Promises, Promises

Posted by By at 3 November, at 09 : 15 AM Print

The media has recently been filled with stories about Governor Tom Corbett’s “no tax pledge” to lobbyist Grover Norquist.  Why a candidate for anything would be making an unbreakable pledge to a lobbyist is a mystery – especially one with the resume of Mr. Norquist.  But since that issue has been extensively covered by the mainstream media, we will move on to larger matters with the confidence you’ve already been sufficiently spun.  The point of this diatribe will be to point out what you may not yet have realized; i.e., what an enormous opportunity our Governor’s precedent-setting pledge offers for Pennsylvania.

You see, in PA, we had come to accept that promises made while on the campaign trail were kind of like those made on the first date.  Once you got the booty, they became irrelevant.  But by steadfastly adhering to his vow to Norquist, Corbett has gone where no Pennsylvania politician has gone before.  He has etched “I always remember to put down the toilet seat” in stone.  We are now free to not only ask our candidates for promises, but also expect them to keep them.  Think about that, for a moment.  If we’d had this power a decade ago, we’d be living in a state with the best educational system, a pristine transportation network, a welfare safety net through which no one slips…and it would all be for free.  (Note to Governor Corbett:  Before you get excited and call your privatization council, I should add that I am referring to a state we would still own.)  So let’s take a look at a few simple pledges we might ask of our lawmakers – with the understanding they will be expected to keep them.

Pledge #1: I promise not to vote myself a salary increase.

Considering all the hullabaloo over the 2005 salary increase – and the political carcasses left to rot beside the road, thereafter – one would think this would be a no-brainer.  Until one realizes he is dealing, largely, with “no-brainers” who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past – especially when those lessons interfere with their efforts to siphon as much as possible from the public coffers.  When the legislature voted itself an annual COLA in 1995, the salary for Members of the House and Senate was $47,000.  Speaker-cum-felon John Perzel proudly declared that the legislation would mean the legislators would never have to raise their own salaries, again.  Ten years and nearly $30,000 in total annual salary increases later, they did precisely that.  Their rationale was, as it always seems to be, “If we want to keep the best and brightest in public service, we must fairly compensate them for their work since they could be making far more in the private sector.”  Sounds reasonable.  And I’m sure, if we wait long enough, the “best and brightest” will, eventually, win election over the self-serving opportunists with the enormous campaign accounts.   But, in the meantime, the people will be better served by an iron-clad pledge.  While we’re on the subject of campaign accounts…

Pledge #2: I promise not to use my campaign account as a personal piggy bank.

Politicians who consider federal laws relating to the distribution of campaign funds to be their own personal Rubik’s Cubes – if they twist them enough times, they’ll eventually look as they’d like – have found a haven in Pennsylvania.  With no contribution limits and a horrifically inadequate monitoring  system, we have created a world in which already-well paid lawmakers are free to access even larger sums – provided they’re willing to bend the rules just a teeny bit.  If you examine the reports filed with the Election Bureau, you will find some candidates who appear to be making payments on their personal mortgages.  Many routinely reimburse themselves for undocumented “expenses” without the need to prove that any of those expenses were actually incurred.  (Each year, three percent of all the candidates are audited.)  Some hand out “consulting fees” like Snickers Bars on Halloween.  (One would think, with all the advice, they’d be making better decisions.)  Discounting the reports of the politicians who are not beholden to special interests – most of whom have no money, anyway – the system is an ethical nightmare.

Pledge #3: I promise not to use my taxpayer-funded office to do campaign work for myself or others.

The availability of these facilities – and the brigades of de facto campaigners who staff them – will always create a nearly insurmountable advantage for incumbents.  Of course, we could replace legislative staffers with Civil Service employees who would, by law, be forbidden from doing campaign work either during working hours or after.  But that initiative would have to start with the people deriving the greatest benefit from the present system.  In other words, don’t hold your breath.  As it is, we have a system in which the longest serving members and the party leaders (i.e., the ones who most need to go, in many cases) are “rewarded” with larger and larger staffs who are free to knock on more and more doors (after working hours, of course) and make more and more annoying phone calls.  Challengers are left to compete aided only by their spouses, children and Great Danes.  And this is a problem even if the incumbents follow the rules, as they are presently written.  If they choose to bend them just enough to utilize their “free” office space, most challengers don’t have a prayer.

Pledge #4: I promise to place the best interests of the people I represent ahead of the special interests who funded my campaign.

Seems simple enough.  But it is disturbing to see that our governor has done just the opposite.   Surely, there must have been a moment in the history of the commonwealth when a tax increase was appropriate – even necessary.  By vowing to veto any proposed tax increase, Corbett has eliminated his ability to effectively govern in any circumstance out of respect for a doctrinaire philosophy – and a shaky one, at that.  Consider: What if a candidate promised an animal rights organization that he would protect an endangered species of bird, no matter what the circumstance?  What if the bird proliferated under his protection until the commonwealth was knee-deep in bird droppings?  Situations change and it is prudent for an effective leader to keep all reasonable options open.  Corbett has chosen the bird over the People and, as a result, we are all dealing with the crap.  So, what if the best interest of the people requires action you’ve already promised a lobbyist you would not take?  With this promise, we might be creating an ethical conundrum.  Unless…

Pledge #5: I promise to make no promises except to the People.

Now, there’s one Pennsylvania can live with.  Sorry, Grover.

Photo by The UpTake

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Terry was employed for fifteen years as the District Office Manager for State Representative Frank LaGrotta. During that time, he organized and led campaigns which halted the construction of a high-voltage electric transmission line, a natural gas pipeline and a landfill. In 2007, before the term “Bonusgate” had been coined, Terry approached the Attorney General’s office with crucial information related to crimes committed within the caucus and he was the first witness to testify before the Western Pennsylvania Grand Jury. The information led to the conviction of his former employer, who received a reduced sentence for cooperating with investigators examining the activities of members of caucus leadership. For the last three years, Terry has worked in various capacities for Democracy Rising PA and presently serves as the Research Director. He is in the process of completing a novel which relates the story of his career in the corrupt world of Pennsylvania politics in a science fiction genre because, he says, if he presented it as fact, no one outside Pennsylvania would ever believe him. Interested publishers may querie. - Email Terry Shaffer

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