John Baer: Budget impasse aside, our reps find lots to do to stay busy

Posted: August 12, 2009

WONDERING WHAT your elected state officials do on your dime during a budget crisis?

I mean, besides collect their salaries (which House Democrats did even before state workers got paid) and file for per diems up to $158 a day.

How exactly are Philly members of the largest full-time Legislature in America using their share of the largest legislative staff in America?

Well, to keep the press and public informed, of course. Want specifics?

Just so happens I have monitored news releases from Philly lawmakers since the Legislature's Conference Committee met July 29 to try to end the budget standoff - now in its sixth week with no end in sight.

Since then, your representatives have fired off 30 often-repetitive and virtually meaningless releases filled with quotes on bills they have little to do with or calling for action they have little control over.

One member plugs a TV appearance, another calls for car dealers to open on Sundays and another touts attendance at an event for a former prime minister of Grenada.

Money well-spent and staff well-used, no?

I'd note among 33 Philly members only Democrat Dwight Evans sits on the conference committee (which itself is, so far, a joke) and is among the handful of lawmakers who'll actually settle the budget.

I guess the rest just use the time, staff and money available.

More than a month after the budget deadline, Democrat W. Curtis Thomas issued a release: "Thomas outlines suggestions for state budget impasse." His suggestions? Reorganize spending priorities or adopt new revenue: "I urge my colleagues to work on common-sense solutions and to act swiftly on voting for a responsible budget."

From what I can tell, his colleagues ignored him.

Democratic Sen. LeAnna Washington announced that she's "pleased" the House passed a bill to pay state workers: "After weeks of uncertainty, state employees will be able to breathe a little easier."

As will her constituents, knowing their money's so well-spent on such compelling messages.

Democratic Sen. Mike Stack issued "once again" his call for car dealers to be able to stay open one Sunday a month, certainly a pressing budget issue. No doubt the budget is stalled because there's confusion about this issue.

Democratic Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown used public resources to share her attendance at a "reception and church service" for Dr. Keith Mitchell, a former prime minister of Grenada. The event was July 30. The news release was Aug. 5.

Shouldn't we know these things on a more timely basis?

Democratic Rep. Kenyatta Johnson just announced the "first episode" of his legislative- affairs program on Comcast cable channel 190. It's Friday at 3 p.m.

That's right. And they also get radio clips to send out.

Point of all this is that with state employee layoffs under way and likely to continue - 255 pink slips are out this week in the first round of firings - legislative staffing and what it produces ought to be rethought.

One might argue that the electeds are entitled to their say. I'd argue they should save the expense until it's something significant.

None of the four caucuses plan layoffs (ditto the Guv's office, staff of 62). New data developed by the National Conference of State Legislatures show Pennsylvania first among states in legislative staff (2,918) despite being sixth in population.

Caucus officials put the number at 2,609, but that might not include paid interns or part-timers. Either way, it's more than 10 staffers for each of our 253 lawmakers.

Enough is enough. Every legislative candidate next year should sign a pledge to begin a phased reduction of the Legislature and its staff and to pass legislation mandating that lawmakers and staff forfeit pay every day a budget is late. That's the news release I want to read.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/baer.

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