Monday, February 26, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Searching for PennDOT

I received this interesting e-mail from a reader who was shocked that PennDOT was AWOL again after Sunday's mini-storm hit Southeastern Pennsylvania.

"I thought for sure that after what happened a week ago PennDot would be out in full force tonight. I was wrong. The drive home tonight was horrible and the roads untouched! I guess the PennDot people don't show up for work until Monday morning. You would think that they would be out salting the roads and getting ready for the busy morning commute tomorrow - nope, not in this state. Personally, I've lost all confidence in PennDot. I'm glad that I have a 4WD truck to get me to work because the way it looks, when it snows- you're on your own!"

The reader isn't the only one looking for PennDOT these days.

Some SE Pennsylvania Congressmen wanted to meet with PennDOT officials on Tuesday to figure out what went wrong with the Valentine's Day storm, but Gov. Ed Rendell is keeing PennDOT (and other key aides) in an undesclosed location.

I guess they've taken enough of a beating.

It's one thing for members of the state House and Senate to use his political appointees as punching bags, but Gov. Rendell has stepped in and said he won't allow three Pennsylvania Congressmen to get their licks in.

Rendell will not make four top aides available to meet with the Congressmen on Tuesday as planned.

Congressmen Charlie Dent, R-15th Dist., and Jim Gerlach, R-6th Dist., both members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, expressed disappointment in Rendell's decision to prevent key state officials from participating in a meeting the representatives organized to discuss the state's response to the Valentine’s Day storm that shut down portions of Interstate 78.

The congressmen had invited leaders from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, State Police, and National Guard to discuss their involvement in the disaster's prevention and response efforts at a public meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 27, but were informed by the governor's office that none would attend.

While both congressmen acknowledged the governor's desire to allow officials to focus their attention on the state's independent investigation, they were still disappointed over the governor's decision.

"I very much want to find out what happened on that day and, most importantly, discuss what we, as state and federal officials, can do to prevent that event from ever happening again," Gerlach said.

Gerlach and Dent plan to accept the governor's request to delay the meeting until the completion of the state inquiry lead by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt.

"We will expect the full cooperation of state agency officials at the conclusion of Mr. Witt's investigation," explained Dent, who also serves as ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness and Response.

The third congressman scheduled to participate in the meeting is Tim Holden, D-17th Dist.

Rendell's aides spend two grueling days before Senate and House committees in Harrisburg.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. He received a first place award for Best Opinion Column in 2007 by Suburban Newspapers of America. He was also honored for column writing in 2006 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Which Rendell Aides Will Lose Their Jobs Over I-78 Fiasco?

It wasn't quite the Watergate hearings, but the Pennsylvania Senate's inquest into the Rendell Administration's response to the Interstate 78 fiasco made for compelling television.

Courtesy of gavel to gavel coverage by the Pennsylvania Cable Network, you could almost see the beads of sweat rolling down the foreheads of top Rendell officials as they fell on their swords.

I predict at least two of the four administration honchos who testified before the Senate Thursday and the House Friday, and maybe a third, will be out of a job within the next few months.

Transportation Secretary Allen D. Biehler should start cleaning out his desk now. He's the obvious scapegoat. PennDOT bungled the initial job of clearing the highway of snow and ice and was directly responsible for stranding hundreds of truckers and motorists on a desolate stretch of highway for nearly a day. Also expect to see the managers of the two PennDOT engineering districts directly responsible for clearing the problem stretch of I-78 on the unemployment line.

The other person who should be updating his resume is James R. Joseph, the head of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Joseph came across as the worst of the four panelists who faced the Senate committee Thursday. At times aloof, often tongue-tied and barely audible throughout the three-hour hearing, Joseph looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlines.

In contrast, Col. Jeffrey Miller of the Pennsylvania State Police, came across as confident, even a bit arrogant. Miller could also get the axe, but Rendell has had a checkered history with the State Police and he may not want to create more problems by firing Miller. (Maybe a demotion and assignment to the Hamburg barracks to patrol I-78 might be in order.)

While PennDOT clearly deserves the lion's hare of the blame for the initial failure to deal with the storm and Joseph is out of his league as the state's top emergency manager, Col. Miller appears to have done the best he could with the resources he had. And therein lies the problem.

