Ill-fated payraise remembered 15 years later

Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Tuesday was an anniversary that few state lawmakers noted or celebrated. It has been 15 years since they voted themselves a pay raise and set off protests across Pennsylvania.

On July 7, 2005, a fuse was lit and it soon exploded across the commonwealth. Tucked into a 2 a.m. budget vote — yes, that’s two hours after midnight — lawmakers gave themselves pay raises of between 16 and 34 percent. Governor Rendell signed it.

There was no public input or public knowledge, but the public would soon get involved.

Anger, outrage, and fury ruled the ensuing months and there were numerous protests on the steps of the Capitol and in the halls of the state House. By November, the raise itself was repealed for most, though the judiciary refused to relinquish theirs and have kept it to this day. Voters also voiced their displeasure at the ballot box. For the first time in Pennsylvania history a sitting Supreme Court Justice, Russel Nigro, was not retained.

The casualties were much greater in the legislature.

“A lot of people got the boot and a lot of people said we’re gonna get the boot so they decided not to run,” said Rep. Dan Moul (R-Adams).

More than 50 lawmakers, nearly a quarter of PA’s General Assembly, turned over that year. Moul took out an incumbent who had voted for the pay raise and argued during the campaign that he deserved it.

“That infuriated those people who are salt of the earth people from my district,” Moul said. “It just infuriated them.”

“Essentially, it was like a political enema,” state watchdog Eric Epstein said of the pay raise fallout. “It cleansed the system. Unfortunately, the system is backed up again.”

Epstein’s group, Rock the Capital, organized many of the protests in 2005. But he notes the annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) have succeeded in doing what the repealed pay raise could not. The base salary for lawmakers in 2005 was just under $70,000. It is now more than $90,000, an increase of nearly 30 percent.

Moul has introduced several bills through the years to eliminate automatic yearly COLAs.

“They have gone nowhere,” Moul said with a laugh. “It was like Don Quixote and the windmill, so to speak.”

Russ Diamond started Clean Sweep PA and called for the ouster of every incumbent in 2005. He now is an incumbent representative from Lebanon County.

“We have a better General Assembly now, we’re more transparent and more deliberate and we don’t do things in the middle of the night anymore,” Diamond said.

Diamond made a name for himself during those protests 15 years ago but lost seven elections before winning his first, in 2014.

“It does seem like just yesterday, but also like centuries ago,” Diamond said of those days protesting.

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