Just 32 members of the state Legislature have opponents in the April 22 primary, down from the 61 incumbents who faced challengers two years ago when voters were seething with anger over the July 2005 pay raise.
The anger has subsided with time, but Pennsylvania voters deserve so much more from the most expensive state legislature in the country. Not even the most self-serving can make the argument that Pennsylvania taxpayers are getting their money's worth from the $333 million annual cost to run this Legislature.
Despite the hoopla over the passage of an open-records law this month, this Legislature has approved only two significant reform bills in the 964 days since the pay raise vote.
As I wrote in September 2005, revolutions are not won overnight.
Here's part of what I wrote in that column, which ran 2½ months after the middle-of-the-night pay grab was approved.
"The people's revolution will not be won in a few months. It's going to take years. We need candidates — honest, civic-minded Pennsylvanians — to run against the professional politicians. The politicians are prepared to wait us out. They've fattened their bank accounts with our money. They can wait in their golden palace until we tire and go away. If we abandon the quest to take back our state government, they win."
Three reasons why reform-minded Pennsylvanians should not despair.
· First, 24 incumbent lawmakers have already announced their retirement this year, so there will be at least two dozen new legislators going to Harrisburg.
· Second, there will be an opportunity to kick out more incumbents in November when 97 legislators face opponents.
· Third, there is the prospect of knocking off some of the key political leaders in Harrisburg.
In 2006, voters ended the political careers of the two top-ranking Republicans in the state Senate — Bob Jubelirer and David Brightbill — and the No. 2 Democrat in the House — Mike Veon.
When the dust settled after the 2006 elections, 55 new legislators were sent to Harrisburg. The problem isn't necessarily with the rank-and-file. It's the leadership that is preventing significant change in the way things are done in Harrisburg.
Voters will have an opportunity to knock off captains and colonels and even some generals in 2008. If you cut off the head of the snake, you can kill it.
Among the 97 incumbents facing opposition in the fall are House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, the No. 1 Democrat in the House and the poster child for everything wrong with Harrisburg.
Also facing fall opponents are House Minority Leader Sam Smith, the top Republican in the House, and Rep. John Perzel, the former Speaker of the House, who is now holding down the post of "speaker emeritus." Both men supported the pay raise and ushered more than $7 billion in new state spending requested by Gov. Ed Rendell.
Rep. Dave Argall, the No. 3 Republican in the House, is facing both primary and general election opposition. Argall also supported the pay raise, but has somewhat redeemed himself by being the highest-ranking member of the House to publicly support the elimination of school property taxes.
Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, the new GOP bosses in the Republican-controlled Senate, also have fall opponents. Both men supported the pay raise, but they've pushed for various reforms in the Senate since voters tossed out Jubelirer and Brightbill.
Voters can also knock out state Sen. Michael O'Pake, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who is facing Berks County voters for the first time since he supported the 2005 pay raise and took the money early as "unvouchered expenses," a practice ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
Reading City Councilman Stephen P. Fuhs is challenging O'Pake, who has been in the Senate for more than 30 years. O'Pake also served for 20 years on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, arguably the most mismanaged agency in Harrisburg.
The ouster of state Sen. Vince Fumo, the Philadelphia Democrat facing a 129-count federal indictment for corruption, would remove a major obstacle for reforming the state Senate. Fumo faces both primary and general election challenges.
The election of Russ Diamond, the citizen activist who led the campaign for a clean sweep of incumbents in 2006, to a state House seat in the 101st District would be invaluable for the reform movement. It would be like having a mole in the enemy camp. Legislators wouldn't dare try anything fishy with Diamond in the room. Diamond has the credentials to lead the reform movement from the inside.
With a few exceptions, the 55 freshman lawmakers who went to Harrisburg in 2006 have been a great disappointment. Most forgot their promises to voters to reform state government. They turned into doormats for legislative leaders.
Voters can make great strides in the revolution to take back state government from the political aristocracy by knocking off the leadership in 2008.
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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