One thing is evident from the hearings is that the State Police are under-staffed and ill-equipped to deal with a weather-related emergency. Miller said he had 5 troopers working the day shift at the Hamburg barracks when the storm hit. The Hamburg barracks is responsible for patrolling a long stretch of I-78 through the entire length of Berks County. The barracks only has 1 four-wheel drive vehicle at its disposal. A second four-wheel drive vehicle was sent to the I-78 area by the Reading barracks.

Ed Rendell has a lot of explaining to do about the lack of resources for the State Police. This is a governor notorious for diverting needed resources (money and equipment) from vital state agencies to his pet projects (usually in Philadelphia.)

Col. Miller did not give satisfactory answers to reports that his troopers hung up the phones when local police and Berks County 911 officials kept calling with reports of stranded motorists. The State Police have a reputation for arrogance and so does Miller.

The only agency official who came out looking good was Maj. Gen. Jessica Wright, the Pennsylvania Adjutant General. The Pennsylvania National Guard responded well to the emergency. The only criticism of the Guard involved some Guardsmen asking stranded motorists to leave their vehicles to seek shelter. PennDOT then came along and towed the abandoned vehicles and charged the motorists $150 each.

While some of the Senators threw softball questions at the panelists or spent their allotted time making speeches, three Senators stood out during Thursday's hearing: Andrew Dinniman, Mike O'Pake and John Rafferty.

Rafferty had one of the best quips of the day when he asked Joseph if he bothered to look outside to see the weather conditions. "Are there windows in your emergency center?" Rafferty asked Joseph. It appears everyone in the state knew about the storm's intensity by watching TV or listening to the radio ... except PennDOT and emergency officials, Rafferty noted.

Rafferty also wanted a clear answer on the breakdown in the chain of command and why the governor wasn't informed of the disaster until 8 p.m. on Feb. 14. The storm began at midday on Feb. 13.

A lawyer by profession, Rafferty was tenacious and wouldn't let the bureaucrats off the hook until he got a better understanding of who makes the final decision on when an emergency is declared in Pennsylvania.

"What did Ed Rendell know and when did he know it?" is essentially what Rafferty was asking. The panelists danced around the question.

Sen. Mike O'Pake, a Berks Democrat and longtime Rendell sycophant, actually came across incredulous at the administration's failure to deal with the storm. He called it "mingboggling" and criticized the response to the crisis by committee.

"You can't respond to a crisis with a committee system," O'Pake said.

Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat, kept hammering away about the towing fees until Biehler promised that the state would "absorb" the cost.

That's the least PennDOT (with an annual budget of $6.3 billion) can do for the stranded motorists. Maybe Biehler should promise free snow removal for a year to everyone stranded on the state's highways. Oh, wait. That's how we got into this mess in the first place. OK, he can send a crew out this summer to pave their driveways — if he still has a job with the state.

The four officials who run these vital state agencies are not newcomers to the job. Two of them, Biehler and Miller, have been on the job since Rendell took office in 2003. Wright has commanded the Pennsylvania National Guard since February 2004. Joseph took over as PEMA director in September 2005.

At least two, maybe three, made their boss look really bad. Not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country. That's why they won't be around much longer.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. He received a first place award for Best Opinion Column in 2007 by Suburban Newspapers of America. He was also honored for column writing in 2006 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: No more teacher strikes in Pennsylvania?

State Sen. Robert J. Mellow has re-introduced legislation to outlaw school strikes.

It's a timely issue considering Pennsylvania leads the nation in teacher strikes.

Pennsylvania is the "teacher-strike capital" of the United States, according to the Bucks County-based Web site,

Each year, tens of thousands of Pennsylvania children are forced out of school by striking teachers, who also happens to be among the highest paid in the nation (Pennsylvania's average teacher salary ranking No. 4 in the nation adjusted for cost of living, according to the Web site.) Teachers also enjoy pension plans and health coverage far more generous than the private sector.

And there aren't too many jobs (other than Pennsylvania legislator) where you can enjoy a two-month vacation every summer.

Forty-one states prohibit teacher strikes. But that's not the case in Pennsylvania, which in recent years has experienced twice as many teacher strikes as all other states combined. That's right. Pennsylvania leads the nation in teacher strikes by a country mile.

Mellow's bill would require "last best offer" resolutions to school labor impasses.

"This plan respects and encourages the traditional contract bargaining process to work through disagreements and produce an equitable agreement," Mellow said in a press release announcing the re-introduction of his legislation. "However, it also imposes reasonable limits on the bargaining timeframe, ends labor impasses in a fair way — and most importantly prevents strikes from interfering with our children's education.

