Saturday, March 31, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: STOP calls for rejection of Act 1

Another taxpayer group is calling on Pennsylvanians to vote 'No' on the local school tax referendum question on the May 15 primary election ballot.

STOP (Stop Taxing Our Properties) joins the Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition in urging voters to reject the referendums regardless of their language.

Pennsylvania school board were forced by Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature to place a referendum question on the May 15 ballot asking voters to approve a tax shift from property taxes to either an earned income or a personal income tax.

"STOP urges all voters to vote NO on this carnival shell game they call tax reform. It is nothing more than a hidden tax increase," says STOP coordinator John Czekanski. "Any school property tax reduction you vote for in the referendum would be temporary. There is nothing to prevent the school board from later raising your school taxes every year through a millage increase. Then you will be paying more school property taxes again and the increased earned income taxes as well. "

The May primary referendum does not address county and municipal property taxes at all, Czekanski notes. Increases in those two property taxes mean you will be paying ever higher property taxes and the increase in the earned income tax, he says.

The referendum does not prevent reassessments on your property which can substantially increase your property taxes, Czekanski says.

"Act 1 legislation mandating this referendum was enacted by Gov. Rendell and the Legislature to pass the buck to the school board and now to you when the leaders in Harrisburg didn't have the courage or wisdom to properly address true property tax reform," Czekanski says.

In addition to voting No on the school property tax referendum in May, both taxpayers groups also urge Pennsylvania residents to contact their legislators and demand demand repeal of Act 1.

For more information about STOP, go to its Web site at

For more information about PTCC, check out its Web site at

Tony Phyrillas

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.

Copyright © 2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Lessons learned from I-78 fiasco

What can we learn from an independent investigation of Pennsylvania's inept handling of the Valentine's Day storm? Here's a few lessons: Government doesn't work. Bigger government doesn't mean better government. And $6 billion doesn't buy you competence.

Hundreds of motorists were stranded, some for almost a day, without food, water, medicine or heat on one of Pennsylvania's busiest highways during a winter storm in February.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which spends $6 billion a year, couldn't figure out how to clear the snow and ice from Interstate 78. The Pennsylvania State Police didn't close off the road so more trucks and cars wouldn't get stranded. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency failed to respond and neglected to inform the governor about the disaster until 8 p.m. on the second day of the storm.

That pretty much sums up the findings of the $130,000 independent evaluation of the Interstate 78 fiasco released Tuesday.

The state's response to the disaster revealed "a remarkable lack of awareness and understanding" — even among senior officials — of the state's emergency management system, according to the Associated Press' account of the findings of James Lee Witt Associates. Witt is the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but not the guy running FEMA during Katrina.

Everything that could go wrong with the state's storm response did, Witt concluded. He cited staffing deficiencies, incompetent supervisors, inferior technology and poor communication on the part of PennDOT, PEMA, the state police and the Pennsylvania National Guard.

In case you were wondering, Gov. Edward G. Rendell is in charge of all those agencies.

After releasing the report at a noon press conference in the state Capitol, Rendell said he instructed the heads of those agencies to begin implementing Witt's recommendation that emergency planning be given a higher priority. (They better get get moving. Only nine more months until winter comes back.)

According to the Associated Press, Witt's report showed:
  • The PennDOT district in Berks County did not have enough operators to man its available snow plows for more than one 12-hour period and was in violation of recommended staffing levels. Also, the entire Berks County management team had been in place for less than a month since the former team retired in January.
  • Although the storm was anticipated and nonessential state employees were given the day off at 6 a.m., PEMA did not raise the activation level of the state emergency operations center — a step that brings in liaisons with other state agencies — until nearly 14 hours later.
  • Neither Rendell nor state police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller was promptly alerted to the seriousness of the problems on Interstates 78, 80 and 81. The governor learned about it from stranded people who called his office early on the evening of Feb. 14. Miller heard about it a few hours earlier from a fellow Cabinet member who had been stranded for three hours.
  • PennDOT does not subscribe to a contracted weather-forecasting service, causing disparities in the information available to its district managers that hindered the department's overall response to the storm.
  • A sophisticated technology network designed to enhance PennDOT's awareness of road and traffic conditions was not functioning at the time of the storm.
In other words, despite billions of dollars spent every year, government is ripe with inefficiencies, incompetence and waste.

Welcome to the real world, governor.

Rendell is a creature of government. He believes government is the solution to all our problems. Rendell believes bigger government is always the answer. But in the real world, government usually causes or exacerbates most problems.

As President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' "

The Interstate 78 fiasco is living proof of that.

The Pennsylvania Legislature should keep this in mind as it prepares to review Rendell's mammoth $27.3 billion general fund budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year starting July 1.

Rendell has presided over the biggest increase in state spending in Pennsylvania history. What do we have to show for all the billions Rendell has spent since 2003?

We have a transportation department that can't plow our highways, a state police that can't staff its barracks and an emergency response office that can't respond to an emergency.

Tony Phyrillas

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.

