Apr 3, 2010

Pennsylvania Taxpayers Should Be Outraged

Guest Column By Dennis Owens

I want to commend Jan Murphy for her reporting of bonuses for a handful of Democratic caucus staffers just before a salary freeze was to be implemented. It is an important piece of journalism for several reasons, and Pennsylvania taxpayers should be outraged at what it uncovered.

It is ironic and unbelievable that bonuses continue to haunt the Capitol. These bonuses were not illegal but certainly ill-gotten. Typically, bonuses are awarded on an employee’s anniversary date, but several well-connected staffers received theirs because their actual anniversary dates would have fallen after the freeze.

How convenient.

The chief of staff to the House speaker got a bonus that pushed his salary above $150,000, or four and a half times the wage of the average Pennsylvanian.

When government has spent the last year and a half slashing jobs and cutting programs, how can a bonus to anyone be warranted? Additionally, with a Legislature that can’t get its budget done on time and has done nothing to alleviate the pain of skyrocketing electric and health care costs or fully embrace basic reforms, does anyone deserve more money?

But this is not the most galling aspect of the Murphy report. The fact that staffers intentionally blocked Jan’s attempts to get basic salary information is deplorable. This is more than giving the media a hard time, which many wouldn’t care about. This is a concerted effort by governmental officials, whom you are paying, to cover up how they are spending your money.

And it’s not an isolated incident even though we supposedly live in a Right to Know world. Last year, I requested information on which lawmakers were paying back their cost of living adjustments.

The Senate gave me the information within a day. The Chief Clerk of the House waited two weeks to refuse my RTK request, telling me that because there was no specific list of who was and who wasn’t paying back their COLAs he couldn’t provide the information. This is nonsense. He clearly had the information but didn’t want to release it.

Also nonsense, majority leader Todd Eachus’ response to the most recent bonuses. He admits his staffers made mistakes but took no disciplinary action. The staffers who shouldn’t have gotten bonuses will be allowed to keep them nonetheless. What kind of message does that send?

The message Eachus needs to send is to everyone who works at the Capitol is that they are being paid by us and are accountable to us. The chief clerk and his various staffers take direction from Eachus but are paid and supported by taxpayers.

They have no right to squirrel away money in unaudited legislative accounts or keep you from knowing how much is in them or how much they’re paying their staff. It’s your money and you should be disgusted at the business-as-usual attempts to block that information. Certain people think they have a Right to Obscure.

Again, I congratulate Jan Murphy for her dogged reporting in search of the truth and I pledge, as a fellow state Capitol reporter, to continue digging as well. But reporters can only do so much. You, the taxpayer, and you, the voter, need to take the information and use it.

Call your lawmaker (even if they’re not involved in specific wrongdoing) and ask them to put pressure on leadership to change policies that are less than transparent or to not vote for that leadership. And take the information to the ballot box. If there’s one thing I know to be true, politicians will act when there’s the specter (pun intended) of losing an election.

Dennis Owens is a reporter and news anchor for WHTM-TV, Harrisburg’s local ABC station. Originally published in the The Patriot-News.

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