Friday, September 28, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Pennsylvania legislators are batty

The state's bridges are crumbling, nearly a million Pennsylvanians don't have health insurance, electricity rates are about to skyrocket and property taxes are chocking the state's growing elderly population.

So what is the nation's most expensive state legislature dealing with today? Which crisis are lawmakers tackling?

Metal or aluminum bats. Specifically, whether the state should forbid kids from using metal bats in baseball and softball games.

A bill introduced by Rep. Michael B. Carroll, D-Luzerne, would impose fines for youth baseball teams that do not start using wooden bats for their games. Players would be fined $25 and organizers $50 for using non-wood bats, according to the bill.

You wonder why Pennsylvania voters got rid of 1 in 5 state lawmakers in the 2006 elections or why the Legislature has a 30 percent approval rate?

It's not like there aren't enough real problems Pennsylvania lawmakers can address.

Rep. Carroll is worried that players who use metal bats, that's pretty much everybody in the past 25 years, are hitting baseballs too hard. Those line drivers could injure players, he argues.

Little League Baseball Inc. President Stephen D. Keener testified before the House Children and Youth Committee. Keener said metal bats are not dangerous and banning them would hurt the sport. Keener said he's never heard of once case in the past 25 years where a child was injured as a result of using aluminum bats.

Is there a bigger waste of time and taxpayer dollars than this?

Somebody in Carroll's home district should seriously consider running against this guy next year. It's obvious he has too much time on his hands or he's taken a line drive to the head.

Has Carroll ever watched a youth baseball or softball game? The kids are lucky to make contact with the ball and it general doesn't leave the infield. Unless Little Leaguers are on steroids, there's not reason to ban metal bats.

Keener isn't the only person who thinks the proposed ban is batty.

Check out the Don't Take My Bat Away coalition's Web site:

Also, a group of Olympic gold-medalists and current members of Team USA — the Team USA – the women's Olympic softball team – sent a letter to the Legislature opposing the proposed ban on aluminum bats.

The letter (printed below) was signed by 12 gold medal winners from the 1996, 2000 and 2004 teams, including: Michele Smith, Julie Smith, Laura Berg, Natasha Watley, Stacey Nuveman, Cat Osterman, Jessica Mendoza, Lovieanne Jung, Jenny Topping, Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, and Amanda Freed, and three members of the 2008 Team USA – Andrea Duran, Alicia Hollowell, and Lauren Lappin -- which will go for gold next summer at the Olympics in Beijing. Sarah Pauly, an all-star softball player and current college assistant coach, (but not an Olympic athlete), also signed the letter.

Dear Chairman Bishop and Chairman Rubley:

As Olympic champions, gold medalists, current and former members of Team USA, and supporters of softball, we are writing to express our strong opposition to Pennsylvania House Bill 1482, introduced by Representative Mike Carroll, which would prohibit non-wood bats in amateur softball and baseball games in the State of Pennsylvania.

Despite good intentions, this bill won't improve safety one bit, but it will damage our game. Girls softball is one of America’s greatest success stories, not only for its contribution to fitness and athleticism, but for the values it has taught generations of young women: discipline, teamwork, competitiveness, and sportsmanship.

Softball is one of the safest sports, period. In the National Collegiate Athletics Association, women's softball has the lowest rate of game injuries among 15 of the most-played sports at the college level, according to the Journal of Athletic Training. Since 2000, the Amateur Softball Association has used bat performance standards to regulate the batted ball speeds (the speed of the ball coming off of a bat) of all its approved bats. These rules and standards have protected player safety.

Softball is also one of the most popular sports for girls to play, with over 75,000 girls playing fast pitch in Pennsylvania alone. This caps a long period of growth in the sport that has introduced many girls to competitive high school athletics for the first time in their lives. There is large body of evidence that participation in high school sports is a positive factor for physical fitness, academic achievement and developing the skills needed for success in life.

We've achieved this success not from government, but from the partnership of dedicated league officials, coaches, players and parents…and with respect, as the athletes who actually play the sport, we believe we have a greater understanding of its dynamics than do the politicians who have most likely never played the sport. We have dedicated ourselves to keeping our game great while at the same time protecting the health and safety of the players.