Copyright © 2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Russ Diamond: PACleanSweep Senate Testimony on ConCon

Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, and thank you for this opportunity to testify on what I believe is the most important reform this Commonwealth could undertake. Although I have many opinions regarding improving our most fundamental law, the focus of my testimony will be on the mechanics of a constitutional convention rather than any particular changes to the document.

Constitutional conventions are called from time to time to address issues that are either impossible or too fundamental to submit to regular legislative bodies. While some conventions over the years have been revolutionary in nature and some could be more properly labeled as adjustments, all constitutional conventions are a response to some crisis in public confidence, be it external or internal to the workings of government. That we are broaching the subject today is evidence that a crisis exists.

While there is no specific methodology for calling a convention within the current Constitution, this was not always the case. The original 1776 version did include a procedure for calling a convention, vested in the Council of Censors, a body of citizens elected every seven years to compare the actions of government with the provisions of the Constitution.

I won't delve into the brief but fascinating history of the Council, but I have attached to my testimony an editorial on the subject for your review. For our purposes today, suffice it to say that by calling the convention of 1790, the General Assembly not only stripped the people of their power to call a convention through the Council - it also abolished the Council itself.

But even in the absence of mandated methodology, the Constitution itself can still guide us in organizing a proper convention. Members of this committee have already acknowledged the ultimate power of the people enumerated in Article I, Section 2, and that any convention held today should be a citizens' affair. The committee has also voiced a preference for the exemption of Article I, and this falls squarely in line with Section 25, which states that the enumerated rights of Article I "shall forever remain inviolate."

Beyond these two points, however, the document has remained silent on the issue of a convention for 217 years. For further guidance, we must rely on our understanding of exactly what a constitution is, our judgment of historical precedent and the nature of the crisis at hand.

Constitutions are agreements between citizens to define how they will govern themselves by enumerating some of their indefeasible rights and granting limited privileges to those elected to positions of public trust. Our Constitution is a specific set of rules written as clearly and succinctly as possible to avoid confusion and loose interpretation.

As the document’s owner, only the citizens should determine whether or how to alter the frame of government. Delegates to a convention, not the enabling act of the General Assembly, should make that determination. For this reason, I respectfully oppose any subject limitations on a convention - other than the exclusion of Article I, for reasons previously stated.

Basing a convention on the 1967 model fails to recognize two important facts. First, that convention served merely as a capstone for general revision of the document, much of which had already been accomplished before the convention through the amendment process. Second, the revision movement of the 1960’s was based on the notion that the crisis of that time was caused by factors external to government. Today’s crisis of public confidence largely stems from internal factors - namely, the abuse of governmental power and a failure to enforce the Constitution as written.

I acknowledge and concur with previous testimony regarding the importance of institutional knowledge at a convention. However, that knowledge should not be in the form of ex officio delegates. It could just as easily be accessed through testimony and reference materials given at hearings, just as I am doing here today.

I am aware of previous testimony by the ACLU regarding the prohibition of public officials serving as delegates, however the case cited in that testimony (U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779) was a U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding a state’s interference in a federal election. We are clearly speaking to a state issue today.

The sovereign people of Pennsylvania, at all times, absolutely have the right to determine the qualifications for delegates to a state convention, just as they do for state Senator, Representative, Governor or Justice of the Supreme Court. In the absence of a constitutional mandate, an act of the General Assembly is the proper legal instrument for carrying out the will of the people.

Turning to historical precedent for a convention, I have already noted the questionable origin of the 1790 convention, in that the General Assembly called it without having the authority to do so. In addition, the people never cast a vote on adoption of that Constitution. The 1872 convention tampered with Article I despite a specific prohibition in its enabling act.

In 1967 the convention was directed by elected officials, delegate selection was controlled by political committees, and both the enabling and adoption referenda were voted on at primary, rather than general elections. Following any of these precedents would be unacceptable in today’s climate.

Regarding the nomination and election of delegates, a citizens’ convention would demand that ballot access be as free, fair and accessible as possible. Setting the petitioning requirement at 100 signatures would encourage increased competition, robust debate and a large pool of alternate delegates to fill potential vacancies. A citizens’ convention would also demand that delegate elections be run as non-partisan affairs.

To ensure that all proceedings at a convention are deliberative; to avoid whimsical, radical or knee-jerk proposals; and to prevent it from getting mired in controversial partisan issues - such as the uniformity of taxation clause - the enabling act could simply require that any proposed changes to the Constitution be approved by a two-thirds majority of the delegates on final passage.

Neither of the preliminary proposals offered by Senator Piccola or Senator Ferlo specify any delegate compensation other than “reasonable expenses.” I urge you to consider that we’ll be charging a group of citizens with revamping the most important and fundamental document in the Commonwealth. I hardly believe this important task could be properly addressed by citizens working in their spare time in the evenings or on weekends, and I would certainly oppose a convention of only wealthy or elite delegates.

One of the current proposals limits the convention to a three-month session, while the other suggests six. For a citizens’ convention to be truly deliberative and meaningful, a longer convention is warranted to allow for a substantial amount of citizen input and an opportunity to finely hone proposed changes. If history is any indicator, a new Constitution may be in effect for the next 100 years or more. Anything worth doing is worth doing carefully and thoughtfully.

