Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Yes on Pay Raise If..... #1

Okay, the pay raise for Pennsylvania legislators (except for the COLA, which will still kick in), judges, and some executive positions has been rescinded.

So, now that the hysteria is over, let’s have a rational discussion about the subject. First, let’s separate the issue into its separate populations. I have no qualms about a pay raise for higher level judges. I’d just like to hear the discussions about it beforehand. Cabinet positions, etc., well, let’s talk about it. Maybe.

Legislators? I wrote this past summer on the changes I would like to see enacted before a substantial raise is approved. My first condition was this:

1) No outside employment. A full time job is a full-time job, even if you do have to reapply for it every two to four years. It should take up most of your time. If you are earning, oh, say, nearly ten times that salary as a bank director while you are working for me “full-time,” I doubt I will have your full attention. Also, all assets go into a blind trust. If they want a federal salary, let’s have federal rules.

Legislative leaders say they would like to earn half of what a federal Congressional elected representative earns. According to this site, the national officials earn $158,100. Before the raise Pennsylvania legislators earned $69,648. However, they also receive not more than $650 a month for a car, up to $128 per day for expenses, and medical insurance that pays for long-term care. Add the car lease into existing salary and it goes up $7800 a year, if someone takes the largest possible amount. The per diem could also add up, depending on how many days the legislature is in session. I am not financially savvy enough to compare federal and state pensions and medical benefits.

However, please note that:

Buffeted by waves of scandal, by 1989 Congress had strictly capped outside income and banned most types of outside business relationships of its members.

Members of Congress cannot represent law clients, serve on corporate boards, or earn more than 15 percent of their government salary from any business venture. As a trade-off, salaries were raised - they are now $141,300 - and the job of federal legislator became unquestionably full time. (Rena Singer, Glen Justice and Ken Dilanian, "OTHER STATES HAVE MOVED TOWARD STRICTER ETHICS RULES," Philadelphia Inquirer March 23, 2000)

In the same article:

About 40 percent of Harrisburg lawmakers report no outside income.

Doesn’t that mean over half the state legislators did receive outside income at that time? If one of the reasons for a pay increase is the number of hours and time away from home required to do the job, well, surely it is too demanding to allow for outside income.

Again, same article:

Lawmakers must list any source of income from the previous year that
produced more than $1,300 annually, and they must list the names of businesses in which they were officer, director, employee or part owner. But they do not have to say how much they earn, what services they perform, or what their businesses sell or do.

Nor do they have to report a word about their spouses' interests. Lawyers and other professionals do not have to describe their clients or areas of specialty.


Today, 83 Pennsylvania lawmakers - 33 percent of the 253 legislators in
Harrisburg - are officers or directors of private businesses. Disclosure records show that legislators have financial interests in more than a dozen types of economic activity. (Ken Dilanian, Rena Singer and Glen Justice, "A CITIZEN LEGISLATURE AT WORK, " Philadelphia Inquirer March 19, 2000)

So over half of the elected officials at that time did earn outside income, but we don’t have any idea how much or from whom. I can see a lot of room for conflict of interest here.

Some of our elected officials are indeed hardworking individuals who do devote more than a full time job to their legislative duties. But not all do. And if the legislature won’t or can’t clean up its own house (and senate), the legislature can hardly expect the public, who, on average, earn considerably less than the legislators, to open their wallets wider and say “dive on in.”

I would be willing to support a substantial increase in legislative pay in return for, among other things, making the full-time job full-time, with set limits on outside income.

(Note: If the rules have changed in the past five years, someone please let me know. This was what I could find on the subject.)


Anonymous said...


I write the following because Tom Birdsong, Assistant Managing Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Wednesday, November 9, 2005, said, “No one is going to write about your family’s plight.” Thereafter, Mrs. Estelle B. Richman’s staff (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania‘s Secretary of Welfare) became very rude and indifferent to our emergency situation. In fact, Ms. Richman’s chief of staff, Linda Hicks no longer accepted our calls. Christian Bowser actually laughed about our situation. Inez Titus, became even more stubborn with her unlawful position. The Executive Director for Western Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, Tim Cornell (Mrs. Titus’ supervisor) has yet to return any of our calls.