Amateur Softball is not broken and does not need to be fixed. We hope you will agree.

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 © 2005-2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Gambling probe forces Democratic official to resign

With less than six weeks to go before the Nov. 6 election, the Democratic ticket of Joe Hoeffel and Ruth Damsker suffered a major blow in its efforts to win control of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

One of the co-chairs of the Hoeffel-Damsker campaign resigned Tuesday after authorities busted a huge illegal gambling operation in Montgomery County. The case involves bars and other establishments housing video poker machines.

One of the businesses raided was Cisco's Bar and Grille in the 1500 block of Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown. Cisco's is owned and operated by Joanne C. Olszewski and her husband. Olszewski is an elected jury commissioner in Montgomery County and co-chair of the Hoeffel-Damsker campaign.

Everyone knows that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is now in the gambling business thanks to Ed Rendell, so Olszewski will have a hard time explaining why her family business is running video poker machines.

Olszewski is also first vice president of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee and a member of the State Democratic Committee. Read more about Olszewski's resignation in
The Mercury.

The other interesting quirk in this story (other than the timing) is that the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, which is handling the investigation, is headed by Bruce L. Castor Jr., who is a Republican candidate for Montgomery County Commissioner.

Castor said his First Assistant D.A., Risa Ferman, is handling the case, but Castor was pictured prominently in the press conference announcing the raids. Ferman is the Republican candidate to replace Castor as Montgomery County D.A.

Reporter Margaret Gibbons pointed out in her story that, "Even before the district attorney's press conference, a story taken from KYW-AM radio citing sources indicating that an unnamed county elected official was caught in the investigation went up on the Castor-Matthews campaign Web site."

Gibbons also asked Montgomery County Democratic Chairman Marcel L. Groen if the timing of the raids were politically motivated.

"I do not believe the underlying investigation was politically motivated, but the timing of the announcement of the investigation coming just six weeks before the election is interesting to say the least," Groen said.

Ferman denied any shenanigans.

"We don't accuse public officials of committing crimes unless we're sure," Ferman told Gibbons. "We're in the business of doing investigations and we understand that a public official's reputation is paramount."

Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Ken Davis isn't satisfied with Olszewski's departure from the Hoeffel-Damsker campaign. He wants the Democratic candidates to push for Olszewski's resignation as a jury commissioner.

"Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and I ask that the rights of Ms. Olszewski be observed as she deals with this difficult situation regarding an investigation for an illegally rigged gambling machine operated out of a business she owns, Cisco's Bar," Davis said in a written statement.

Because Olszewski is a key member of Damsker-Hoeffel '07, the Montgomery County Democratic Committee and State Democratic Committee who has donated and raised a significant amount of money for the Damsker-Hoeffel campaign and Democratic Party, Davis wants Damsker and Hoeffel to consider asking for her resignation as Jury Commissioner in light of these serious allegations.

"Her resignation simply from the Damsker-Hoeffel campaign is not enough," Davis said.

Hoeffel and Damsker have made numerous allegations about corruption in the Republican-controlled county. Davis wasted no time in turning the tables on the Democrats.

"Republican officials have repeatedly been exonerated from recklessly false claims made by both Damsker and Hoeffel," Davis said. "I hope that the alleged crimes of Ms. Olszewski, the only Democratic elected official in the Court House, do not represent the type of culture Damsker and Hoeffel want to establish in Montgomery County."

Davis wants Damsker and Hoeffel and the Montgomery County Democratic Committee to answer the following questions:

• Did Damsker, Hoeffel or any Democratic Party official hold campaign fundraisers at Ms. Olszewski's bar, Cisco's?

• Did Damsker, Hoeffel or any Democratic Party official at any time play, or encourage attendees/patrons to play, the allegedly rigged illegal video poker machines in Cisco's Bar?

• Did any illegal gambling proceeds from the video poker machines in Cisco's Bar find their way in to the campaign coffers of Damsker, Hoeffel or the Democratic Party?

• Have any representatives of JC Vending Inc. made campaign contributions to Damsker, Hoeffel or any Democratic Party organizations?

Stay tuned.