I am concerned about the provisions for lobbying included in the two preliminary proposals. A citizens’ convention, above all other functions carried out in the common interest, should be unburdened of the influence of special interests. Delegates to a convention must be insulated from the pernicious lobbying tactics normally accepted for regular legislative bodies. Interest groups who wish to influence the proceedings should be limited to providing reference materials to the convention as a whole or through public testimony before its committees.

This committee has acknowledged that several sections of the current Constitution are already so clear and concise that simply abiding by the limitations already in place would go far in reforming government in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t agree more. The problem, as I see it, is that there are no direct methods of enforcement contained within the document itself.

When the General Assembly passes a new statute and criminalizes a particular action, it often recommends the sanctions for breaking that law. The Constitution, which is legally superior to any statute, deserves to be protected in the same manner. This alone is reason enough to alter the document. Any law, frequently ignored or rarely enforced, is no law at all - and this is the underlying reason for today’s crisis in public confidence.

A citizens’ constitutional convention is the right tool to address the crisis at hand in 2007, but it must be a convention with a deliberate emphasis on the common interest, rather than self-interest. The process must look forward as well as backward. It must be focused on the structure and integrity of government rather than partisan issues. And it must be a conversation where private citizens, rather than elected officials, are doing most of the talking.

If we truly believe in the inherent right to self-governance as enumerated by Article I, a citizens’ constitutional convention provides no cause for hand ringing, anguish or hesitation of spirit. I urge you to take action on this matter as soon as possible so the citizens of this Commonwealth can get on with their lives, confident that government is acting in a manner which adequately protects their rights and properly fulfills its duty to the public good.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today. I’d be glad to answer any questions.

Suggested language for a 'ConCon' enabling act:

Russ Diamond

About PACleanSweep:
PACleanSweep is a non-partisan effort dedicated to returning honor, dignity and integrity to government in Pennsylvania. For more information, please visit

For More Information:

Russ Diamond, Chair

Copyright © 2007, PACleansweep; All Rights Reserved

Copyright © 2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tim Potts: DR Testifies for a Constitutional Convention

HARRISBURG - A co-founder of Democracy Rising PA today asked the Senate State Government Committee to authorize the Commonwealth's first general constitutional convention in more than 130 years and to adopt a method for selecting delegates "to achieve the goal of fair representation for all ... segments of the citizenry."

Tim Potts said Democracy Rising PA since 2005 has collected ideas for changes to the state's Constitution. Now numbering more than 180, the ideas touch every Article of the Constitution.

Democracy Rising PA is the only group so far calling for a general convention. Others have proposed to limit the areas of the Constitution that delegates could address.

Potts said Democracy Rising PA believes it would be unconstitutional and contrary to the principles of self-governance to hold a limited convention.

To limit the convention, he said, would be "tantamount to King George telling Thomas Jefferson what he could discuss in the Declaration of Independence and to de ny that those convened in Philadelphia in 1787 could go beyond the confederation to propose to their fellow citizens a more perfect union. It bespeaks a distrust of citizens that undermines the foundation of this noble experiment."

Potts said a limited convention could forbid discussion of dozens of ideas, including:
  • imposing term limits on committee chairs and legislative leaders, an idea favored by 77% of voters, according to the recent Keystone Poll . Article II, Section 9
  • prohibiting lame-duck session, an idea favored by 82% of voters in the same poll. Article II, Section 14
  • imposing stricter procedural rules on bills that require concurrence or conference committees. Article III, Section 5
  • prohibiting judges and justices from having private meetings with members of the other branches where issues of public policy, such as the pay raise, are discussed. Article V, Section 17
  • prohibiting the use of eminent domain for private purposes. (Article I, Section 10)
  • providing citizens with the power of initiative, referendum and recall. Article I, Section 20; Article VI, Section 7
  • guaranteeing equal ballot access for all potential candidates for public office and permitting all voters to participate in all elections. Article VII, Section 6
  • permitting a graduated income tax, prohibiting property taxes and providing a dedicated funding source for public transportation. Ar ticle VIII, Sections 1 and 2
  • consolidating municipal governments and school districts and permitting revenue sharing in pursuit of regional priorities. Article IX, Section 8
"Especially at a constitutional convention, we need to take the long view," Potts said.

"What we do today can be undone by another generation if it proves to produce more harm than good. The only constant in the long view is the "inalienable and indefeasible right" of citizens "to alter, reform or abolish their government..." ( Article I, Section 2 )."

Democracy Rising PA also asked the committee to reject basing the selection of delegates on Senatorial districts because citizens have little confidence in the highly political product of the re-apportionment process of 2001. According to Potts, the re-apportionment was "based in large part on a desire to protect incumbent lawmakers and to configure as many senatorial districts as possible to be as politically safe as possible for one party or the other."

He said that delegates could be selected according to other regional divisions that are not based on political considerations but that do maintain county borders intact. He cited the 12 PennDOT districts, 46 districts for the delivery of mental health and mental retardation services and seven districts of the Department of Labor and Industry as examples.

The process for selecting delegates should use census data and statistical modeling techniques to ensure that delegates as a whole reflect the demographic and economic make-up of the areas they represent.

