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After the pay raise fiasco of 2005, elected state officials said they "saw the light" and promised to reform state government. Since then, here's just a part of what has happened:
Federal prosecutors convicted a PA state senator on 137 counts of public corruption. The senator misused millions in taxpayer funds for personal purchases for his homes and farm and for staff who did little more than supervise the senator's private affairs instead of the public work they were being paid to do.
The state's attorney general has charged a former lawmaker and his aide with diverting $10 million in tax dollars to benefit his family, to provide bonuses to legislative staff for campaign work, and to subsidize other personal interests.
Two Luzerne County judges and two court staff have pleaded guilty in federal court to a variety of crimes. The judges were the worst. They took $2.6 million in kickbacks from juvenile detention centers where they sentenced juveniles for minor infractions after denying them their constitutional rights to counsel. Worse yet, PA's Supreme Court refused to look into the problem until the federal prosecutions.
The state's attorney general is working with a grand jury investigating $3.6 million in bonuses for legislative staffers because most of the bonuses were paid during the 2006 election year. In August 2007, agents with a warrant searched some legislative offices and removed cartons of documents related to the investigation. In November 2007, media reported that another former lawmaker (also defeated in 2006) paid nearly $80,000 in bonuses to staff after his loss. This month we learned that legislative leaders have spent at least another $5.8 million of taxpayer funds in legal fees but refuse to disclose whose legal fees they're paying.
Last year the House of Representatives suspended its rules 10 times in five days to enact a late budget (the sixth late budget in a row). These include the "reform" rules adopted just last year to prevent this kind of fast-track lawmaking. Rank-and-file lawmakers had less than 24 hours to study the budget and had virtually no chance to offer amendments for their constituents. This year, the House weakened its "reform" rules.
The League of Women Voters of PA has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the former chief justice of the PA Supreme Court had improper discussions with lawmakers about a case pending before the court while negotiating a pay raise for judges.
A former lawmaker pleaded guilty to hiring his sister and niece and paying them more than $27,000 for doing little or no work. The two relatives pleaded no contest to charges of lying to a grand jury about the scheme. Another former lawmaker pleaded guilty to forging and submitting false signatures on petitions to be placed on the ballot in 2006. Plea deals allowed both lawmakers to keep their pensions.
Federal prosecutors convicted a former PA Superior Court judge of bilking two insurance companies out of $440,000. Prosecutors proved that he fraudulently claimed injuries from a slow-speed car accident.
House and Senate leaders refuse to release the monthly statements of each lawmaker's expenses, per diems and bonuses from leadership accounts.
Media reported that the four legislative caucuses spent nearly $500,000 in 2007 for partisan polling and focus groups. PA is believed to be the only state where such polling occurs at taxpayer instead of political party expense.
In 2005, PA had the most expensive legislature as a percent of the state budget and the third highest per capita cost (behind only Alaska and Rhode Island). We also have the second largest legislature and, as of 2008, the largest complement of full-time legislative staff. Given increases in spending since 2005, PA now could have the undisputed title as the most expensive legislature in America.
The House and Senate spent a combined total of more than $500,000 to print and send separate calendars to selected voters and lobbyists. Senate calendars, customized for each Senator, cost twice as much as House calendars. Only Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, refused to participate in the blatantly self-promoting give-away.
After spending $854,000 on board retreats, PHEAA (the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency) spent another $409,000 on legal fees in a failed attempt to keep information about the board retreats from the public. In August 2007, five top officials received more than $500,000 in bonuses. In October 2007, the Auditor General revealed a total of $7.5 million in bonuses to all PHEAA staff. In November 2007, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported PHEAA spent $2.2 million on give-away items. Altogether this questionable spending could have paid a year's worth of full grants for more than 2,700 students at 4-year schools and 5,400 students at community colleges.
2007, the "year of reform," ended without a single law being enacted to raise standards of public integrity.
The state's highest public officials last December received their 14th automatic annual COLA.
Legislative leaders have amassed a slush fund of more than $200 million, preparing for a budget war with the governor. The surplus now amounts to nearly two-thirds of the legislature's annual budget. The goal of legislative leaders is to have 100% more than they need.
Legislative leaders are refusing to authorize full-scale forensic audits of their accounts. Audits of previous years are standard operating procedure for virtually all businesses and government programs.
The Supreme Court, without stating its authority or reasons, twice prohibited the citizens of Philadelphia from holding a referendum to decide whether to allow slots gambling parlors within 1,500 feet of homes, schools, playgrounds and houses of worship. Two dissenting justices claim the Court has no authority to issue the orders.
The Supreme Court ruled that citizens who live within 500 feet of proposed slots gambling parlors can't sue to protect their property. The court said only the state Gaming Control Board can decide where to put slots parlors, and the citizens affected didn't complain about the decisions before they were made.
In 2007 a PA Supreme Court Justice, now the chief justice, tried to get a law school professor fired or disciplined for proposing reforms to the court system. In 2008, he threatened the League of Women Voters' lawyer for filing a federal lawsuit.
The Supreme Court's new chief justice revealed the result of a pending case to a reporter before the decision was issued.
Media reported $6 million paid by the House alone in 2006 for so-called "public service TV ads" for incumbent lawmakers prior to the most competitive election in decades.
Lawmakers repealed the infamous Pay Raise of 2005, but many kept the "unvouchered expenses" and the COLA. In fact, they've taken COLAs every year since the pay raise, thereby increasing their pensions with an unconstitutional and repealed pay raise.
The PA Supreme Court resurrected the pay raise for judges, declared the "unvouchered expenses" to be unconstitutional, but let lawmakers keep them anyway.
Media reported $50,000 in gifts to lawmakers in 2006, which is just the tip of the iceberg since lawmakers and other public officials can accept gifts valued up to $250 without ever having to report them. This happens even though 66% of Pennsylvania citizens want an outright ban on gifts and other favors to public officials.
In 2006's lame-duck session, lawmakers passed and the governor signed a law allowing unlimited free alcohol for slots players. There were no public hearings, no public debate, no public knowledge and no public opportunity for citizens to discuss the issue. Gaming Control Board officials have admitted to higher rates of drunk driving, public drunkenness and other related crimes near slots parlors.
In 2008, lawmakers and the governor failed to enact a budget on time for the sixth straight year. In 2007, the un-paid furlough of nearly 24,000 state workers cost them $3.4 million in earnings.
This year's budget includes $750 million in WAMs (Walking Around Money) to pass out to pet projects in their legislative districts, up from $640 million last year. This violates the state Constitution's separation of powers by giving lawmakers a direct hand in spending money appropriated to executive agencies. Decisions on WAM spending are shrouded in secrecy.
The agencies of two cabinet officers awarded $4.4 million in contracts to companies that employ the spouses of the cabinet officers. The State Ethics Commission ruled the contracts improper.
If this is seeing the light, wouldn't you hate to see what darkness looks like?
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