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 © 2005-2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Is Jim Matthews trying to sink Montco GOP ticket?

Is Jim Matthews trying to throw the Nov. 6 election?

It's beginning to look that way as the incumbent Republican Montgomery County Commissioner proves once again to be his own worst enemy.

With the election just six weeks away, Matthews is keeping the fading Democratic Party challengers alive by continuing to accept money from convicted felon Bob Asher.

Matthews' bonehead loyalty to Asher is giving his Democratic opponents, Joe Hoeffel and Ruth Damsker, plenty of ammunition as they try to take control of the three-member Board of Commissioners.

Hoeffel and Damkser haven't had much success in attracting support with their raise taxes/make government bigger agenda, but they keep scoring points every time they point out that Matthews is funded by Asher.

Read Margaret Gibbons' story in the
The Times Herald for more on the ongoing controversy.

The person you feel sorry for is Bruce L. Castor Jr., who is giving up his post as Montgomery County District Attorney in a valiant effort to keep Republican control of the commissioners' board.

Castor made it clear from the start that he wanted nothing to do with Asher (or his puppet, county GOP Chairman Ken Davis). Castor managed to push Republican Commissioner Tom Ellis, another Asher supporter, out of the race. But Montgomery County Republican Party Committee members would not support Castor's hand-picked running mate and instead endorsed Matthews to run with Castor.

It was a shotgun wedding that appears to be unraveling as we get closer to Election Day. If the party leaders knew now what they didn't know then -- that Matthews would continue to take money from Asher -- GOP Committee members would have dumped Matthews in favor of a Bruce Castor-Melissa Murphy Webber team.

Here's my advice to Matthews, who couldn't deliver Montgomery County for Lynn Swann in last year's governor's race and is running a distant third in a recent poll on the Montgomery County commissioners' race:

Return every dime you got from Asher, keep your distance from Asher, and listen to Castor, who has more political sense in his little pinkie that you do in your entire body.

If Montgomery County Republicans want to keep control of county government, they better wake up and insist that Matthews ditch Asher, who should do the party a big favor and leave Montgomery County until after Election Day.

The best thing Matthews can do for the Republican Party is stand next to Castor smile at campaign stops and press conferences. Let Castor to do all the talking until Nov. 6.

Otherwise, Republicans will wake up on Nov. 7 to Joe Hoeffel, an Ed Rendell-crony as the next chairman of a Democratic-controlled Board of Commissioners. And if that happens, no amount of money from Asher will get Republicans back in control of county government.

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 © 2005-2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Berks GOP should retake control of county government

I sat down down recently with Christian Leinbach, a Republican seeking a four-year seat on the Berks County Board of Commissioners.

I've interviewed or observed hundreds of local, county and state officials over the past 25 years. I've known some good ones, a lot of mediocre ones and some who have no business holding public office.

Although he has never held elected office before, Leinbach is an impressive candidate, thoughtful, well-spoken and with a solid grasp of the issues.

Leinbach knows what he's talking about. He has devoted a lot of time in the past year educating himself on the issues facing county government. He's talked to county department heads, past and current office-holders and everyday people. He's done his homework and has a clear strategy for improving county government.

Leinbach's priorities are in the right place. He promises not to raise property taxes if elected and supports property tax elimination across the state. That's a refreshing position considering the current Democratic majority on the commissioners' board raised property taxes 34 percent in 2005. Incumbent Commissioner Tom Gajewski wants four more years after he pushed for a 34-percent? What do Berks County homeowners have to look forward to if Democrats retain control for another four years? A 50-percent tax hike?

In addition to his "No New Taxes" pledge, Leinbach wants the county commissioners to get more involved in fighting crime, which has spread from the City of Reading into the suburbs. The best the current Democratic majority has done over the past four years is hold endless meetings and hire consults to study the crime problem. Leinbach said there's been enough talk. It's time to start fighting crime.

"I will work with local law enforcement officials to make our neighborhoods safer," Leinbach said when he announced his run for commissioner. "These are the people who know Berks County and I have believe we should listen to local experts — not pay big bucks for outside consultants."

Leinbach's third priority is economic development. He is also concerned about the burden illegal immigrants are placing on Berks County taxpayers.

