Living large but crying poor
Pennsylvania lawmakers have a new problem -- choosing their words carefully -- after angering voters by awarding themselves a huge pay raise and taking the money from a $135 million surplus account that only they can use.
Now some are infuriating people by bemoaning the state's finances or snapping at voters.
One day after he helped push through the bill to raise legislators' salaries, House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, was crying poor to a Washington County widow.
On July 8, DeWeese, one of several legislative leaders who control the surplus fund, penned a polite letter in response to an inquiry from Christina Sopoci, of North Strabane, telling her it was unlikely the Legislature would enact any of several bills to eliminate the state's inheritance tax.
"States no longer have 'coffers that overflow,' " DeWeese said.
Sopoci said she has heard similar explanations from lawmakers before, during her decade-long crusade against the inheritance tax. But she's angry that the state's 253 lawmakers put their own welfare ahead of a tax cut. More than half of them are tapping the special legislative account to take their pay raise immediately as unvouchered expenses.
State Department of Revenue records show the inheritance tax brought in $716 million last year.
On July 1, House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, sent Sopoci a reply similar to DeWeese's.
"They can't find the money to lessen or abolish (the inheritance tax) because they don't have enough money," Sopoci said. "Yet they can find the money for hefty raises.
"To me, it's the equivalent of robbing the dead. I feel as though I've been lied to for the last five years," she said.
Spokesmen for DeWeese and Perzel declined to comment.
"Certainly the level of arrogance is very troubling," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania.
"It sends a message to citizens that legislators think they don't have a role in governance," he said.
Bill McIntyre, of Camp Hill, interpreted a message he received from Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, D-Lackawanna, as "you have nothing to complain about."
When the 72-year-old retiree sent all 253 legislators a congratulatory e-mail on the one-month anniversary of their middle-of-the-night pay hike, he was stunned by Mellow's reply.
Mellow lobbed back an e-mail that read: "Why don't you get a life."
"I didn't think anyone on the Senate of Pennsylvania would reply as he did," McIntyre said.
Speaking through a staffer, Mellow expressed regret for his response and cited his frustration in wading through a deluge of messages.
Tess Candori, Mellow's spokeswoman, confirmed that McIntyre's e-mail did come from Mellow.
"In the course of a 30-plus-year service in the Senate, Senator Mellow takes pride in the fact that he individually responds to hundreds of e-mails and letters he receives daily," she said.
"He regrets the tone and words used in the e-mail," Candori said. "His reply was grounded in the frustration of trying to respond to bulk and spam e-mails from outside his district that distract and divert attention from matters requiring prompt action by him or his staff."
"I don't think it's much of an apology," McIntyre said. "It's more an excuse for his actions."