Students and their parents are the only people who suffer during teacher strikes. The teachers will get paid their full salaries because all missed days have to be made up under state law. By striking, teachers also tend to win more perks from school boards who are pressured by parents to give the teachers what they want to reopen the schools.

Students end up missing holidays and breaks or have to go to school into late June to make up for the days teachers walked off the job. This also creates a hardship for working parents who have to find child-care arrangements while teachers walk the picket line.

"For too long, students have borne the brunt of these labor disputes," Mellow said.

According to Mellow, there were 99 school districts (nearly a fifth of all public schools) operating with expired contracts in Pennsylvania. He added that impasses remain in seven of the eight school districts where strikes occurred in the 2006-07 school year. Those strikes affected over 20,000 students.

Mellow's plan, Senate Bill 20, would set into law an eight-month negotiating timeline. If the teachers' union or the school board fails to resolve their contract differences through a variety of means-including an impartial arbitration panel — each side would submit a "last best offer" to the county's President Common Pleas Judge.

The judge would then be required to select one of the two last best offers. The judge's decision would be final and binding.

"My bill fosters settlement rather than confrontation," Mellow said. "It makes negotiation — not posturing — the main focus of the settlement process. The plan promotes accountability, responsibility and decision-making."

Mellow's plan is similar to a law in Connecticut. Based on experience from that state, only 10 percent of impasses reach arbitration and only 2 percent of all contract disputes go the entire way through the process, according to Mellow.

"The process outlined in my plan is reasonable, rational and fair to all sides," Mellow said. "The parties to the dispute have ample opportunity to settle amicably before the judge makes a final ruling. This proposal deserves to be considered."

Mellow, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, has introduced anti-strike legislation in the past, but it has never passed. The problem? Teachers' unions are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns. Teachers, through their unions, also employ lobbyists to keep lawmakers in line.

It's up to taxpayers and voters again to take up the fight. Whether you have children in public schools or not, this is an important bill that deserves consideration — without undue pressure from teachers' unions and their lobbyists.

Contact your local state legislator and tell them you support Mellow's efforts to eliminate teacher strikes in Pennsylvania. The title of "teacher-strike capital" of the U.S. is something Pennsylvania needs to shed as soon as possible.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. He received a first place award for Best Opinion Column in 2007 by Suburban Newspapers of America. He was also honored for column writing in 2006 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Demand repeal of Act 1

The experts said it would never happen.

The Pennsylvania Legislature would never repeal the pay raise its members gave themselves at 2 a.m. on July 7, 2005, according to people in the know, including political science professors, columnists and assorted pundits.

The Mercury decided to launch "Operation Giveback" anyway. In the months after the pay raise vote, The Mercury asked its readers to sign letters demanding the Legislators repeal the pay raise. The grassroots effort collected 10,000 letters from Pottstown-area residents. The letters were hand-delivered to the state Capitol.

The rest, as they say, was history. The Legislature repealed the pay raise. The only person to vote against the repeal, Mike Veon, would lose in the following election cycle.

Legislators have told me that the delivery of 10,000 letters from voters had more of an impact on Legislative leaders than all the newspaper editorials and columns combined. Can it happen again?

The Legislature passed Act 1 last year, a travesty disguised as tax relief. Gov. Rendell signed it into law. Pennsylvania taxpayers will suffer under Act 1 — unless we can persuade the Legislature to repeal it.

To that end, The Mercury is once again asking readers to flood the Legislature with mail. The editorial below (which explains the shortcomings of Act 1) gives all the details. It ran in Sunday's edition of The Mercury.

A similar appeal was published in our sister papers, The Times Herald of Norristown, and the Daily Local News in West Chester. We hope other newspapers will join the campaign.

Read the editorial below and send in your letter. We did in 2005. We can do it again.

Join us in demanding legislators take another look at school tax reform

First there was Act 72, and now there is Act 1, the tax reform scams of 2005 and 2006.As area school districts are now preparing their ballot referendums to comply with Act 1, the discontent with this 2006 attempt at tax reform is becoming more evident.

The law does nothing to reform school funding in Pennsylvania and serves only to take taxes out of one pocket instead of the other without providing meaningful relief for the working homeowner.

The law has three main parts. It attempts to limit future tax increases by subjecting districts to a referendum on any tax increase above the inflation index and on building projects. It distributes money earned from slot parlors to schools for property tax reduction, and it forces districts to offer a tax-shifting referendum on May 15. But the measure fails on all three fronts.

