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Rendell skates on pay hike

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Sunday, April 16, 2006
 

HARRISBURG

While many lawmakers are under fire from primary opponents for supporting last year's pay raise fiasco, Gov. Ed Rendell continues to skate on the issue.

But it was Rendell who last June publicly gave legislators an opening to approve a pay hike -- helped craft the deal behind closed doors -- and signed the 11-54 percent pay boost for state officials into law last July.

You'd never know it the way Rendell subsequently, and ever so gradually, shifted his position to seemingly side with the public.

The slippery manner by which Rendell largely evaded public criticism over the pay raise was reminiscent of a recent president's ability to talk his way out of most jams. It was downright Clintonesque. As you'll see later, Rendell "triangulated" the Legislature and the public to take the heat off himself.

That law jacked up pay for legislators, judges and top state officials. Legislators were allowed to take it early as unvouchered expenses to circumvent the state Constitution's ban on midterm raises for members of the General Assembly. Rendell said he wouldn't take the raise.

But Rendell insisted at the time it was a good piece of legislation because it, once and for all, took the dirty business of a pay raise out of legislators' hands by tying future salaries to federal pay. Legislators, judges and executive branch employees were to receive salaries less than, but based on, what is paid to their counterparts in Washington, D.C.

It did not, however, do what Rendell said. He kept repeating over and over that it took the pay issue out of legislators' hands. While that may have been the intent, nothing in the law prevented the Pennsylvania Legislature from revising the issue at some point and raising their pay again.

All of this comes to mind as Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Altoona, and Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill, R-Lebanon County, are taken to task by opponents for their role as architects of the pay raise. They face tough primaries on May 16 as does House Democratic Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls, a pay-raise engineer and the only lawmaker to vote against the law's successful repeal last November. Rendell is unopposed in the Democrat primary but faces Republican candidate Lynn Swann in November.

At the time, Rendell, apparently, viewed the pay hike as part of the price to be paid for getting the Republican-controlled General Assembly to restore proposed budget cuts (his proposed cuts) for Medicaid. No quid pro quo , of course.

Of course. Of course.

As one angry reader later asked me: What's Medicaid have to do with a pay hike?

No one ever faulted Rendell for having poor political instincts. He seemed to sense, long before legislative leaders, that the pay raise was explosive and that the visceral reaction from taxpayers ran deep.

So last summer we saw Rendell start to try to distance himself from the pay raise.

He called on House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese to rescind his decision to punish members of his caucus who failed to support the pay grab. Pay opponents had been stripped of subcommittee chairmanships and extra pay under the law.

DeWeese, D-Greene, of course ignored Rendell. I seriously doubt Rendell ever expected DeWeese to change his mind.

It was grandstanding, pure and simple.

Then Rendell said last August he would sign a bill by Rep. Will Gabig, R-Carlisle, to repeal the unvouchered expense portion of the pay law.

That provision was in the bill he signed into law just a month before. Rendell insisted at first that it was not part of the law he signed. But it was.

As public opposition turned into a torrent of anger, lawmakers decided that enough was enough. They pulled the plug on the pay law but did not require that lawmakers who took unvouchered expenses return the money to taxpayers. Feeling the heat, many did so on their own.

As lawmakers haggled over the final shape of the repeal measure, Rendell almost sounded like a reformer as he lectured them to get the job done.

This -- from the guy who signed the law in the first place and schemed to put it in place.

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