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Political Pay-Off

Harrisburg corruption is worse than we give it credit for

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By all rights, I ought to be enjoying the outrage over the state legislature’s pay raise. I’ve indulged in it myself, and for once people seem to be holding a grudge as long as I do. Just last week, hundreds attended a Harrisburg protest that featured a giant inflatable pig.

 

And yet, I found myself wondering if legislators even noticed what was, after all, just another swine in Harrisburg, puffed up with hot air. Such creatures don’t inspire fear in the Capitol. If anything, they’re more likely to get committee assignments.

 

My doubts stem from a conversation I had recently with a lobbyist whose view of state government is particuarly jaundiced. To him, getting outraged about the pay raise is like watching a bank robbery … and being mad only that, on their way out the door, the robbers grabbed a toaster without opening a checking account.

 

“You want to see corruption?” my lobbysit friend asks. “Look at a bond issue.” For politically connected firms, he says, these routine transactions generate enough in attorney’s fees to make even a state legislator blush. Yet the public never pays attention.

 

Or to cite another example we ought to be talking about, take Act 201 of 2004, the “Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act.”

 

Utilities sought the bill because, they said, too many people were able to get out of paying their bills, passing the cost to the rest of us while they hid behind fake names or hid from meetings with utility reps, who under the old law had to speak to customers in person before shutting them off.

 

But as much as the pay raise itself, Act 201 was a classic piece of Harrisburg chicanery. Passed by the Senate in 2003, it sat in a House committee for a year. Then, in a single week during a late-November “lame-duck” session last year, the House rammed the bill through, sent it back to the Senate and then to the governor’s desk. Throughout the entire process, there was not a single public hearing on the measure.

 

The results were predictable. In June, the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) reported that utilities were shutting off service to twice as many customers -- at Columbia Gas, the number of shut-offs jumped by 230 percent. Critics have already linked some deaths to utility shut-offs enabled by the new law.

 

And with gas companies announcing rate hikes of up to 45 percent for the fall and winter, things could get much worse. A report compiled by a former PUC Commissioner, Joseph Rhodes, this September noted that utilities have “absolute discretion” in shutting off customers even during winter, and warned of “catastrophic consequences” for poor families in the months ahead. Once cut off, getting reconnected may be impossible for poor families: Under the law, utilities can demand the balance due, a reconnection fee, and two months’ payment in advance. Unless Harrisburg’s actions are undone, Rhodes warns, a “monumental crisis” is on the way.

 

The price of such legislation is hard to measure. But it is surely higher than the legislative pay raise, which the Pennsylvania Economy League estimates will cost each resident only about 33 cents this year, less than the price of a postage stamp.

 

If I were more optimistic, I’d hope the pay raise will spur people’s interest in these more harmful acts of political malfeasance. There is, after all, a lot of talk about changing state government from top to bottom. 

 

But how serious can such talk be when it’s focused on an issue that only scratches the surface? Any political hack can pledge to give back the pay raise; the issue is a natural vote-getter, and even without extra money, being a legislator is cushy work. But such campaigns won’t help homeowners going without heat. They won’t curtail the “pinstripe patronage” that attends every bond issue. They might even make such problems worse: Knee-jerk anti-government rhetoric, unfortunately, often elects candidates who are even more beholden to the corporate agenda.

 

The next time you get outraged by state government, in other words, don’t waste the hot air filling up balloons. It’d be better used for your neighbors’ homes.

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