If, for example, women constitute 50 percent of the citizens in a region, they should constitute 50 percent of the region's delegates. Similarly, senior citizens and those earning above or below the median income of the region should be represented by a proportional number of the region's delegates, he said.

Potts cited a Citizens' Assembly held in British Columbia five years ago as a model of this approach. Called sortition, or allotment, the process for selecting delegates dates to ancient Greece, although it is used today in Pennsylvania and elsewhere for selecting juries.

Delegates would be chosen at random from among registered voters until, on the whole, those selected accurately reflected the characteristics of the region. Anyone chosen by lottery could refuse to serve, re-opening a position for someone else who has similar characteristics.

Click here for Potts's full testimony. And here for the Constitution section of DR's web site.

Tim Potts,

©Democracy Rising Pennsylvania 2001-2007. All Rights Reserved.


Copyright © 2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Cleaning up the mess at PHEAA

Two Republican state senators plan to introduce legislation to bring some accountability and fiscal sanity to PHEAA, the student-loan agency that has wasted nearly $1 million to pamper its employees and the legislators who serve on its board.It's about time.

State Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) and state Sen. Jane C. Orie (R-Allegheny) recently unveiled a plan to restructure the current appointment, reporting and accounting procedures of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) board.

The legislation will require PHEAA to contract with a third party accounting firm to conduct an annual forensic audit of the PHEAA board which must be submitted to the House and Senate Finance Committees by April 1 of each year.

PHEAA would also be required on that date to submit a report to the Senate and House Finance Committees which contains all expenses and revenues associated with the operations of the PHEAA board.

Imagine that. An audit of an agency that spends hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it taxpayer dollars, during the course of the year. Why didn't the executive director of PHEAA think of that?

The legislation also requires that all appointees to the PHEAA board selected by the House and the Senate be approved by a majority vote in their respective chambers.

It would prohibit standing legislators from serving more than 2 consecutive terms on the PHEAA board. (Some of the current PHEAA board members have served for 20 years).

This is where it gets good. The PHEAA board, made up mostly of state legislators and members of Gov. Rendell's administration, has been asleep at the wheel for decades while the agency wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some familiar legislative names on the PHEAA board include Rep. William F. Adolph Jr., Sen. Sean Logan, Rep. Ronald I. Buxton, Sen. Jake Corman, Rep. Craig A. Dally, Sen. Jane M. Earll, Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, Rep. Sandra J. Major, Rep. Jennifer L. Mann, Rep. Joseph F. Markosek, Sen. Michael A. O'Pake, Sen. James J. Rhoades, Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr., Rep. Jess M. Stairs, Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson.

"Our goal is to bring greater accountability and fiscal responsibility to PHEAA and ensure that funds are not spent in a wasteful or unnecessary manner," Rafferty said. "The recent stories of financial mismanagement and over-the top-spending have made it necessary for us to take a closer look at the agency’s fiscal bottom line."

Orie added that the legislation will ensure that PHEAA revenue is used for the purpose it was intended – to provide low-interest grants and loans to students.

"Lavish trips, tuxedos, and spa visits are not defensible expenses and should be stopped," Orie said. "This legislation will ensure that money is spent prudently and put PHEAA on notice that it has to be accountable to the Legislature and the citizens of Pennsylvania."

Ken Schaefer, chairman of Vote For Integrity, a citizens' watchdog group, has called for the immediate resignation of Richard Willey, president and CEO of PHEAA.

Willey, who makes $470,000 a year and was awarded a $180,000 bonus last year, should step down immidiately or be fired. The $900,000 was wasted during his tenure and the agency cannot regain public confidence as long as Willey remains CEO.

All incumbent PHEAA board members should also step down. These career politicians failed to perform their oversight duties over PHEAA. (It's also interesting to note that most of the legislators on the PHEAA board voted themselves huge pay raises in July 2005. These people have a serious judgment problem.)

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.

Copyright © 2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Early primary creates many headaches

Gov. Ed Rendell wants to move up the date of the 2008 Pennsylvania primary election to Feb. 5.

His reasoning is that Pennsylvania won't have a say in picking the next president if it waits until April to hold its primary. Several big states, including California and New Jersey, have moved up the dates of their primaries.

Rendell is also the governor who signed Act 1 into law, forcing the state's 501 school districts to seek voter approval to shift taxes. Those votes take place during the primary election.

If Pennsylvania moves up its primary to Feb. 5, 2008, it will force school districts to finalize their 2008-2009 school budgets during the fall of 2007 so they can prepare ballot referendums for the Feb. 5 primary.

How can a school district anticipate its funding needs two years down the road, especially when the state doesn't have to adopt its budget until the end of June 2008?

While it would nice for Ed Rendell to tour around Pennsylvania arm-in-arm with Hillary Clinton, Rendell made his bed by forcing Act 1 on Pennsylvania residents.

Thanks to Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania will still be left in the cold when it comes to presidential politics and taxpayers will continue to get the shaft from Rendell's tax shift sceme.