The legislature has in its power many ways to limit school spending or to help districts control spending through prevailing wage exemptions and consolidated purchasing power. But a school district exploding with growth cannot stop building schools or paying for additional teachers. Giving voters a false sense of control of spending is irresponsible legislation.

The distribution of money from slots is a promise yet to be realized. And it also depends on people losing money in order for a tax break.The tax-shifting referendum is the biggest scam of all. Districts are able to word their own ballot question, basing it on whether they want to propose an increase in personal income tax or earned income tax. They must also determine the amount of the increase, ranging from .5 percent to 2.5 percent, for the ballot question.

Citizen tax study commissions — also a requirement of Act 1 — have been making recommendations to all school boards in recent weeks and their reports reveal the problems with the law.

As with the pay-raise debacle in 2005, newspapers are taking the public's frustration with Act 1 to Harrisburg with a demand that legislators get back to work on a true solution to the problem of relying on local property taxes to fund public schools.

We ask you to join us in asking Gov. Ed Rendell and our state legislators to take a hard look at school funding and craft a plan that truly reforms the system of taxation and takes the burden off local school districts and the working-class homeowner. They tried last year with a months-long special session on tax reform, and the result was Act 1. Clearly, the effort failed, and lawmakers need to try again.

If you're opposed to Act 1, please write to: Operation Tax Scam, The Mercury, 24 N. Hanover St., Pottstown, PA 19464.

We will collect letters sent to us and will forward them to legislators.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Ed Rendell's Katrina moment

"How could you operate a state like this?"

Good question from a Connecticut motorist stuck on a Pennsylvania highway for nearly a day without food, water, heat, fuel or information of when help might arrive.

Welcome to Ed Rendell's Pennsylvania. Travel at your own risk. Pack your survival gear because you can't depend on any help from the state government.

Pennsylvania made the national headlines. Unfortunately, the headlines read something like this: "Hundreds of furious motorists stranded for hours on Pa. highway" and "Nightmare on I-78"

The stories detailed the harrowing experience of motorists trapped without food, water, medicine or fuel on one of the state's most heavily traveled highways. The storm hit Valentine's Day, stranding truckers and motorists on an icy stretch of Interstate 78.

Hundreds of travelers, many from across the country, were still stuck on the road into Thursday afternoon. Gov. Ed Rendell eventually called out the National Guard to deliver food, water, baby supplies and fuel to the stranded motorists.

The state's slow response to a potentially life-threatening emergency has opened officials to widespread criticism.

"How could you operate a state like this? It's totally disgusting," Eugene Coleman, of Hartford, Conn., told the Associated Press.

Coleman, who is hyperglycemic, was trapped for 20 hours while on his way home from visiting his terminally ill mother in Georgia, along with his girlfriend and pregnant daughter, the wire service reported. They had no food or water for about 18 hours and Coleman said his legs were swollen.

"God forbid somebody gets really stuck on the highway and has a life-threatening emergency. That person would have died," Coleman told the AP.

Gov. Ed "Teflon" Rendell initially blamed the inability of his transportation department or emergency management officials to deal with the storm on "Mother Nature." At least that's what his spokeswoman had to say.

"At this point, Mother Nature is the only one to blame," spokesperson Kate Philips said.

Hmmmm ... I'm not buying that excuse, Kate. This is the middle of Pennsylvania in the middle of winter, not a Third World country.

I'm more inclined to place the blame squarely on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and Gov. Ed Rendell.

Consider the following:
  • Pennsylvania is consistently ranked at the top of the list of the worst roads in the country.
  • TV weather guys and gals have been predicting the storm for 10 days.
  • PennDOT has been sitting around for months waiting for something to do during an unusually mild winter.
  • PennDOT officials apparently decided not to start plowing I-78 in the early hours of the snowstorm.
  • Problems on I-78 began early Wednesday, but continued and got worse into Thursday morning.
  • One report said a PennDOT crew re-opened a closed ramp to I-78 even though hundreds of vehicles were already trapped on the highway, leading other motorists to end up stuck on the roadway.
Rendell's response is reminiscent of Bush Administration after Hurricane Katrina.

A 50-mile backup on one of your major roads is not something you blame on "Mother Nature." It's a fiasco that could have been avoided if state officials weren't asleep at the wheel.

"It's February, it's a snowstorm," Gay Elwell of Easton, told The Morning Call in Allentown after sitting in the jam from 1:30 p.m. to after 9 p.m. Wednesday. "They had plenty of time to get ready for it. It boggles my mind that the traffic is tied up for eight hours and I don't know why."