It would be refreshing to see a successful businessperson enter government. Tom Gajewski hasn't had a private sector job in more than 30 years. He's gone from one political post to another, collecting paychecks from taxpayers all the way. It's been my observation that lifetime politicians lose touch with the realities of everyday life.

Plenty of people talk about "running government like a business," but that's unlikely to happen as long as career politicians like Gajewski hold office. It takes somebody with practical business experience to bring fiscal accountability to government.

Leinbach is vice president of Westlawn Group, a graphics and marketing agency in western Berks County. He is also founder and publisher of Berks County Living magazine. You can learn more about where he stands on the issues at his Web site.

The other Republican running is incumbent Commissioner Mark C. Scott, who is seeking re-election to a fourth term. (Scott voted against the 34-percent tax hike that Gajewski supported).

Also running is Democrat Kevin S. Barnhardt, a last-minute replacement for Judy Schwank, who bailed out of the race instead of attempting to defend the 34-percent tax hike she and Gajewski approved.

Voters get to choose two commissioners on Nov. 6, with the top three vote-getters winning seats on the three-member board.

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 © 2005-2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Murtha, Murphy among most corrupt in Congress, group says

Pennsylvania has two of the most corrupt members of Congress, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Representing Pennsylvania on the list are Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat, and Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican.

Murtha, an 18-term member of Congress, represents the 12th Congressional District in western Pennsylvania. He rose to prominence in 2006 as the foaming-at-the-mouth, anti-Iraq War spokesman, but Murtha has a long and checkered history involving ethics violations, deals with lobbyists and pork spending. Murtha is a repeat offender from the 2006 list of most corrupt members of Congress.

Murphy is a third-term member of Congress, representing the 18th Congressional District, also in western Pennsylvania. "Rep. Murphy's ethics violations involve his misuse of official resources for political campaign activity," according to the watchdog group. Murphy currently is the target of a Department of Justice investigation, the group states.

The full report, "Beyond DeLay: The 22 Most Corrupt Members of Congress (and two to watch)" is available at the group's Web site,

This is the third annual report released by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington documenting "the egregious, unethical and possibly illegal activities of the most tainted members of Congress."

Somehow, I get the feeling the group could have come up with more than just 24 corrupt members of Congress. Sixteen members of this year's most corrupt list have been replaced from last year's list of 25. And yes, Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-LA), the man found with $90,000 in cash stuffed in his freezer, did make the list.

Alaska has the dubious distinction of having both of its U.S. Senators -- Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski -- on the most corrupt list. That's pretty bad considering that only four members of the Senate made the list.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington compiles its list based on "members' transgressions," analyzing them in light of federal laws and Congressional rules, according to the Web site.

The Web site offers short summaries of each member's transgressions as well as the full-length profiles and all accompanying exhibits.

Pennsylvania residents will have an opportunity to remove Murtha and Murphy from Congress next year. All 435 members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will be up for re-election in 2008.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Watchdog group calls for 'clean sweep' of Pennsylvania judges

Having trouble deciding which Pennsylvania judicial candidates to retain in the Nov. 6 election?

The folks at PACleanSweep want to make it easier for you. Just vote 'No.' That's right. Vote 'No' for everyone on the ballot.

The non-partisan watchdog group that helped launch the citizen revolt against politicians after the July 2005 pay raise is targeting state judges for defeat this year.

PACleanSweep held a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg Thursday morning to launch its new campaign to defeat all 67 judicial candidates up for retention in November.

In addition to its "Just Say No" stance on judges, the group unveiled a new Judicial CleanSweep section of its Web site at

PACleanSweep has collected a list of all judges up for retention on its Web site with a link to county-by-county lists for use by voters across Pennsylvania.

The group is recruiting volunteers to work the polls on Election Day to help educate voters about the retentions and has released the first of its Top Ten Reasons to Vote NO on Nov. 6, entitled "The Judicial Swindle."

"The twisted judicial pay raise decision by the Supreme Court and the fact that every single judge in the state has benefited from it is the first issue every Pennsylvanian needs to consider," said Russ Diamond, PACleanSweep chairman. "We'll be offering more valid reasons to vote 'no' over the next seven weeks, but this is one that grates on citizens more than most."