Pennsylvania's most liberal newspaper (the one that thinks Rendell can do no wrong) has offered a "solution" to Rendell's dilemma. The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests Pennsylvania hold the presidential primary on Feb. 5, but keep the local primaries on the fourth Tuesday in April.

Here's two reasons why that's a stupid idea. It would cost nearly $20 million to hold an extra election and we can't get 20 percent of registered voters to come to the polls now for spring primaries. Why would anyone want a third election? Imagine the voter turnout in April, where 9 out of 10 voters probably won't bother to vote).

It used to be that Iowa and New Hampshire got first dibs on selecting the respective Democratic and Republican candidates. But there's too much money and too much ego involved in presidential contests. Every state wants to be first or at least early enough to matter.

The game of leap frog the states are playing with their primary dates is getting ridiculous. California just decided to move its primary to Feb. 5, joining a bunch of other states in what is being described as a "decisive one-day, mega-primary across the country."

The Republican Party in Pennsylvania is already on record opposing a move in the 2008 primary.

Republican State Committee Chairman Robert A. Gleason Jr. testified last week at a joint hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate Republican and Democratic Policy Committees on the plan to move the primary up from April.

"Our governor needs to consider that moving our primary election date to February 5th affects the timing of committee planning, candidates meeting with voters and committee members, the circulation of petitions, school board budgets, and would create an environment where politicians would be campaigning during the holiday season," Gleason said.

Those are all valid concerns. And look how difficult it is for many counties to hold problem-free elections now every six months (May and November). What makes you think counties can handle the job of holding an election with only three months of preparation time?

While Rendell wants to be a player in the 2008 presidential race and there's still talk that he would head to Washington, D.C., if a Democrat is elected to the White House, is it worth inconveniencing so many people in Pennsylvania to satisfy the desires of political junkies?

There's no doubt in my mind that incumbents would benefit from moving the primary up next year. I'm talking about the members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate. All 203 House members and 25 of the 50 Senate members will have to run for re-election.

These politicians have so many advantages already. They're running non-stop, year-round re-election campaigns. They also use the power of incumbency to shamelessly promote themselves.

Gleason has the same concerns.

"In the new day of openness and transparency in our state government an earlier primary may be seen as a contradiction to that movement, as I have heard from some in (the Republican Party) who view this effort as an incumbent protection safeguard," Gleason said. "It is my belief that an earlier primary would leave less time for candidate organizations to mobilize the petition process and candidate endorsement."

Moving the primary to Feb. 5, 2008, virtually guarantees the re-election of incumbent legislators. And the majority of them don't deserve re-election.

Rendell has failed to make a strong case for moving the primary date in Pennsylvania other than to satisfy his own ego, protect his political cronies in Harrisburg and to screw the state's taxpayers even more. That's three strikes against the Rendell plan.

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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Russ Diamond: Citizens’ Convention Would Address Crisis in Confidence

After 133 years, the Pennsylvania General Assembly should approve an enabling act for a true citizens’ constitutional convention.In 1872, the citizens of Pennsylvania agreed to convene in a dedicated review of the frame of government. At that constitutional convention, much of the focus was on the abuses of special legislation, disturbing and fraudulent election practices, and the structure of the state’s court system.

The convention lasted just over a year, where these and other issues were hotly debated by statesmen of the day. Although there were court challenges to the proceedings and fractional political groups voicing strong opposition, the press covered the convention faithfully and produced largely favorable editorials.

When Pennsylvanians confronted the new Constitution at a special election, they adopted it by a two to one margin. This was the last time citizens fully participated in such a broad review of government at a convention. Since then, constitutional change has been carried out in piecemeal fashion by the hands of others.

Between 1901 and 1959, 86 constitutional amendments emanated from the legislature. 59 were adopted by the voters. All were minor sectional changes to the document, and as the mood of voters changed from year to year, so did their embrace of amendments.

Running parallel to this incremental and unpredictable path of change were periodic pushes for general revision instigated by various Governors: The Sproul Commission in 1921, a separate pre-depression effort by Gifford Pinchot, the 1935 Earle Advisory Committee and the Woodside Commission in 1959. These efforts all failed to produce any constitutional change whatsoever.

In 1961, an alternative plan was conceived. William Schnader, who led the Earle Committee and was serving as president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, urged the group to get involved. By 1963, 14 committees of the Bar Association produced a comprehensive plan - dubbed Project Constitution - to amend the Constitution in article-sized chunks rather than the small sectional bites taken since 1874.

Governor William Scranton took office in 1962 with constitutional change as a high priority. In 1963 the legislature proposed a convention to the electorate. The Bar Association was prepared to submit its plan to the convention, but the voters refused to authorize one.

Scranton then prompted legislative introduction of several of the Bar Association’s "article by article" amendments. Scranton was term-limited out of office in 1966, but he and successor Raymond Shafer successfully shepherded nine amendments through the legislative and voter adoption processes by mid-1967. At the same time, voters approved a convention to consider the remaining articles and the issue of apportionment.

By the time delegates gathered in Harrisburg, the convention’s preparatory committee, consisting entirely of the Lt. Governor and legislative leaders, had already set the agenda. 69 of the 163 delegates to the convention - including 9 of the 13 preparatory committee members - were lawyers.