Rendell said he will order a review of various state agencies and their performance once the crisis is over, but the governor's office announced Thursday it was satisfied with state government's response to the storm, Philips said.

Ask the hundreds of stranded motorists and their worried family members if they're "satisfied with the state's performance."

PennDOT, the National Guard and the emergency management agency were all doing "exactly what they're supposed to do in the time they were supposed to," Rendell spokeswoman Philips said, sounding a lot like former FEMA Director Mike Brown.

A full-blown investigation of the Rendell administration's handling of the storm is in order.

At least one state lawmaker called for just that Thursday. Republican State Rep. Doug Reichley, whose district covers parts of Berks and Lehigh counties, said the failure to deal with the storm "demands an explanation."

"I think we need to bring all the facts together to see what happened," Reichly said. "Was this a breakdown in communication? Why did this dangerous situation persist so long? We want to ensure this type of calamity does not happen again."

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. He received a first place award for Best Opinion Column in 2007 by Suburban Newspapers of America. He was also honored for column writing in 2006 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Greedy judges, not low pay, undermine our courts

It appears Pennsylvania judges aren't the only ones whining about their pay.

Federal judges are now making noise about their paychecks. Maybe they should learn from Pennsylvania judges' experiences when it comes to asking taxpayers to shell out more money.

If you'll recall, the infamous July 2005 middle-of-the-night pay raise for Pennsylvania politicians and judges was hatched up by Gov. Ed Rendell, legislative leaders (most of whom have been voted out of office) and Ralph Cappy, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Cappy's court eventually ruled that the way the legislators took the pay raise (something called unvouchered expenses) was unconstitutional, but restored the 10 percent pay raises for themselves and 1,200 other state and local judges. And they also tied future pay increases to salaries of federal judges.

The backlash against Pennsylvania judges began in 2005 when Russell Nigro failed to win his retention re-election for another 10-year term on the state's highest court. The other judge on the ballot that year, Sandra Schultz Newman, narrowly won her retention vote, but she ended up resigning from the court in 2006, citing the constant criticism of judges by Pennsylvania residents.

Pennsylvania voters will get another chance to send a clear message to greedy judges when they get to pick three new judges for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this November. Justice Thomas Saylor is seeking retention and two vacancies on the court (Nigro and Newman) must also be filled. Voters can send a strong message to Cappy (who won't face voters until 2009) that greed is not a virtue when you decided to wear the judicial robes.

Replacing three of the court's seven members would send a strong message to Harrisburg that Pennsylvania taxpayers are tired of being fleeced by politicians, whether they are members of the executive, legislative or judicial branch.

At the same time Pennsylvania judges have been whining about their pay, members of the U.S. Supreme Court have been lobbying for bigger paychecks. Chief Justice John Roberts has made several public pleas for higher pay, calling the lack of a big payday for federal judges a "constitutional crisis."

On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy told members of a Senate committee that Congress has disregarded judicial pay, creating morale problems among judges and threatening to undermine judicial independence.

The current salary level for judges "is insufficient to attract the finest members" of the legal profession to accept appointments to the bench, Kennedy said during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the Associated Press.

Federal district court judges are paid $165,200 annually; appeals court judges make $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court earn $203,000; the chief justice gets $212,100.

Kennedy said "$160,000 sounds like a lot of money to the average American, and it is. But it is insufficient to attract the finest members of the practicing bar to the bench," according to the Associated Press.

There's no argument that lawyers can make a lot more money in private practice than they can serving on the bench. But I challenge Kennedy to find one sitting federal judge who took the job because of the money. And who says the highest paid person is always the most qualified person?

If Roberts and Kennedy agreed to serve on the Supreme Court because they were expecting a big payday, they are fools. Whatever happened to the concept of public service? Nobody held a gun to Roberts and Kennedy and forced them to join the Supreme Court.

Roberts and Kennedy knew what the salary was when they accepted their current positions. They also knew that they would have lifetime tenure and an opportunity to create a legacy for themselves. (And annual financial disclosures show that most of the justices on the Supreme Court have net worths of more than $1 million.)

If Roberts and Kennedy think they can make more money in the private sector, then by all means, they should resign from the court today and join a corporate law firm.

There's nothing in the Constitution that says a Supreme Court justice has to stay on the court into their 90s or until they die in office. They are welcome to step down any time they want and I guarantee there will be thousands of other applicants waiting in line to take their place on the court.