Of the 67 judges seeking retention, 25 would not be able to serve out the entire term they seek due to Pennsylvania's mandatory judicial retirement age of 70, Diamond said. This number includes five of the seven statewide appellate court retention candidates. After a retirement, Gov. Ed Rendell appoints a successor until a new contested election can be held to fill that particular seat.

PACleanSweep is basing its retention campaign objectives on an online poll made available over the last month to Web site visitors and e-mail subscribers, Diamond said. The results of the poll are available at

"Reform-minded people have spoken and this organization is dedicated to doing the people's work," added Diamond. "Judges may decide the law, but the people decide who the judges are."

All Pennsylvanians - regardless of party affiliation - will have an opportunity to cast a vote on seven statewide judges from the Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts on Nov. 6, Diamond said.

Another 53 Common Pleas Court judges will also be on the ballot for retention in various counties scattered across the state. All these judges are seeking new 10-year terms.

In Philadelphia, where voters can cast a vote on the seven statewide judges and 10 Common Pleas judges, voters will also determine whether six Municipal Court judges and one Traffic Court judge receive new six-year terms. The next-busiest retention election area will be York County, where voters will decide the fates of six Common Pleas judges.

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 © 2005-2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: GOP should hold Montgomery County

An internal poll done for the Republican candidates in the much-watched race for Montgomery County Commissioner shows the GOP slate of Bruce Castor and Jim Matthews keeping control of this crucial SE Pennsylvania county for four more years.

Republicans have controlled Montgomery County politics for the past 138 years, but Democrats have been chipping away in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Castor, the current Montgomery County District Attorney, is on top with 55 percent support, according to the poll. Democrat Joe Hoeffel is second with 51 percent. Jim Matthews comes in third with 40 percent. Incumbent Democrat Ruth Damsker brings up the rear with 34 percent.

If the trend holds until Election Day, Castor and Matthews would keep a Republican majority on the board, with Hoeffel as the minority commissioner.

Castor is the best known political figure in Montgomery County and is well respected as a tough prosecutor. He will be the top vote-getter on Nov. 6. Hoefell, a former county commissioner and former area Congressman, has lots of name recognition, too, because he's always running for something. His ultra liberal politics will attract support from the eastern half of the county.

It's no secret that Gov. Ed Rendell is working hard to capture one of the traditional Republican SE Pennsylvania counties for the Democrats. The key is control of county government. Rendell wants a base where he can operate to swing SE Pennsylvania for the Democrats in the 2008 presidential race.

With the Montgomery County commissioners' race looking safe for the GOP, expect Rendell to concentrate on Chester County and Bucks County in the final weeks of the campaign.

Looking over the latest poll numbers, Matthews, who ran for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania on the Lynn Swann ticket in 2006, has gained 6 points on Damsker in the past month. The last poll showed Matthews and Damsker dead even.

Damkser has lost ground with some wacky behavior and oddball comments. She brought up the "R" word (reassessment) in a county that is doing very well financially. Property taxes are a big issue in Montgomery County and a countywide reassessment would be a de facto tax increase for many residents.

Damsker also has had several widely publicized spats with Commissioners' Chairman Tom Ellis and even broke into tears are a recent commissioners' meeting. There's no crying in politics!

The current GOP-led board managed to cut property taxes in 2007 and Castor/Matthews have promised another property tax cut in 2008 if they're elected.

The poll by Neil Newhouse also asked potential voters to rank the candidates via favorable and unfavorable traits.

Here are the results:

Castor -- Fav. 68% Unfav 9%
Hoeffel -- Fav. 57% Unfav 24%
Matthews -- Fav. 34% Unfav. 6%
Damsker -- Fav. 25% Unfav. 9%

And for laughs, the poll also asked views on other politicians:

Specter -- Fav. 68% Unfav. 28%
Rendell -- Fav. 70% Unfav. 27%
Giuliani -- Fav. 64% Unfav. 29%
H. Clinton -- Fav. 51% Unfav. 46%
Bush -- Fav. 34% Unfav. 65%

(Note the difference between Giuliani's and Clinton's numbers in Montgomery County. If Republicans have any hope of winning Pennsylvania in 2008, Giuliani has to be the party nominee.)