The delegates carried out their duties and adjourned just 79 minutes before a mandated deadline. When the convention’s recommendations were approved by the electorate eight weeks later, the citizens’ Constitution of 1874 became history, replaced by something rewritten and rearranged on a wholesale scale by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

While the 1967 convention was indeed of the "limited" variety, it was only because most of the job had already been completed through the Bar Association’s article-by-article amendment process.

To be sure, constitutional change in Pennsylvania since 1874 hasn’t been all bad, but it has only occurred with the sovereign people sitting in the grandstands, relegated to merely ratifying the notions of others rather than molding government in their own hands.

Whenever a crisis in public confidence occurs, any correction or reform must be aimed squarely at the underlying causes. The crisis of the 1870’s was wholly internal, directly caused by actions and abuses within the institutions of government. During the 1960’s, the causes were largely seen as external to government: stunted population growth, the loss of employable young people, and dismal economic conditions.

Clearly, Pennsylvania’s current crisis of confidence more closely resembles the former than the latter. After 133 years, the General Assembly should approve an enabling act for a true citizens’ constitutional convention.

It must be a convention with a deliberate emphasis on the common interest, rather than self-interest. The process must look forward as well as backward, and it must be focused on the structure and integrity of government rather than partisan issues.

At such a convention, Pennsylvanians would shape a government prepared to take on the challenges of the future, restore the virtues of self-governance and blaze a trail for the rest of the nation to follow. Anything less would simply be unacceptable.

Permission is hereby granted to reproduce, publish and/or distribute this article in its entirety.

Posted by Russ Diamond.


Copyright © 2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved

Tony Phyrillas: Reform? We don't need no stinking reform!

"We don't need no reform! I don't have to show you any stinking reform!!"

Ever had the wind knocked out of you? Then you know how the members of the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform felt like during Monday's voting session to change the way the Pennsylvania House of Representatives does business.

This was supposed to be easy. The reform commission consisted of 12 Democrats and 12 Republicans. They met for two months and came up with recommendations to make fundamental changes in how the House conducts the people's business. A total of 32 reforms made it out of the commission meetings by garnering support from a majority of both Democrats and Republicans on the panel.

Those were the ground rules. Nothing would get to the floor for a vote by the full House unless it had the support of the majority of the bipartisan commission.

These were the no-brainer reforms like not voting on bills after 11 p.m. (unlike the legislative pay raise of 2005 or the casino gambling bill of 2004, both of which were approved at 2 a.m.)

A funny thing happened on the way to the state Capitol.

Turns out that the majority of the 203 members of the House don't want to change. They like the way things are. They enjoy basking in wealth and privilege. They want to keep all their perks. They don't have a problem with denying the wishes of the majority of their constituents.

As I have been telling you for two years, the only real reform in Harrisburg will come when more incumbents are thrown out of office. Voters knocked out 55 incumbents in 2006, but that wasn't enough. Voters returned nearly 200 others. Therein lies the problem.

We're not talking about 300 Spartans here. These are not brave men and women who will stand up for what's right. These are cowardly career politicians who are perfectly content with gorging themselves at the public trough.

They came, they saw, they chickened out.

Among the most cowardly votes on the House floor Monday were the defeat of measures designed to get more power into the hands of the rank-and-file, term limits for committee chairmen and a ban taxpayer-supported election-year public-service broadcast ads.

All were voted down by the House.

Democratic and Republican leaders led the opposition to a measure designed to prevent the Appropriations Committee from amending another committee's bill beyond fiscal matters. This continues to concentrate power in a small group of legislative leaders.

"This is, quite frankly, about power — nothing more, nothing less," said Rep. Curt Schroder of Chester County. "There is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few members of the General Assembly. It would be better for that power to be diffused somewhat so all representatives could better represent their districts."

The final vote was 149-50 with nearly every Democrat in the House voting against the reform measure. I warned you about those brain-dead Democrats you voted into the majority last year. They do as the party bosses tell them to. They dance to the tune of Ed Rendell and Bill DeWeese. They are not looking out for you.

The House also rejected a proposed election-year ban on buying broadcast time to air public-service announcements that feature representatives' voices, faces or names.

"For the most part they've been used to promote a member's name recognition as the primary purpose, and public benefit only as a secondary purpose," said Rep. Greg Vitali, a Democrat from Delaware County.

Vitali said incumbents spent $6 million of your tax dollars in 2006 on public service announcements. The ban on PSAs was defeated 39-160.

The House also rejected, by a 67-132 vote, a measure sponsored by Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from York County, that would have limited committee chairmen to four consecutive terms.

Committee chairman are often the targets of lobbyists who can keep important legislation bottled up for years as long as they keep the committee chairman on a short leash.

Two measures regarding state-subsidized vehicles were both defeated, allowing lawmakers to continue riding around in luxury automobiles paid by taxpayers.

House members also turned down a proposal to ban smoking in most areas of the state Capitol. While the Legislature is moving forward with plans to ban smoking in public places in Pennsylvania, it appears the lawmakers will exempt themselves from the smoking ban.

