The end of 2017 marks the close of a tumultuous year in national politics, international relations, racial tension and sex harassment scandals.
But here in the fair state of Pennsylvania, it was a year of business as usual — a budget crisis, gambling expansion, school funding inequities, property tax debates and legislative inaction.
That litany of same old problems was capped off with news that taxpayer dollars were used for sex harassment settlements and more news that members of the Legislature and all state officials were getting a raise.
If we can resolve one thing for 2018, it is that we work to improve state government in Pennsylvania.
Top to bottom, in executive, legislative and judicial branches, our hope is that voters hold officials accountable and that elected representatives act on behalf of their constituents toward more bipartisan, common-sense solutions to the budgetary and school funding problems faced.
It’s a tall order but one that is long overdue.
The headlines of the past two weeks prove that point.
The Associated Press reported last week that Pennsylvania House Democrats and a state agency authorized payment of about a quarter-million in taxpayer dollars two years ago to settle a sex harassment claim against Rep. Thomas Caltagirone of Berks County, a member of the Legislature for 40 years.
The payments were revealed in reports in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, citing a document prepared by the state’s Bureau of Risk and Insurance Management that said House Democrats authorized paying $165,500 to an unidentified woman who worked for Caltagirone and $82,500 to her lawyer.
The House’s top-ranking Democrat, Minority Leader Frank Dermody, issued a statement saying his caucus agreed to pay out $514,000 since 2007 to settle claims by employees. Two involved sexual harassment claims against two members, and five were other types of employment matters.
Caltagirone, 75, has denied all accusations; Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has urged the longtime legislator to resign.
The state’s elected fiscal watchdog, Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, said he was outraged that the total amount disclosed by Dermody was just being made public, AP reported.
“Taxpayer money should never be used to settle sexual harassment claims against an elected official,” said DePasquale. “As a former legislator, I know that many members, including myself, were unaware that these payments were made. We need to put a stop to it.”
Then, there is gambling.
After yet another embarrassing budget standoff last summer, lawmakers turned again to expansion of gambling as a bet to generate revenue. Already the nation’s second-largest commercial casino state, legislation signed by Wolf gave Pennsylvania the added distinction as the fourth state to allow online gambling.
The expansion will bring casino games to airports and truck stops, and the state’s 10 existing larger casinos will be able to bid for the right to build smaller satellite casinos.
Municipalities have until Dec. 31 to pass resolutions if they opt to ban these mini-casinos from their borders.
As of Dec. 19, almost 300 municipalities have opted out, Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, according to a report by Watchdog.org. Some say the mini-casinos will create more problems than they solve in local towns; others say it’s just morally wrong.
In the midst of these issues comes good news — for legislators and other state officials. Their salaries will rise 0.8 percent in 2018 thanks to an automatic cost of living adjustment (COLA), according to Watchdog.org.
Pennsylvania’s lawmakers are the second-highest paid in the nation, with an annual base salary set to climb about $700, to $87,200 for 2018.
Top government leaders are paid much more, Watchdog.org reported.
“Pennsylvania has one of the most expensive, and extensive, legislatures in the U.S.,” Leo Knepper, CEO of the non-profit Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, said, according to Watchdog.org. “The annual budget for the General Assembly is somewhere in the neighborhood of $325 million. Including the 253 state legislators, there are over 3,000 employees working for the General Assembly.”
The recent news out of Harrisburg is enough to make us resolve to demand accountability and better results from our elected state officials.
Happy New Year with hopes that by Feb. 2, it’s not Groundhog Day all over again.