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 © 2005-2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: The jig is up for Pennsylvania House Democrats

It's not looking good for House Democrats and their razor-thin majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

It's becoming evident that a major reason Democrats were able to recapture the majority in the House after 12 years of GOP control was because they cheated.

A grand jury is investigating whether tax dollars were used to pay legislative staffers who did campaign work for House Democrats. That's against the law. The growing scandal has been dubbed "Bonusgate" by bloggers and newspapers and could bring down the current House leadership.

While the grand jury's work is secret, information is filtering out about the investigation. We know for sure that investigators raided the offices to top House Democrats in Harrisburg last week looking for a paper trail that would tie Democratic leaders to wrongdoing.

Today's edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a story by Tracie Mauriello saying there is evidence showing "Campaign work tied to House bonuses." That would prove Democrats broke the law.

"All together, Democrats handed out $1.9 million in bonuses last year, four times as much as they did in 2005, a non-election year," Mauriello writes.

She also names names of Democratic staffers who received large payments in the form of bonuses despite taking most of the year away from their normal jobs to work on campaigns.The Post-Gazette also has more background on "Bonusgate" on its Web site.

Keep in mind that the Post-Gazette is the liberal newspaper in Pittsburgh so it's going to be hard for Democrats to weasel out of this one.

Indictments of current or former Democratic House leaders would not only place the current 102-101 majority in jeopardy, but would hand Republicans a terrific campaign issue for 2008 (Democrats are corrupt) when the GOP tries to retake the House.

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 © 2005-2007, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: I want my money back

After finishing the 2006-07 fiscal year with a $650 million surplus, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania continues to take in more than it needs to operate.

Politicians call it a surplus or a rainy day fund or a cushion, but what we're dealing with here is over-taxation. Government is taking in too much money, more money than it projected it would need to stay in operation and more money than its number-crunchers anticipated.

The August numbers released by the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue show that Pennsylvania collected $1.7 billion for its General Fund, which was $6.5 million more than anticipated.

The state took in $1.8 billion in July, the first month of the new fiscal year. Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $3.5 billion, which is $17.4 million above estimate.

Here's a suggestion. Give the money back. Today. Not a year from now. Not when it has accumulated to $500 million or more. Now.

You remember what happened to the $650 million the state had left over after the last fiscal year, don't you? The politicians spent it. It's gone. As in we'll never see a dime of it despite umpteenth promises by Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature that they're going to cut property taxes.

Here's some other highlights from the Department of Revenue's monthly report:

Sales tax receipts totaled $693.7 million for August, which was $11.4 million above estimate. Sales tax collections, year-to-date, total $1.5 billion, which is $11.5 million above estimate, or 0.8 percent, more than anticipated.

Personal Income Tax (PIT) revenue in August was $651.4 million, which was $16.9 million below estimate. This brings year-to-date PIT collections to $1.3 billion, which is $16.8 million, or 1.3 percent, below estimate.

August corporation tax revenue of $62.3 million was $2.6 million below estimate. Year-to-date corporation tax collections total $160.2 million, which is $0.9 million, or 0.6 percent, below estimate.

Other General Fund revenue figures for the month included $73 million in inheritance tax, which was $8.3 million above estimate, bringing the year-to- date total to $151.7 million, which is $8.3 million above estimate.

Realty transfer tax revenue was $53.1 million for August, bringing the total to $107 million for the year, which is $13.2 million more than anticipated.

Other General Fund revenue including the cigarette, malt beverage and liquor tax totaled $119.6 million for the month, $6.9 million below estimate, bringing the year-to-date total to $243.8 million, which is $2.2 million above estimate.

In addition to the General Fund collections, the Motor License Fund received $182.8 million for the month, $17.4 million below estimate. Fiscal year-to-date collections for the fund total $375.7 million, which is $17.4 million, or 4.4 percent, below estimate.