If you're keeping score, here's how things went Monday. The House voted on 18 of the 32 reform recommendations, approving 10, but rejecting 8 others. All 18 should have been approved. All 32 reform recommendations deserve approval.

The House resumed debate on reform measures Tuesday morning, but don't get your hopes up. The jig is up. We've met the enemy and it's the 253 lawmakers we keep sending back to Harrisburg.

It's clear the only way the people of Pennsylvania can take back their state government from the political aristocracy that has usurped all the power is to drive out the majority of House members.

All 203 House members (and 25 members of the Senate) will seek re-election in 2008. Maybe this time, you'll take my advice and vote out most of the incumbents.

Phyrillas returns to radio, TV
Join your favorite columnist, blogger and resident know-it-all for a scintillating hour of talk radio when I return to the Nick Lawrence Show from 4 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, 2007, on WPAZ 1370 AM.

You can call the station at 610-326-4000 with comments or questions during the live broadcast.You can also listen to the show on your computer at by clicking on the "live audio" button at the top of the station's home page.

And circle Thursday, March 29, 2007, on your calendar. That's when Tony Phyrillas returns to the "Journalists Roundtable" program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Consult your local cable guide for the channel.

The popular public affairs show will be broadcast at 8 that evening and will be shown again on Sunday, April 1, at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. So, there's no excuse for missing it.

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, March 10, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Take my legislators, please

As activist Russ Diamond stated so aptly recently, Monday is when the rubber meets the road.

That's the day when the Pennsylvania House of Representatives votes on dozens of reform measures recommended by the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform.

While long overdue, the rules changes the House will consider are basically window dressing.

Substantial changes in the way Harrisburg does business won't happen until a constitutional convention is called and the citizens of Pennsylvania -- not the politicians -- get to change the way state government operates.

The most obvious change needed is the size of the Pennsylvania Legislature, which is the largest full-time legislature in the country and the most expensive.

The argument against reducing the size of the Legislature is that Pennsylvania residents won't get the same representation they do now. That argument comes from the 253 incumbent legislatures who don't want to give up all the money and perks they've granted themselves through the years.

I'm still waiting to see which lawmaker will be the first to stand up and voluntarily give up his or her seat in the interest of a more efficient government.

To that end, I'd like to step in and offer to give up my state senator and state representative. I don't need them. They've never done a thing for me. I'm willing to give them up.

Ironically, my state senator, Michael A. O'Pake, recently announced that he wants to introduce three reform bills, including one to cut the size of the Legislature. O'Pake's bill would call for a constitutional amendment to reduce the Senate to 40 members from 50, and the House from 203 representatives to 121.

Notice that O'Pake, a Democrat who represents the 11th Senate District in Berks County, didn't volunteer to be one of the legislators to give up his seat.

O'Pake, who has served in the Legislature for nearly 40 years, is big on rhetoric, but short on results. He is the master of the sound bite or newspaper quote, but has little to show for four decades in Harrisburg.

This is one of my favorite comments about O'Pake came from blogger Al Walentis when O'Pake couldn't be found to comment on the legislative pay raise furor:

"Funny thing, some of our fat-walleted lawmakers aren't too quick to get on the horn and communicate with their constituents through the media. Stop the presses! Mike O'Pake clamming up!

This is a guy who can sniff out a camera crew from two counties away. He's like the Forrest Gump of the 11th District -- whenever there's a photo op to be found, Senator Mike's visage somehow finds its way therein.

Perhaps our normally garrulous lawmakers are being replaced by distorted duplicates from the Bizarro world out of the Superman comics, where they can legislate for the wacky, cockeyed county of Skreb. Or maybe there's something that's just too shameful to talk about anymore.

I'm also more than willing to give up my state representative, Dante Santoni Jr., a Democrat who has held the 126th House District seat since 1993.

Santoni is so far down the food chain in Harrisburg that nobody would miss him if he stopped showing up. The guy has never sponsored a bill or chaired a committee in 14 years. What's the point of having a lawmaker if he never makes any laws?

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review did a budget analysis of the Legislature earlier this month and found that it costs $1.3 million a year to feed, clothe and house each legislator and their staff. Are you getting $1.3 million worth of service from your state legislator?

I see a quick way to save my fellow Pennsylvania taxpayers $2.6 million a year. I'm willing to have O'Pake and Santoni sent into retirement with their big fat pensions. I don't have a problem with their districts being absorbed into neighboring districts.

I know it's a sacrifice, but it's one I'm willing to make for my fellow taxpayers. So, take my legislators, please.

It costs $335 million a year to pay for the Pennsylvania Legislature. If we cut the Legislature in half, we could save at least $150 million a year. I'd like to see that money returned to taxpayers.

What about the rest of you? Are you willing to give up your overpaid, underworked lawmaker in the interest of saving some of our money?

Join your favorite columnist, blogger and resident know-it-all for a scintillating hour of talk radio when I return to the Nick Lawrence Show from 4 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, 2007, on WPAZ 1370 AM.

You can call the station at 610-326-4000 with comments or questions during the live broadcast.You can also listen to the show on your computer at by clicking on the "live audio" button at the top of the station's home page.