Nonetheless, a man was shot to death in a cinema lobby shootout after watching gangsta rapper 50 cent’s movie “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” prompting the Loews Cineplex at the Waterfront in West Homestead (just east of Pittsburgh) to stop showing the film. I was there with my family (common-law wife and three minor children). That is, although determined eligible, my family has again been denied the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (“LIHEAP”) federal entitlement for the fourth or fifth straight year. Without heat during the cold winter months a theater provides temporary shelter (allowing my family opportunity to give relatives “a break” from our nightly sleep-overs).

What happened at the Waterfront? Shelton Flowers, 30, of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, was shot three times and died later at a local hospital. Flowers had just watched the movie and got into a confrontation with three men in the bathroom. A fight ensued and spilled out into the concessions area, where Flowers was shot. Immediately, Loews Cineplex pulled the movie as a precaution. The R-rated movie is based on Curtis “50-cent” Jackson’s own life which includes drug dealing, time in prison, and getting shot nine times. Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom, Inc., removed billboards for the movie near some inner-city schools after Los Angeles area community leaders complained last month.

Wilkinsburg, just east of Pittsburgh, is a town that was once synonymous with white supremacy. It is a town that had a mere 502 black residents in 1950 when its population hit 31,000, and only 224 more black residents 10 years later. But, over the next few decades, almost like a prophecy, the black population rose to 90 percent. That is, just a little more than 200 years ago Andrew Levi Levy, Sr. named the town “Africa.”

The borough grew from Levy’s land and other plots (such as the curiously named “Pious Purchase,” and others called Rippeyville, McNairsville and Sterrett Township). It was incorporated some 118 years ago and given the name Wilkinsburg after Judge William Wilkins, the Secretary of War under President John Tyler. Nonetheless, many of its current residents still believe Wilkinsburg is no different today than it was in the 1920's when hooded knights of the Ku Klux Klan cavorted. They say whites still control the town with black “puppet” politicians.

While other cities the size of Pittsburgh has seen a steady growth in gun crime, our gun violence trajectory appears to have exploded. Community activists, politicians and crime experts all have brainstorm strategies for stemming violence. The residents here had hoped for a comprehensive plan of action that would have addressed part of the root causes that lead our neighbors to take up guns. But, the answer given is more of the same. The local politicians have taken a page from the George W. Bush handbook (Madison Avenue to sell our reputation).

We have our three rivers, a beautiful skyline, a romantic culture district, a few of the country’s best hospitals, excellent universities, and the like. But, there's never anything mentioned about our blighted downtown business district, the high unemployment rate of black males, increased gun violence, and the growth of conservative republican complacency.

It's no secret any more that economic conditions for blacks in Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities is precarious. Black residents rank low compared to the national average of income, employment, and education. We have chronic problems of gang and drug violence, family breakdowns, soaring incarceration rates for young black males, and abysmally failing public schools. Wilkinsburg residents are, in fact, the best example of the 13 percent of the United States’ (black) population still living chained in by a Bush presidency, with our eyes riveted on the wall of the white media (Madison Avenue) in front of us, where we see nothing but shadows made by powerless leaders hiding behind us.

We could debate endlessly the role of such squeamishness in concealing and exacerbating the problem with race relations in both Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. We could also discuss the minor role played by gangsta rap music. But, what we should consider is how right-wing conservatives, such as Senator Rick Santorum, have convinced so many blacks that shadows from behind (self-indulgent grab for expensive cars, clothes and money of black republican conservatives living in our affluent North Hills neighborhoods) are reality.

Many of the black residents of Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities believe a lot of the Madison Avenue nonsense. They believe things that are just not true. And, the Republicans gets their strength from this.

The bottom line: The root cause of the shooting at the Loews Cineplex is the apparent political cleansing of true democrats from local politics. Gerrymandering and electoral manipulation (just plan “punk ass” democrats) have left the city with zones of endemic poverty, an absence of social services, crumbling infrastructure, and appalling schools. After the radicalized poverty of black America was laid bare in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina almost everyone expected some change from white America. But quickly the Bush administration and the Republican party have lapsed back into policies to further divide America.

In the 1990's white America built prisons to house the disproportionately black inmates it had planned to toss into jail (in the years that followed) to reassure the affluent majority it complacency with race issues. One of every eight black males between 25 and 29 years old is behind bars on any given day according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce incarceration rates. If this rate continues, one of three black males born today will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes.

