It happened four years ago in the early morning hours of July 7th. The Pennsylvania General Assembly was set to adjourn for the summer, and in the dead of the night did what it had done many times before: pass a pay raise for itself.
Nobody could have predicted that action would have the biggest impact of any vote taken by the legislature in recent history. Even today, as state government struggles with adopting a new budget, that pay hike vote looms as the single biggest factor influencing deliberations.
What followed was anything but ordinary. In fact it was later described by a victim of the fallout as a "political earthquake." Typically, pay raise votes were met with grumbling from the electorate, outrage by good government groups, and derision by the news media. Then the criticism would wane, the legislators would make off with the ill-gotten gain and life at the capitol returned to normal.
But in the summer of 2005 voters were not in a happy mood. Governor Ed Rendell and politicians of both parties had promised to reform the state's oppressive property tax system and give property owners long sought after relief. The promises went unfulfilled, and the pay raise became the tipping point at which voters stood and vowed not to take it anymore.
Even after weeks of loud protest, conventional wisdom clung to the belief that nobody ever lost an election because of a pay raise vote. But when a sitting state Supreme Court Justice was denied retention — something that had never before happened — it became clear this was no ordinary venting of frustration. It had become a movement.
The following May another historic first occurred when the sitting President Pro Tempore and the Majority Leader in the state senate were both defeated in the primary by pro-taxpayer candidates. Before the dust settled voters had replaced over a quarter of the legislature with new members.
So much for nobody ever losing their seat because of a pay raise vote.
As the newly elected members took office reform was in the air, but precious little actually happened. The legislature did agree not to take votes in the middle of the night. Also passed was a substantially improved Open Records law. And, of course, new leadership emerged in both chambers.
It is that new leadership, spawned by the pay hike revolt that is having a huge impact on the current budget negotiations in Harrisburg. The ousted senate leaders — President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer and Majority Leader Chip Brightbill — both of whom are Republicans routinely caved in to the big government spending demands of the state's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell.
The new senate Republican leadership has not — so far — made that mistake and is holding firm against the barrage of tax hikes proposed by the governor.
Thanks to the pay raise revolt there is new leadership also in the state house. Former House Speaker John Perzel emerged as a passionate, if ham-handed defender of the pay hike. He was not defeated by voters in his district, but his support for the pay raise contributed to a loss of the Republican majority in the house. And, amid an ongoing investigation by the state Attorney General's office into legislative misconduct, Perzel has been consigned to the back benches by his caucus.
Perzel, like Jubelirer and Brightbill, habitually gave into the governor's spending demands. The new Republican Leader in the house, Representative Sam Smith, tops a team that is steadfast in its refusal to give the governor Republican votes for passing tax increases this year.
Thus, the pay raise vote and subsequent voter revolt have set the stage for the current budget stand-off. The series of events set into motion by the pay grab recast the players, but more fundamentally it has changed the climate in Harrisburg. And while there are still plenty of the old-time insider games going on under the capitol dome, legislators of all political stripes are aware that voters are watching and that the people of Penn's woods expect a different outcome this time.
There is another old saying around the capitol: nobody ever lost their seat because of a tax hike vote. In the back of their minds, as legislators contemplate whether or not to raise taxes, that bit of convention wisdom may sound eerily familiar. Thanks to the pay raise of 2005, the tax hike vote of 2009 is one legislators will make at their own electoral risk.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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