And circle Thursday, March 29, 2007, on your calendar. That's when Tony Phyrillas returns to the "Journalists Roundtable" program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Consult your local cable guide for the channel.

The popular public affairs show will be broadcast at 8 that evening and will be shown again on Sunday, April 1, at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. So, there's no excuse for missing it.

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.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Rendell minimum wage ploy backfires

Remember all the hype last year when Gov. Ed Rendell and Democrats in the state Legislature pushed to raise the minimum wage in Pennsylvania?

Despite near universal condemnation by economists and business leaders, Rendell got the minimum wage hike bill through the Legislature and signed it into law. Rendell touted it as one of his big "accomplishments" during his re-election campaign last fall.

The state's minimum wage increased from $5.15 per hour to $6.25 per hour on January 1, 2007. It will go up $7.15 on July 1. (For employers with the equivalent of 10 or fewer full-time employees (based on a 40-hour workweek), the minimum wage increases in three steps: $5.65 on January 1, 2007; $6.65 on July 1, 2007; and $7.15 on July 1, 2008.)

Rendell and the lockstep Democrats in Harrisburg promised that raising the minimum wage would help hundreds of thousands of working Pennsylvanians earning salaries below the poverty level.

Reality often has a habit of biting know-it-all politicians in the rump.

Rendell's plan to "help working Pennsylvanians" appears to have backfired for employees of the Bonanza restaurant in Boyertown. The popular Berks County eatery off Route 100 recently closed its doors after 20 years in business.

All 85 employees, including many earning minimum wage, lost their jobs.

The restaurant owner told The Boyertown Times that several factors forced her to go out of business. One of those reasons she cited was ... drum roll, please ... the increase in the minimum wage in Pennsylvania!

So instead of earning a little bit of money, the restaurant workers are now earning zero.

Maybe the restaurant workers can write Ed Rendell a thank-you note while they're standing in the unemployment line.

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, March 01, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Pennsylvania tax bite keeps getting bigger

"The purpose of government is to serve the people and if government doesn't serve the people, there's no purpose in having a government."

That quote is at the bottom of all the e-mails I get from the Bradford County Concerned Citizens, which also ends its messages with this ditty: "Pennsylvania, Land of Taxes"

It's a new month. That means it's time to review all the different ways the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania relieves its residents of their hard-earned cash.

Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Revenue Department, which relishes reminding us at the start of each month how much it collected in taxes the previous month, here are the numbers:

The state collected $1.6 billion in General Fund revenue in February, $17.2 million, or 1.1 percent, more than anticipated. Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $15.3 billion, which is $112.1 million, or 0.7 percent, above estimate.

Sales Tax receipts totaled $612.3 million for February, which was $15.1 million above estimate. Sales Tax collections year-to-date total $5.7 billion, which is $27.4 million below estimate or 0.5 percent less than anticipated.

Personal Income Tax (PIT) revenue in February was $697.7 million, which was $6.3 million below estimate. This brings year-to-date PIT collections to $6 billion, which is $67.2 million or 1.1 percent above estimate.

February Corporation Tax revenue of $79 million was $2.3 million below estimate. Year-to-date Corporation Tax collections total $1.8 billion, which is $82.2 million, or 4.9 percent, above estimate.

Other General Fund revenue figures for the month included $51.5 million in Inheritance Tax, which was $8 million below estimate and brought the year-to- date total to $481.3 million, which is $27.6 million below estimate.

Realty Transfer Tax was $33.9 million for February, bringing the total to $386.7 million for the year, which is $26.2 million less than anticipated.

Other General Fund revenue including the Cigarette, Malt Beverage and Liquor Tax totaled $113.4 million for the month, $23.6 million above estimate, bringing the year-to-date total to $918.5 million, which is $44 million above estimate.

In addition to the General Fund collections, the Motor License Fund received $169.3 million for the month, $2.3 million above estimate. Fiscal year-to-date collections for the fund total $1.6 billion, which is $1.4 million or 0.1 percent above estimate.

The Gaming Fund received $168.5 million in unrestricted revenues for February. Fiscal year-to-date collections for the fund total $344.2 million. Gaming Fund receipts include taxes, fees and interest. Of the total for the month, $17.7 million was collected in state taxes for property tax relief, bringing the year-to-date total to $42.5 million.

Other gaming-related revenues collected for February included $2.1 million for the Local Share Assessment, for a total of $6 million for the year; $2.6 million for the Economic Development and Tourism Fund, for a year-to-date total of $6.2 million; and $6.2 million for the Race Horse Development Fund, bringing the total for the year to $15 million.

I don't know about you, but I can't afford to support our state government anymore. I'm putting my state representative and state senator on notice. If you vote for any new taxes or raising any existing taxes, I'm voting against you in 2008.

And forget about the members of my local school board. I'm voting all the incumbents our. They've raised my taxes every year I've lived in the district.

And I will be voting "no" on the Act 1 referendum on the May 15 ballot. It's bad enough my so-called elected representatives screw me every time by raising taxes. I'm not going to assist them by voting to raise my own taxes.

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.