Nobody runs for president of the United States because of the salary. The same goes for the Senate, the House or the bench. Those positions provide intangible rewards that cannot be measured in dollars.

Judges are free to write books and give lectures to supplement their income.

If things are that tight at the Roberts and Kennedy households, maybe their wives could get a job, like most American households, where both spouses have to work to make ends meet.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. He received a first place award for Best Opinion Column in 2007 by Suburban Newspapers of America. He was also honored for column writing in 2006 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: N.J. delivers property tax cuts

I'm tired of hearing Pennsylvania politicians say cutting property taxes is too difficult a task for them.

Gov. Ed Rendell and Legislative leaders from both parties have said repeatedly that property tax reform has been the No. 1 priority in Harrisburg for 30 years, but nobody has been able to solve the problem.

That's nonsense. Rendell and the Legislature are full of baloney. Property taxes can be cut. But Pennsylvania politicians lack the will to do the job.

If you want proof that property taxes can cut, look no further than neighboring New Jersey.
In less than one year, Gov. Jon Corzine and the New Jersey state legislature have come up with a plan to deliver property tax relief to nearly all of the state's residents.

I should also note that New Jersey has fewer legislators than Pennsylvania (120 in N.J. compared to 253 in Pennsylvania) and they are paid less than their counterparts in Pennsylvania.

Rendell has been playing a shell game on property taxes for more than four years now. He's managed to distract enough voters with promises of tax relief to get himself re-elected to a second term.

I've never been a fan of Jon Corzine, the multi-millionaire businessman who bought his way into public office. After Corzine became bored serving in the U.S. Senate, he took his millions and purchased the governor's seat in New Jersey.

But I have to tip my hat to Corzine. As a candidate, he promised to cut New Jersey property taxes, which are even higher than property taxes in Pennsylvania.

After one year in office, Corzine kept his word. He is about to sign a $2.3 billion property tax relief bill for New Jersey residents. About 2 million N.J. residents will see tax breaks averaging $1,051 under the tax-relief plan. State officials predict that 95 percent of the New Jersey households will benefit from the tax cuts.

Contrast that with Gov. Rendell, Corzine's fellow tax-and-spend liberal across the Delaware River.

Candidate Rendell promised to cut property taxes for all Pennsylvania residents by 30 percent. That was in 2002. Gov. Rendell reneged on the promise in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Safely re-elected to a second term, Rendell is now talking about raising — not lowering — taxes.

Even his proposal to raise the sales tax in order to cut property taxes is smoke and mirrors. Only one-third of the money from the increased sales tax would go to property tax relief. The rest would feed Ed Spendell’s enormous appetite for spending.

Rendell's parlor tricks with Pennsylvania’s budget have caught the attention of Americans for Tax Reform, a non-partisan coalition of taxpayers and taxpayer groups in Washington, D.C.

"Maybe next year, Gov. 'Spendell' should just use his budget as a list of taxes he does NOT want to raise," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "That would probably save his staff some time and paper."

In addition to his 2002 boast that he could cut property taxes standing on his head, Rendell also promised that Act 72 would help lower property taxes. That was a lie.

Rendell promised that the approval of casino gambling in Pennsylvania would lower property taxes. More lies.

Rendell promised that Act 1 would lead to lower taxes. He lied again.

Now Rendell is promising to cut property taxes if the Legislature approves a 16.7-percent increase in the state sales tax. If he lied to us in each of his first four years in office, why would anyone think Rendell will keep his promise?

That is a question voters need to pose to the 102 Democrats in the state House and the 21 Democrats in the state Senate. How far are these lemmings willing to follow Rendell? Especially when Ed Spendell's policies will sink Pennsylvania into a fiscal crisis.

Pennsylvania voters need to make sure their state legislators understand that if they vote for any more Rendell tax increases, they will be out of a job in 2008.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. Tony recently was awarded First Prize in Opinion Columns from the 2,000 member national trade organization Suburban Newspapers of America. The Mercury won seven awards, more than any other newspaper in the Pennsylvania. E-mail him at

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Rendell budget is dead on arrival

Show of hands. How many of the 55 newly elected members of the Pennsylvania Legislature are going to support the myriad of tax increases needed to fund Gov. Ed Rendell's 2007 budget?

Rendell unveiled his $27.3 billion spending plan Tuesday for the fiscal year beginning July 1. To balance the budget, the governor will ask the Legislature to approve increasing or enacting a half-dozen different taxes.

