Cracks In The Freeze

Governor Rendell’s hiring freeze for state employees began developing cracks immediately and now is in full thaw.  It’s just a shame the weather isn’t as good at thawing as Rendell’s policies.  The AP reports that 501 people have been added to the state payroll since the freeze began.  How fair is this to those who have lost their jobs due to cutbacks?

When Ed Rendell creates a job for Dan Surra at the same time others are being frozen out or layed off it appears bitterly hypocritical.  I can understand reasons of public safety, to a point, but with a $3 billion budget gap is anyone really considered safe?  The state budget deficit is increasing weekly while the Governor stubbornly refuses to support or enact one sure cure:  single payer universal health care.  A single payer healthcare system would save state and local governments huge sums of money, save people from getting fired both in and out of state government and completely eliminate Philadelphia’s projected deficit over the next five years.

It would also guarantee healthcare to everyone losing their jobs, create thousands of new jobs in healthcare and save lives.  Ed Rendell is beyond obstinate in opposing this along with the Democratic Majority Leadership including Todd Eachus, Dwight Evans and Keith McCall.  If you’ve lost your job call all four of these men and ask them why they did this to you.  If you’ve lost your healthcare, are uninsured or underinsured also contact them and ask why they oppose your healthcare rights.

House Democrats Set to Revoke Reforms

The new Democratic leadership in Harrisburg has scheduled a vote today to revoke several important reforms passed following the pay raise debacle.  That action was passed at 2 am one infamous night and legislation was subsequently passed by new “reform minded” legislators to restrict all House business to the hours before 11 pm.

Today Speaker Keith McCall and Majority Leader Todd Eachus will repeal that reform along with others.  These “deforms” have not been aired publicly but were distributed among the Democratic Caucus members.

Now is the time to discover which House members elected since the pay raise are true reformers and who has sold out.  Today we discover who we can trust and re-elect next year and who is just as corrupt as the leadership.  Now is the time for anyone truly dedicated to reform to make their voice heard when they cast their vote.  We will publish the names of all state House members who vote to revoke these reforms.

From Democracy Rising:

The Democrats’ proposals will make it much harder for citizens to know what their government is doing in time to express their opinion either for or against proposed laws. They would repeal reforms adopted with great fanfare just two years ago through the Speaker’s Commission on Legislative Reform. Among dozens of proposals, House Democrats propose to:

   * Render meaningless the rule requiring the House to stop session at 11:00 p.m. unless three-fourths of the members vote to continue.

   * Repeal the rule allowing citizens and their representatives at least 24 hours to see amendments before voting on them, at least 24 hours to consider bills after their last amendment, and at least 24 hours before a vote on a report by a conference committee. Conference committee reports, such as every budget and the Pay Raise of 2005, are often the most complicated, controversial and important laws proposed in any session. As in the past, the proposal would allow action after as little as six hours.

   * Repeal the rule prohibiting the Rules Committee from amending bills after they have been considered by another committee.

No Drama in Harrisburg This Session

Following a dramatic conflict between Democratic heavyweights two years ago today’s leadership elections in Harrisburg had no drama.  Keith McCall was elected House Speaker, Todd Eachus Majority Leader and Sen. Joe Scarnati is President Pro Tem of the State Senate.  Democrats hold a more comfortable lead in the House compared to the razor thin one vote margin of 2007 which allowed Rep. Thomas Caltagirone to leverage his influence and elect Republican compromise candidate Dennis O’Brien as Speaker.

Though O’Brien was a good enough Speaker the fact Democrats held the majority but didn’t have the Speakership created considerable drama.  Republicans have 29 seats in the Senate pending the outcome of March 3rd’s special election to fill the seat of the late Jim Rhoades.  Scarnati also is serving as Acting Lt. Governor due to the death of Catherine Baker Knoll.

Today’s elections were so sure Capitol workers already had the gold lettering embossed on the offices of the Speaker and Majority Leader.  This is always an interesting day in Harrisburg because so many political people descend to mix and watch the formalities.  I ran into some including Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel.  I asked if he’d be running for his old Congressional seat in 2010 if Rep. Allyson Schwartz runs for Arlen Specter’s Senate seat.  He will not.  That would leave that race open for a newcomer.  Montgomery County has a number of up and coming young Democrats who might see that as an opportunity.

Rendell Pulls A Richardson?

The same man who is under investigation as part of a potential pay to play scheme which has New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson stepping aside as Commerce Secretary may also ensnare Ed Rendell.  The AP is reporting that the California company at the center of the probe also gave wads of cash to our Governor and, coincidentally, holds a state contract here as well.

CDR Financial Products head David Rubin gave Fast Eddie $40,000 and now has a contract for $45,000/year with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority.  This agency is active trying to save homeowners facing foreclosure.  Will this scandal foreclose the Governor’s future political aspirations?

Companies contribute to politicians all the time and companies which vie for state contracts do especially.  The key is whether there existed a “quid pro quo,” or agreement that contracts would be rewarded to those who gave campaign cash.  This is the situation in Illinois where Rod Blagojevich actually shook down kickbacks to his campaigns.  If proper contract procedures were engaged in by the state (competitive bidding) and there was no action on the part of the Governor or his office then there is nothing wrong with the fact Rubin gave campaign contributions and also got a contract.

Of course if we had public financing of all elections this wouldn’t be a problem.

