187th Dist.) and Billy Reed (130th Dist.)

Argall, Reichley and Rohrer bring some political baggage to the new reform coalition. Argall and Rohrer voted for the pay raise. Reichley voted no on the pay raise, but took the money as unvouchered expenses. (Rafferty voted no on the pay raise and did not accept the raise.) Argall and Reichley have returned the money. Rohrer said he voted "yes" on the raise because that was the only way he could get a House vote on the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes.

Rohrer said he never took the pay raise money but did manage to get the Caucus plan on the House floor for a vote, but it attracted only 74 of the 102 necessary votes. The plan was defeated because every Democratic member of the House voted against it. (This is why it's hard to swallow Gov. Ed Rendell's claims that the Republican majority failed to deliver property tax relief. It's the Democrats who vote as a block and take their marching orders from Rendell.)

The "Promise to Berks" reads: "We believe that every elected official is responsible to serve the people, not to be served. We believe that we are accountable not just to the voters but to the generations who will follow, as well as those who have gone before us. Our responsibility is to support and defend the founding principles of this great nation as noted in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These are the foundations of our freedoms and adherence to them is the best hope of freedom for the generations to follow."

If elected, all 10 Berks Republicans promise to tackle the following their legislative priorities:

• Real tax reform by permanently eliminating school property taxes and opposing all new unfunded mandates to the counties, municipalities and school districts in Pennsylvania, which shifts tax increases to these bodies. It will also work to eliminate current unfunded mandates.

• Controlling spending by implementing the Taxpayers Bill of Rights to strictly limit increases in state spending to the concurrent rates of inflation and population growth and requiring a three-fifths majority to pass a tax increase.

• Reforming the Legislature by requiring an independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of the General Assembly for fraud and mismanagement, enacting term limits on committee chairmanships and leadership, enact a five-year waiting period for former legislators and cabinet officials to become lobbyists and opposing passage of any legislation that has not met the procedural rigor detailed in Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Although the burden is still on the three Berks incumbents to show they've repented for their pay raise votes, Berks County has an opportunity to change the culture of Harrisburg by electing a block of reform candidates to the state Legislature.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at tphyrillas@pottsmerc.com

4 comments:

Tim Potts said...

I sincerely hope that voters will use the reforms offered by the Berks Republicans as a starting point, not the finish line. While the reforms include some good and necessary ideas, they conspicuously do nothing about the most generous package of pay and perks in America. When they're willing to take money out of their own pockets, instead of always taking more out of our pockets, that will be a good sign.

What's needed is some way for citizens to measure candidate commitment to reform. So until candidates pledge to give Pennsylvania the highest standards of public integrity, the best value for tax dollars, the clearest transparency of operation, and the highest levels of citizen confidence of any state in America, they are not serious about reform.

The Incumbency has had years to introduce such legislation, and the incumbents have failed every day of their tenure. The non-incumbents, meanwhile, have signed onto reforms that are, at best, a few pieces of a large puzzle with no idea of what the big picture should look like. How are citizens to hold them accountable in 2008 if there is no vision that tells us how the pieces fit into the larger reform agenda that Pennsylvania needs?

Of course, the same is true of Democrat incumbents and challengers. With rare exceptions, they also avoid the competition to make Pennsylvania's government the best in America.

But there are candidates out there, including one in Berks County, who have declared that they will work to give Pennsylvania the best laws of their kind in America. They are worth looking for, and it doesn't matter whether they are Republicans or Democrats. The laws they enact, or refuse to enact, will affect all of us.

There's still time to improve this campaign season. Voters still can ask candidates for a commitment to be the best in America, and they can test the candidates' sincerity by asking whether the candidate knows which state has the best lobbying control law and what makes that law so good. Voters can ask the same about the best open records law, the best campaign finance law, the best election laws, or even the best system for funding public schools. And they can ask about a commitment to ending those expensive perks.

There is one thing we can be sure of. Incumbents, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, will not change their behavior until we voters change our behavior. It has been 465 days since the pay raise. The Incumbency has not enacted a single law to raise the standards of public integrity in PA, much less to give us the highest standards in America.

Draw your own conclusions about how sincere their election-year devotion to reform really is. When they have the power and they refuse to use it, why should voters send them back for more perks and broken promises?

Anonymous said...

What about the Jefferson Reform Movement? Or is this just an advertising ploy for that group of legislators? I would tend to believe that is exactly what the Jefferson Reform Movement is.

We all know there is really only one true reformer on the legislative floor in Harrisburg. And that is Daryl Metcalfe.

Tony Phyrillas said...

I haven't heard much about the Jefferson Reform Movement. At least the candidates who signed on to to from SE Pennsylvania are not making it a big campaign issue. Let's wait until voters have their say on Nov. 7 and see how many people jump aboard the reform bandwagon.

Schuylkill said...

Argall did not return the money and has stated he will not. That statement is incorrect.