Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tony Phyrillas: Target Legislative leaders for defeat

A sense of gloom has set in among many reformers because fewer incumbent Pennsylvania lawmakers are facing election challenges in 2008.

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

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 © 2005-2008, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tony Phyrillas: Effort to ban teacher strikes growing

Three Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers have thrown their support behind an effort to ban teacher strikes in Pennsylvania.

House Bill 1369 was introduced last year by state Rep. Todd Rock, but has stalled in the Legislature. Does the fact that the state's teachers' union is one of the biggest financial contributors to incumbent state lawmakers have anything to do with the lack of progress on the bill?

The Mercury in Pottstown is urging all 501 Pennsylvania school districts to consider adopting a resolution supporting a ban on teacher strikes in Pennsylvania.

In an
editorial in Saturday's edition, the newspaper says, "The argument is not whether teachers are paid too much or too little; the argument is whether labor actions should be allowed to disrupt public education. We believe they should not."

The West Chester Daily Local News also ran the editorial on its opinion pages over the weekend.

The Bucks County Courier-Times took a similar position on its editorial pages last week after the Pennsbury School Board unanimously adopted the anti-strike resolution.

The Antietam School Board in Berks County may vote on the resolution at an upcoming meeting.

Pennsylvania is the teacher strike capital of the nation, with more than 60 percent of all teacher strikes since 2000 occurring here. Meanwhile, 37 other states have banned teacher strikes.

Read more about the effort to prevent teacher strikes at
Stop Teacher Strikes Inc.

Here is the text of the resolution school boards are being asked to adopt:


WHEREAS, teacher strikes and strike threats undermine the ability of Pennsylvania's school board directors to provide children with a quality public education at an affordable price, and

WHEREAS, retroactive teacher contract payments can lead to large spikes in school property taxes, and

WHEREAS, thirty-seven (37) other states already guarantee students the legal right to receive a strike-free public education, and

WHEREAS, there is no evidence to suggest that teacher strikes and strike threats improve the quality of education delivered to Pennsylvania's students, and

WHEREAS, public employee strikes constitute an actionable breach of duty to members of the public and create community resentment and conflict, and

WHEREAS, Pennsylvania ranks #1 in the nation for teacher strikes each year with tens of thousands of affected students and families, and

WHEREAS, seven out of the top ten states in the U.S. (70%) for highest average teacher salary prohibit strikes (source: NEA 2006-2007 salary rankings), and

WHEREAS, the Pennsylvania State Constitution mandates that the general assembly provide for a "thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth", and

WHEREAS, compulsory (last-best-offer or issue-by-issue) binding arbitration as a mechanism to resolve teacher contract disputes is a flawed idea for taxpayers because it strips away the voice of the people’s duly elected school officials;


that the [Name] School District, by a majority vote of its Board of Directors, demands that the Pennsylvania State Legislature enact House Bill 1369 from Chief Sponsor, Rep. Todd Rock, to make teacher strikes and retroactive contract payments illegal, while retaining fiscal authority over labor costs with the people’s duly elected school officials;
Signed this [date] in the year [year]

Signature & Title

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 © 2005-2008, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Rendell's Magic Tricks

How does one eliminate property taxes while raising the budget over 4%, and while giving millions of dollars to people who do not pay any income or property taxes?

Is this some sort of magic trick?

Is the tax dollar quicker than the eye?

Or is this spend and tax at work?

Interested readers want to know.

Giles Hickory

Copyright © 2005-2008, THE CENTRIS Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Tony Phyrillas: Watch your wallet, Ed Spendell is back

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Gov. Ed Rendell wants to spend more of your money. He'd like Pennsylvania residents to pay more in cigarette taxes if they smoke and pay more for electricity if they use this new-fangled invention. The governor is calling it "public benefits charge," but it's a tax on electricity.

He also wants you to pay more for insurance. Rendell wants to impose a new assessment on all property-insurance policies, adding an extra $7 for each $100 you now pay in insurance premiums.

The rest of the money needed to pay for Rendell's $1.1 billion increase in General Fund spending would come from dipping into what is known as the "Rainy Day Fund" and borrowing money. Borrowing lots of money.

With the Republican-controlled state Senate unwilling to approve any new tax hikes in 2007, Rendell has decided that putting the state deeper into debt is the only way he can satisfy his enormous appetite for spending other people's money.

Rendell wants the Legislature to increase the state's debt limit by $750 million, all of which would immediately be spent on building projects. He also wants to borrow $270 million to rebuild bridges and other infrastructure. It would be the fourth time Rendell has pushed to raise the state's debt limit since he became governor in 2003.