The Gaming Fund received $88.6 million in unrestricted revenues for August. Fiscal year-to-date collections for the fund total $222.9 million. Gaming Fund receipts include taxes, fees and interest. Of the total for the month, $37.9 million was collected in state taxes for property tax relief, bringing the year-to-date total to $71.9 million.

Other gaming-related revenues collected for August included $4.5 million for the local share assessment, for a total of $8.9 million for the year; $5.6 million for the Economic Development and Tourism Fund, for a year-to-date total of $10.6 million; and $13.4 million for the Race Horse Development Fund, bringing the total for the year to $25.4 million.

I'm not sure what all the gaming mumbo-jumbo means. All I know is that Ed Rendell signed the casino gambling bill into law in July 2005. Here we are 26 months later and not a penny from slots revenue has returned to Pennsylvania residents in the form of promised property tax relief.

Government should not be in the business of making a profit on the backs of taxpayers. It's time for Pennsylvania residents to stage a modern day Boston Tea Party. How about a Philadelphia Tea Party? We can start by tossing Ed Rendell into the Delaware River.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: PHEAA needs an overhaul

State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-30th Dist., said he has seen a letter from Gov. Ed Rendell to the chairman, vice chairman and board members of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency in which Rendell listed "startling new information about the depth of the problems swirling around PHEAA."

The $570,000 bonus figure for top PHEAA executives initially released included just the agency's management team. The new total includes bonus money paid to all staff in 2007 and has soared to $2.5 million, according to Eichelberger.

PHEAA is the Pennsylvania agency responsible for providing student loans to college students. While most of the agency's funding comes from investments, Pennsylvania taxpayers contribute $500 million a year to PHEAA.

"The patronage laden work force reaches a total of 2,574 employees," Eichelberger noted. "Defenders of PHEAA cite the good work of the agency and the management in particular to justify these bonuses, but a closer look reveals that when comparing the same nine-month period from last year to this, operating expenses have grown 70 percent faster than operating revenues, operating income is down and the agency's net assets are $11.5 million lower."

Eichelberger is outraged by the growing scandal, saying, "This mess is unfortunately what I have found all too often in Harrisburg. The legislature and many state agencies are bloated bureaucracies that have no regard whatsoever for the hard working people who pay their salaries. This is an embarrassment for Pennsylvania and I will do everything in my power to stop this abuse immediately."

PHEAA fought for two years to prevent release of expense records that showed the agency wasted nearly $900,000 on trips to resorts and spas and lavish gifts for its executives, board members and their spouses.

The bonuses to top executives have also been widely criticized. PHEAA's top executive, Richard E. Willey, received $180,857 in addition to his annual salary of $289,118. Bonuses of $113,514 each were awarded to Tim Guenther, executive vice president and chief financial officer; Brian Lecher, executive vice president of information technology and chief information officer; and James Preston, executive vice president of client relations and loan operations. Kelly Powell Logan, executive vice president of public service and marketing, received a $52,436 bonus. Guenther, Lecher and Preston earn annual salaries of $217,757 each; Logan's is $201,178.

PHEAA previously awarded $852,834 in bonuses in the 2005-06 fiscal year to Willey and six executive vice presidents.

The lack of oversight by members of the Legislature who make up the PHEAA board is scandalous. For a national perspective on the PHEAA mess, read Richard Vedder's article, "Ripping Off Taxpayers, Pennsylvania Style" at the
Center for College Affordability and Productivity blog.

The following is a list of PHEAA board members, primarily incumbent state lawmakers:
Rep. William F. Adolph Jr.; Sen. Sean Logan; Rep. Ronald I. Buxton; Sen. Jake Corman; J. Doyle 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; Roy Reinard; Sen. James J. Rhoades; Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr.; A. William Schenck III; Rep. Jess M. Stairs; Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson; and Rendell Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak.

Many of the career politicians listed above will seek re-election in 2008, as if you needed any more reasons to vote them out.

A major overhaul of the scandal-ridden agency is long overdue. It should start with all the top executives and should include replacement of all 20 board members. The foxes have been guarding the chicken coop long enough.

Additional oversight, including bills introduced by state Sen. John Rafferty and state Sen. Jane C. Orie, to require independent audits and a new way of appointing the PHEAA board, should be a priority when the Legislature returns in session.
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.

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