Witness Explains Fumo Extortion Attempt

I’ve been following the prosecution of former State Senator Vince Fumo and the evidence has been powerful.  Powerful enough to indict and convict one of the most powerful figures in Pennsylvania.  A witness has now testified how Sen. Fumo tried to extort $50 million from Verizon in exchange for his support of deregulation.

This reminds me of the old joke where you ask someone how much you;d pay them to have sex with you.  You keep increasing the amount until they agree.  Then you say “now that we’ve established what you are all we need do is negotiate the price.”  At least Fumo wasn’t a cheap whore.  A whore but not a cheap one.

State government was for sale in Sen. Fumo’s office and the price was steep.  He insisted on a $15 million contribution for his Philadelphia charity which, it seems, existed only for his personal enrichment, $10 million for neighborhood redevelopment (supposedly what his non profit was for and for which he’d take credit running for re-election), and $10 million to be deposited in his bank.

Fumo, the owner of Pennsylvania Savings Bank, was a very wealthy man.  In spite of this his greed knew no bounds.  He fleeced the taxpayers, his non profit and the Seaport Museum for millions.  PECO fell for the extortion scheme and gave the charity $17 million.  The employees there spent tons of time and money doing routine personal errands, tasks and jobs for Fumo.

The case of Vince Fumo should weigh heavily upon the state legislators as they gather for a new session Tuesday.  Hubris, greed and the lust for power are powerful forces inside the state capitol and can be the downfall of the powerful.

Open Records Era Begins

A new era of open government begins in Pennsylvania.  As the Open Records Law finally takes effect all governmental bodies must comply within five days to requests for records not limited.  The new law assumes most all public records in the Commonwealth are just that:  public.  Exclusions involve personnel files, law enforcement investigations, most of the obviously private stuff.  Everything else is considered public and available for minimal fees.  The five day compliance clause is important as many local and county governments are known for stonewalling on records requests.

You do not have to offer or give any explanation for records you seek.  Many government officials are in the habit of asking people why they want records; you do not need to give any reason for the records requests made.  This is important, do not succumb to their intimidation.  You can get more information about the law at this website.  The Community Legal Defense Fund also is a good resource.

Greco Leaving As Governor’s Health Care Guru

Rosemarie Greco is leaving as Ed Rendell’s point person for health care.  As head of the Governor’s Office of Health care Reform she was anything but a reformer.  Greco refused to even meet with anyone representing single payer health care and worked to block progress on this real health care reform.

Her experience in the corporate world is primarily responsible for her fervent protection of insurance company interests on behalf of Ed Rendell.  When the Governor introduced his half way measure (which failed) Greco stood next to him along with Anita Hill of Blue Cross.

She had been president of Corestates Financial and sits on several corporate Boards including Excelon and Sunoco.  She worked very hard to protect corporate health care interests and prevent Pennsylvanians from accessing health care through the Family and Business Healthcare Security Act.  She will not be missed.

Supreme Court Rules Against State on Electronic Voting Machines

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that challenges to the touch screen electronic voting machines can proceed.  The action was taken against Secretary of State Pedro Cortes, a Rendell appointee who has tried to block every reform effort to prevent the use of computer voting machines in the Commonwealth.

Electronic voting machines produce no auditable trail and no safeguards to assure that they count votes as cast.  They have been proven to be easily programmable and unreliable.  No one but the manufacturer has access to the source code used to operate the computer system.  It is impossible to do a recount on these voting machines and no way to know if they were reprogrammed to switch votes.

Pedro Cortes has been a particularly rigid opponent of reform.  He has fought reform efforts for clean elections since his appointment by Ed Rendell.  The Rendell Administration has been quite obstinate about not allowing voters the assurance that their most fundamental right as citizens is protected.  The Supreme Court action enables those fighting for open and honest elections continued access to the courts to eliminate these menaces to democracy.

Republicans Choose Argall

The special election to select the late Jim Rhoades’ successor will have Rep. Dave Argall square off against Schuylkill County Clerk of Courts Steve Lukash.  The final vote by Democratic County Committees is not yet complete but no other Democrat has stepped forward to seek the nomination.  Several county committees have already voted as a whole to support Lukash.

The assumption among many was that nepotism would rule the day in the GOP process but Dave Argall proved them wrong.  Chris Hobbs, Rhoades’ son in law assumed he would inherit the seat but others thought differently.  He gave no compelling reason for Republicans to support him over the other five candidates.

Keystone Progress: Turn Over the Slush Fund Excess

Mike Morrill of Keystone Progress responded to news of the State House’s $200 million excess funds in its slush fund with this press release:

Pennsylvania’s 4 legislative caucuses have a slush fund of over $200 million, a new audit revealed this week. Two hundred million dollars! This fund is often used by legislative leaders to reward their friends and to punish enemies.

The revelation of this slush fund comes as Pennsylvania Government is facing a deficit of up to $2 billion for this fiscal year. Discussions of how to solve the shortfall have included cutting funding for healthcare for the poor and elderly, including nursing home residents, cutting aid to local school districts and cutting funding for local infrastructure needs.

Before making these drastic cuts that will hurt working families, we believe that the Legislature should turn over its slush fund to the general fund to help balance the state budget. Some legislators agree, including Rep. Josh Shapiro (D, Montgomery) who said, “”Now, more than ever, we need to invest this money into the needs of Pennsylvanians.”

Keystone Progress is calling on the leaders of the 4 caucuses to turn over the surplus immediately. If you agree that this money belongs to the people, sign our petition by clicking here.