A local daily “conservative right” newspaper, “The Pittsburgh Tribune Review” recently feature an article written by Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University. In the article “Ammunition for Poverty Pimps” Mr. William suggested the Census Bureau’s 2004 current Population Survey found two segments of the black community. One segment suffers only 9.9 percent poverty rate and another suffers 39.5. He surmised that one would be a lunatic if they believed white people practice discrimination. He concluded, among other things, that the only distinction between the two segments was marriage. Adding, “If today’s black family structure were what it was in 1960, the overall black poverty rate would be in or near single digits."

I guess Mr. Williams failed to consider the proof that demonstrates blacks are denied opportunities in forms of employment, education and even human treatment. For example, on October 18, I borrowed a little more than $50 to buy a bus ticket to travel halfway across the state for an oral test given by the Pennsylvania Civil Service Commission. I was well dressed in a dark business suit and could have been easily mistaken as a black republican conservative. However, while on the elevator headed for the floor for the testing, a white woman asked me if I was allowed on the floor where the testing was being held. She suggested that because I was black, "I had no business on their elevator." She ordered me off the elevator on a lower floor and said that she would have to call up stairs to let the staff know I was on my way.

Soon thereafter she was advised that I was scheduled for an oral test on the floor I was trying to get to. But, she still refused to compromise. She announced that I wasn't permitted to travel through their office without an escort. Interestingly, it was additionally odd that the State required a monitor to sit in with me during my testing.

Nonetheless, getting back to the LIHEAP issue, the federal entitlement program provides waivers and reduced heating rates to low-income households. It is a federal program that assists those who cannot pay their bills. Eligible households can receive assistance through a direct payment to energy vendors that supply their fuel, or through a crisis component during weather-related emergencies. To be eligible for the program, household income cannot exceed 135 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines: $12,920 for a one-person household; $17,321 for two persons; $21,722 for three persons; $26,123 for four persons; $30,524 for five persons. For larger households, the guidelines increase by $4,401 for each additional person. Homeowners, renters (including those whose rent includes heat), roomers and subsidized housing tenants may be eligible.

I have a good understanding of the program because I was previously employed by Allegheny County as a planner and wrote grant applications for the agency that implements the program. However, in 1989, I was fired in retaliation for organizing a union. The political sub-division said I was terminated for being tardy four times in a four-month period. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC") identified a white female working in the same office as having been tardy 71 times during the same time period and not disciplined. But, the PHRC ruled it was bad management and not discrimination.

Ever since my termination the political-subdivision has found some way to retaliate against my household, i.e., always reaches from any available loophole to frustrate the process and deny my family the federal entitlement. In the past, I have complained to the State, federal government (FBI), courts and media to no avail.

Consider this, when the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan passed through Western Pennsylvania in September 2004, the LIHEAP offered free water heaters and furnaces. Income restrictions were waived allowing the affluent to participate. My family was denied relief because the deed to our house is recorded in our minor son’s name. But, LIHEAP allows renters and other non-homeowners to participate.

The current issue involves Duquense Light Company’s termination of our electric service immediately following the close of last year’s LIHEAP program (March 31, 2005). Although they already had $371 as a security deposit the utility company terminated service and demanded $866.01. And, despite the fact that we didn’t have any electrical service, the next month we received an unexplained bill for almost twice the amount actually due: $1,646.17. Because we are current living on “food stamps” we were forced to go without electric until the start of the 2005-2006 LIHEAP program.

As a “food stamp” participant we received our LIHEAP application early and returned it weeks before the November 7 start. In fact, as we do each year, we contacted Mr. Cornell’s office to advise him of our situation (requested that he process our application to allow the electrical service to be restored on November 7 without a 72-hour wait). Mr. Cornell didn’t respond.

Mrs. Titus, Mr. Cornell's assistant did call on November 7, just before the closing (3:00 p.m.) of her office. She advised our application would be denied - "Duquense Light now demanded $2,600.” To memorialize the outrageous response I requested permission from Mrs. Titus to allow a "three-way" connection with the local media Channel 4). I called Channel 4 because I was given its “gold medal” for outstanding community service in 1989. However, during the three-way conversation Ms. Titus refused to acknowledge her previous position (Duquense Light demand of $2,600). She would only say our family was being denied the federal entitlement. Immediately, I voiced a complaint to Mr. Cornell’s secretary. She suggested that I call Harrisburg (Department of Welfare’s main office). She provided me the number.