If you're one of those 55 legislators swept into office in 2006 because your predecessor voted himself a pay raise in 2005, what are your chances of winning re-election if you vote to increase taxes? Slim and none and slim just left Harrisburg in an SUV paid by the taxpayers.

Remember that the House members, including the 50 freshmen who were sworn in Jan. 2, will face the voters again in 2008. That's next year. And half the Senate will also stand re-election in 2008.

No politician in his right mind — especially in today's political climate — wants to face voters with the weight of tax increases around their necks, especially when voters keep saying they want taxes cut — not raised.

Rendell's "raise taxes and raise taxes more" spending plan has no chance of passing the GOP-controlled state Senate.

The "climate for tax increases right now is a difficult one," Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, told The Associated Press. "I think there was a stunning array of different new taxes we need to look at."

Even the lockstep Democrats in the House — with their 1-vote majority — will break from Rendell when push comes to shove. Rendell doesn't have to worry about facing the voters. He's the governor until 2010. But freshmen Democrats won't willingly end their political careers so Rendell can make a name for himself on the national scene.

Here's a quick look at Rendell's requests for tax hikes to balance his out-of-control budget and the chances any of those tax hikes will make it past the Legislature.

The governor wants to increase the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to help provide property-tax cuts, but only a portion of the money will be used to cut taxes and that will be gradual over several years. Voters want all property taxes eliminated and won't support an increase in the sales tax unless all the money goes to property tax relief. No chance of passing either chamber in the Legislature.

Rendell wants to impose a new electricity consumption tax to pay off $850 million in borrowing for alternative power development and energy conservation. No chance of passing even if Al Gore shows up to stump for the plan.

The governor wants to increase municipal solid-waste disposal fees by $2.75 per ton. Those costs will be passed on to residents. This one has no chance either.

Rendell also wants to impose a new tax on oil companies' gross profits and exempt those companies from the state's corporate net-income tax. Oil companies like making lots of money and the consumers will get hit with higher gas at the pump. Rendell also wants to tax oil companies' gross profits to raise $760 million for mass transit. Another tax that won't see the light of day.

Rendell wants to increase the cigarette tax from $1.35 to $1.45 per pack, levy a new tax on other forms of tobacco (cigars and chew) and impose a new 3 percent payroll tax on employers who do not provide employee health benefits. The cigarette tax may pass because smokers are not organized. But forget the payroll tax. The business community will balk and lawmakers will listen.

The only part of Rendell's ambitious spending agenda that may pass is leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But Rendell faces opposition from his own union workers who like working for the state and will resist having to work for a private company.

If the initial reaction to Rendell's "tax and tax some more" budget is any indication, the governor is in for four unhappy years.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. Tony recently was awarded First Prize in Opinion Columns from the 2,000 member national trade organization Suburban Newspapers of America. The Mercury won seven awards, more than any other newspaper in the Pennsylvania. E-mail him at

Monday, February 05, 2007

Penn Patriot: Judicial Stupidity

(From the VoicePA Editor)
This past Monday PCN President Brian Lockman sat down with Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy of the State Supreme Court to discuss the issue of Judicial Independence
Click Here for the PCN press release). Joining Chief Justice Ralph Cappy in the panel discussion was U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, Edward W. Maderia, Jr. of the law firm of Pepper Hamilton and Kenneth G. Gormley, President-Elect of the Allegheny Bar Association.

The show should have given Pennsylvania voters and reform leader’s valuable insight into just where individuals in our state's legal and judicial establishment stand on the issue of state reform.

Throughout the show Cappy and the panelists repeatedly defended the pay raise. All of them stated that they never understood why the pay raise caused so much outrage. They even went as far as to criticize Pennsylvania voters for not retaining former Justice Russell Nigro. Basically, the panel's position was that Russel Nigro had nothing to do with the pay raise and voters were "misinformed" about Nigro's record. Cappy even used Nigro's failure to win retention to make a case that justices should be appointed instead of having to face the wrath of voters.

All of the guests on the show were lucky that PCN didn't accept calls from the public. I sure felt the urge to call in and give him a piece of my mind.

As I watched Cappy and the other panelists spew their pompous rhetoric and give us bogus reasons why our state judiciary deserves some sort of elite status within our state political system, I kept thinking to myself how exactly did someone like Cappy ever became the Chief Justice of our great Commonwealth. Do we really want to give these guys more freedom when they have failed to perform their basic job duties?

