Arrogance constant in Legislature

| Monday, June 18, 2012, 12:21 a.m.

HARRISBURG -- With an air of smugness and outright defiance in the early morning hours of July 7, 2005, six members of a state House-Senate conference committee approved a bill that boosted salaries by 16 percent to 55 percent for legislators, judges and some executive-branch employees.

After the conference vote, most of the members refused to talk about it to the media and wouldn't hand out copies of the bill. By 2 a.m., the full House and Senate would approve of the pay-jacking without debate.

Little did the legislative leaders who orchestrated the pay raise know then that Pennsylvanians would revolt against the bill and demand repeal.

Little did they know that two top Senate Republican leaders, Bob Jubelirer and David Brightbill, would be defeated at the polls less than a year later.

They had no idea that Democrat powerhouse Mike Veon of Beaver Falls, a member of the infamous conference committee, would not only lose his seat in 2006 but that he would be charged with 59 counts of theft, conflict of interest and conspiracy. He would be cuffed and "perp walked" three years later as a suspect in the legislative bonus scandal, accused of running a multimillion-dollar political operation at taxpayers' expense.

The pay hike and the corruption scandal now unfolding at the Capitol are inexorably linked. A major theme in both is the arrogance of legislative leaders who thought they could blow anything by the public. The bonus program -- extra compensation for staffers who did campaign work -- was gearing up as the pay-raise vote began to unravel, according to a state grand jury report.

It was in full gear by mid-2005 and would hit its zenith a year later.

In the aftermath of the pay raise, House Democrat staffers -- fearful of the public spotlight on the Capitol -- began to cover their tracks.

In 2005, Veon's staffers began for the first time to document their legislative leave and to manufacture compensatory time so they could work on campaigns, the grand jury said.

"Everyone could feel the heat" from the pay raise, especially Veon, the lone vote against repeal in November 2005, said Bob Caton, Veon's former press secretary, in testimony before the grand jury.

After the pay raise was repealed, prospects for reform were high. The freshman class of 2007 reflected the highest turnover in recent history. Hope abounded that more than 50 new members would force their leaders to enact change.

The freshman class has been mostly a bust.

Senate Republicans have enacted some reforms around the edges. Most of those key measures are bottled up in a House committee. The House enacted some internal reforms and there have been some minor improvements.

It is pretty much now or never for reform, says Eric Epstein, a leading reformer and founder of Rock the Capital.

The bonus scandal provides the launching pad for a new reform drive.

But Epstein and others say it's largely superficial unless the Legislature approves a constitutional convention. Structural changes are needed in the General Assembly, starting with making it a part-time legislature, Epstein says.

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the nation with 253 members. It's also one of the costliest.

Thanks to Attorney General Tom Corbett's investigation, we now know how millions of our tax dollars have been spent getting incumbents and Democrat candidates elected. It's clear tax dollars were abused even in the aftermath of the 2005 pay-jacking.

Corbett is continuing to investigate House Republicans and the Senate GOP and Democrats. More arrests are expected, he says. And with them, no doubt, more revelations of stunning, damn-the-taxpayer arrogance.

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