Precious Perry answered the Secretary of Welfare’s telephone. She transferred me to Ms. Richman’s chief of staff (Linda Hicks). Mrs. Hicks promised to have Christian Bowser call before five p.m.. But, it never happened. At 9:00 a.m. the next morning (November 8), I called Mr. Cornell’s office and left another message requesting a return call. I also called Mrs. Hicks again and questioned why Mrs. Bowser never called.

This time, Mrs. Hicks promised to have Ms. Bowser call before 11 a.m.. Mrs. Hicks asked us to “call back if Mrs. Bowser failed to call.” It never happened.

I did call Ms. Hicks at 12:00 noon but she rushed me off the phone. She gave me Mrs. Bowser’s telephone number and requested that I call her directly. I called the number but got Mrs. Bowser’s voice mail. I left a message explaining the situation. Mrs. Bowser never called back.

On November 9, 2005, I called Mrs. Hicks again to advise Mrs. Bowser' failure to call. But, Mrs. Hicks quickly rushed me off the phone again. She said that she would no longer address the issue. She said “communicate with Ms. Bowser from that point.”

Thereafter, I called Mrs. Bowser’s and spoke with her secretary. I left another message. Even more frustrated now, I called the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I spoke with Mr. Tom Birdsong. I advised him of our situation and asked if he would investigate the issue in a “confidential” manner. He said that he would forward the information to Larry Walsh. I informed him that in the previous years I have communicated with Mr. Walsh but nothing was done. I even told Mr. Birdsong that I once connected a Post-Gazette columnist, Tony Norman, and allowed him to participated with a three-way telephone call (allowed him opportunity to monitor a call to prove how rude the LIHEAP program staff was acting). Mr. Birdsong said he would have Mr. Walsh call.

At approximately 4:00 p.m., I was finally able to get Mrs. Bowser on the telephone. She laughed at our situation!

After laughing, Mrs. Bowser would only reiterated Mrs. Titus position, “Duquense Light can demand funds that are not owed.” She added, “Mrs. Titus’ position is final.” She said she would have Mrs. Titus send us a rejection letter.

Immediately, I called Mr. Birdsong. But, he became rude. The conversation concluded with Mr. Birdsong saying “No one is going to write about your family’s plight.”

50 cents, during an interview on ABC’s “The View,” said he was saddened by the fatal shooting: “I feel for the victim’s family in this situation.” He added, “But you know, these weren’t kids. This was a 30-year-old man (who) had a dispute with three other guys.”

I’m older than 30. But, what is rage? How come I’m able to control my anger? Would I have controlled my anger if one of my family members was hit by a stray bullet during the shootout?

Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

I would urge the above writer to contact Neighborhood Legal Services in Pittsburgh and his state representative and state sneator to deal with his LIHEAP and other utility problems. This is something they might well be able to help with.

On the issue of full-time legislatures, we have steadily moved in that direction. Less than 5% were full-time when I was first elected in 1974, and today the overhwhelming majority are full-time. That does not mean that some do not have $1300 a year in outside income from some investment or other (the threshold for reporting), but it does mean that they are spending no time either running a business or taking a salary from anyone else.

I supported the effort by Representative Michael McGeehan to adopt the federal formula limiting earned outside income to the 15% of salary allowed for a member of Congress. McGeehan sought to attach it to the pay raise repeal bill, which he believed the Senate would have to pass and Governor Rendell would have to sign. An odd coalition of Republicans and
anti-pay raise Democrats opposed the amendment, and ultimately McGeehan felt compelled to withdraw it.

The opposition to the pay raise is certainly a defeat for the movement towards a full-time legislature. Senator Brightbill, for instance, had given up his law practice before supporting the pay raise. Whether he resumes practicing law now remains to be seen.

Certainly,there are many opponents of legislative pay raises who believe that earning outside income is far better than having a higher salary. As one writer on the Inquirer message board put it in referring to me, "If he needs more money, he should just get another job."

The value of a full-time legislature is that it more readily master the details of public programs, and more readily make innovations in public policy.
Not having an employer or partners to be accountable to means the legislator can more fully be an agent of his or her constituency.

I urge you to try to sell your support for the federal limitations on legisative income to apply in Pennsylvania to as many groups as possible.

ACM said...

anonymous, dude! off-topic much? sometimes a link is more than enough...