In my opinion the job of a Supreme Court Justice is really quite simple. You listen to a particular case and decide whether or not a particular law or issue violates our state constitution. Apparently, this job is very difficult for Cappy considering that he negotiated a pay raise with legislative leaders that was later ruled unconstitutional by his colleagues on the same court he is supposed to be in charge of.

As you can guess Cappy and others in our judicial establishment just don't get it. They still think they deserved the pay raise and they don't think that our political system needs reformed. They even said our state judicial system is the best in the country.

That brings us to the issue of leadership, something that I think our state judiciary is seriously lacking right now.I never thought Justice Nigro lost his retention vote because of the pay raise. He lost his retention because our State Supreme Court's failure to provide the leadership that our state constitution requires of it. If you want to blame someone for Nigro's defeat blame yourself Chief Justice Cappy and your failure to lead.

--(Posted By PennPatriot to VoicePA at 2/02/2007)

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Speaker O'Brien has a lousy voting record

Dennis O'Brien rose overnight from obscurity to one of the most powerful politicians in Pennsylvania. But what do we really know about the new speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives?

He's a Republican from Philadelphia just like his predecessor, John M. Perzel. He likes kids. O'Brien had his son in tow when he took the oath of speaker on Jan. 2. He smiles more than Perzel, who rivaled Dick Cheney and Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons" for the most prominent scowl of any public figure.

We also know that O'Brien has held more press conferences (at least 2) in his first month in office than Perzel did in four years as speaker.

But there is something troubling about O'Brien. It's his voting record.

I've often used the phrase "the more you know, the less there is to like" to describe some of Pennsylvania's leading politicians, including Democrat Ed Rendell and Republican John Perzel.

I've been doing a little digging into O'Brien's voting record. It's not a pretty picture.

I was not one of the many political observers who jumped on the O'Brien bandwagon when the Philadelphia Republican made a deal with Rendell and the Democratic House majority to oust Perzel.

I'm no fan of Perzel, but O'Brien may not be much of an improvement.

We already knew O'Brien voted yes for the Legislative pay raise in July 2005. That is a Scarlet Letter for all Pennsylvania politicians, including Gov. Rendell, who signed the pay raise into law.

O'Brien has also voted the wrong way on just about every major bill to come before the House in the past couple of years:

* Start with Act 1, the ridiculous tax shuffle Rendell and the Legislature cooked up last spring to get the heat off them as they approached the 2006 general election. O'Brien voted yes for Act. 1.
* O'Brien voted no when the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes in favor of a sales tax came before the House on June 13, 2006. Another bad move.
* O'Brien supported Rendell’s casino slot plan in 2004 and voted no when the House attempted to repeal the flawed gambling plan on March 14, 2006.
* O'Brien voted in favor of an unnecessary tax on 911 services adopted by the House on June 21, 2006. That tax passed by a 100 to 95 margin, so every vote was needed. In typical fashion, O'Brien voted with the Democrats to push the tax through.
* O'Brien was also on the wrong side when the House passed the Fair Share Tort Reform bill in March 2006 to deal with Pennsylvania's growing malpractice crisis. Most Republicans (including John Perzel) voted yes, but O'Brien joined with most of the Democrats to vote against tort reform.
* O'Brien has also been a longtime supporter of excessive spending under Gov. Rendell. O'Brien voted yes on Rendell’s $26 billion budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year. O'Brien also voted yes to Rendell's 2005-06 budget.

And if his lousy voting record isn't enough, O'Brien also ranked No. 195 on the most recent Liberty Index Report Card published by the Commonwealth Foundation.

The Liberty Index examines the voting records of all 253 legislators (and the governor) on a variety of laws and ranks them based on how much liberty they take away from Pennsylvania residents, including economic freedom.

O'Brien earned an F+ grade, which is the same grade Perzel earned, but Perzel actually fared better, coming in at No. 148 in the rankings. Rendell got an F- on his report card and came in at a pathetic No. 236.

On the plus side, O'Brien did form the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform and has given the 24-member, bipartisan group a lot of leeway to come up with suggestions to improve the way the House conducts itself.

Let's just say that O'Brien has a long way to go to convince me that he's a true reformer and not a puppet for the status quo party led by Ed Rendell and the new Democratic majority in the House.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. Tony recently was awarded First Prize in Opinion Columns from the 2,000 member national trade organization Suburban Newspapers of America. The Mercury won seven awards, more than any other newspaper in the Pennsylvania. E-mail him at