They are out of office, but not off public payroll

Posted: June 17, 2007

HARRISBURG — Montgomery County voters had enough of Sue Cornell and booted her as their state representative last year.

Residents of Lebanon and Ellwood City did the same to their House members, tossing Peter Zug and Frank LaGrotta into unemployment.

Well, all three are back on the public payroll.

Four legislators who lost reelection bids after the legislative pay debacle in 2005 have found gainful employment as state government bureaucrats. At least three others swept out in the voter uprising now make a living as lobbyists, influencing laws although no longer making them.

Financially, at least, voters in Scranton did one legislator, Fred Belardi, a favor.

The 28-year representative is making $116,000 annually - about 36 percent more than he did as a lawmaker - managing parking spaces and other personnel matters for his former House colleagues.

Turning to Harrisburg as a job-placement service is a time-honored tradition for lawmakers suddenly out of work. This year, however, the numbers are greater in part because more legislators were sent packing than in recent memory.

Critics deride the practice as a sanctioned revolving-door policy. It is all the more noteworthy, say these critics, given the defensive mantra of many lawmakers during the height of the pay-raise debate: that they could earn much more outside government.

"So much for the private sector when you can continue milking the taxpayers," said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg think tank. "It demonstrates how out of whack public service has become in Pennsylvania. It isn't a place to serve the public. It has become an opportunity for legislators to serve themselves."

All three legislative leaders who were defeated last year - Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer (R., Blair), Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill (R., Lebanon), and House Democratic Whip Michael Veon (D., Beaver) - quickly made the transition to lobbyists. They represent interests as varied as trial lawyers and organized labor.

State law bars former legislators from lobbying the chamber they left for one year. Such is the case with Cornell, a Republican who in January started in a new position as the in-house lobbyist for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, a quasi-state agency. She makes $60,000 a year, but cannot lobby the House until December. The authority, known as a haven for GOP patronage, is filling that gap with a Harrisburg lobbying firm, Pugliese Associates.

Still, having her work as manager of government relations "makes sense from a practical point of view," Cornell said.

"If you spend years in the legislature, that's what you know," she added. "You have the contacts, and you understand how legislation moves."

In July 2005, the legislature voted itself a raise that bumped base pay 16 percent, with leaders getting much more. The populist uprising it set off forced lawmakers to repeal the raises four months later and cost more than two dozen their jobs at the polls in 2006.

The day after his 20-year Harrisburg tenure ended, LaGrotta (D., Lawrence) was put on the House payroll as a legislative consultant, making $73,613 annually - the same as when he was in office.

Former Rep. Kenneth Ruffing (D., Allegheny) filled a similar advisory role for three months after his term.

Both lost in last year's spring primary.

Zug (R., Lebanon) is the latest bounced legislator to land a state government gig. On Monday, he started a $55,000-a-year job as a licensing analyst with the state Gaming Control Board.

But those who lost their seats aren't the only legislators finding their way back to work in Harrisburg. Some who called it quits last year rather than face voters also have turned to Harrisburg for new careers.

For example, former Sen. Joe Conti, a Bucks County Republican, moved into a newly created role as chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the agency that runs the state monopoly on wine and spirits. Gov. Rendell had recommended that the board create the $150,000-a-year job and fill it with Conti in December - a move strongly opposed by board chairman Jonathan Newman, who soon resigned in protest.

Brett Feese, former House appropriations chairman, gave up his Lycoming County seat and is making $155,000 annually as the top lawyer for Republicans in the House.

On Nov. 30, the day he was to leave office after 10 years, Rep. Mark McNaughton, a Harrisburg-area Republican, was nominated by then-Speaker John Perzel (R., Phila.) to join the Gaming Control Board. But McNaughton's nomination to the $145,000-a-year post was pulled after Perzel lost his speaker's post in January.

Like Cornell, G. Terry Madonna, a politics professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, said that on one hand it might make sense to place former legislators in bureaucratic jobs.

"They have experience and expertise. But it looks like a reward for past performance and loyalty. It's legislative leaders taking care of their own," Madonna said. "It's been going on for a long time, and it's not likely to stop."

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

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