If the budget makes it through the Legislature as Rendell has proposed, state spending in Pennsylvania would have risen by $8 billion since Rendell became governor in 2003. Rendell called the budget "tight" when he unveiled it before a joint session of the state Legislature. If $28.3 billion is tight, I'd hate to see what Rendell considers a "loose" budget.

Republicans in the state Legislature were quick to criticize Rendell's spending plan.

"Hearing the governor this morning reminded me a little of Groundhog Day," House Republican Leader Sam Smith said. "The governor stood up, saw his shadow and proposed more taxes, borrowing and spending. It's the same story, year after year."

Rep. Tom Quigley, R-Montgomery, said Rendell's budget includes too much spending.

"The governor is repeating his pattern of looking for new ways to tax the people, and while he has proposed cuts to programs that have proven successful, he has reallocated that funding for his own personal spending priorities," Quigley said. "We should be looking at a budget with no new taxes and one where money that is cut is returned to the people, not to the governor's personal spending till."

Quigley has introduced legislation to cut the state income tax.

"Faced with the very real possibility of an economic downturn, we should be seeking a legitimate economic stimulus plan, Quigley said. "Rolling back the Personal Income Tax to 2.8 percent, as I have been advocating for months, would spur families and businesses to spend more money and would strengthen the Commonwealth’s economy. We need to give the money back to those people who contribute the most to our tax rolls – middle-income families and small businesses."

Much of what Rendell wants to spend in the 2008-09 budget is familiar. Rendell wants to extend health insurance coverage to the state’s uninsured, spend $850 million on alternative energy projects and borrow $1.25 billion to pay for development projects and build medical research facilities.

And let's not forget the Rendell "economic stimulus package," a plan to send $400 in tax rebates to 475,000 lower-income families who don't pay income taxes. The one-time payments would cost the state treasury about $130 million.

Quigley said the elimination of property taxes would provide the biggest economic stimulus for Pennsylvania taxpayers.

"I would also urge the Democrat Leadership to renew the property tax debate that started last week," Quigley said. "This is the main issue that the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians want to see addressed. The programs and initiatives outlined in today's budget need to be worked out over the coming weeks, but the issue of school property taxes needs to be addressed immediately."

For more details on the budget, go to the governor’s budget office:

For a no-spin look at the spending plan, try The Commonwealth Foundation 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 © 2005-2008, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Tony Phyrillas: Democrats put property tax relief on the shelf

It's getting harder to believe anything the Democratic leadership in the state House of Representatives has to say these days.

The leadership, headed by Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, keeps saying that property tax relief is a priority in the House. But DeWeese postponed the property tax debate several times in January. When it finally came to the floor, the debate was cut off after a few hours. Here we are in February and property tax reform is again on the back burner.

At some point, Pennsylvania voters have to realize that the current leadership in Harrisburg is not interested in reducing or eliminating property taxes. Until that obstacle is removed, property tax reform is at a standstill.

The Democrats wouldn't allow a fair hearing of House Bill 1275, the school tax elimination plan introduced by Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-Berks. And when Rep. John Perzel outfoxed the Democrats by introducing his "gut and replace" amendment to House Bill 1600, the Democrats adjourned.

Perzel's plan would send all of the money available for property tax relief from the casino revenues to low-income senior citizens, shutting out all other Pennsylvania homeowners.

On Monday, HB 1600 (now the Perzel amended HB 1600) was re-committed to the House Finance Committee, controlled by the Democrats. Bills sent back to committee are usually never heard from again.

There was some talk by DeWeese that the Finance Committee will work on a compromise solution on property taxes, but don't hold your breath.

With Gov. Rendell unveiling his $28.3 billion 2008-09 budget on Tuesday, almost everything else will take a back seat until a budget is approved. That usually takes place in June and then the Legislature adjourns for the summer.

The Friends of John Perzel, which is Perzel's political action committee, took out a full-page advertisement in Tuesday's edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer demanding immediate action on his House Bill 1600.

The only way property tax reform will move back to a priority is if taxpayers bombard their state legislators with phone calls and e-mails. Otherwise, the Legislature is happy to sweep the property tax debate under the rug, once again.

Another way for taxpayers to get lawmakers' attention is to vote out incumbents on April 22. Nothing gets the attention of the political class like a clean sweep of career politicians.

So get on the phone, start writing letters and sending e-mails. And don't forget to show up at the polls on April 22 to vote out the incumbents.

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 © 2005-2008, THE CENTRIST Blog; All Rights Reserved.