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To Pennsylvania legislators: Give the money back now

November 10, 2005

Not long ago there was a television commercial for a hair-coloring product that ended with a well-coiffed model addressing the camera with this boastful comment: "And I'm worth it."

Some members of the Pennsylvania Legislature may feel they're worth the raise they gave themselves when no one was looking this past summer. But unlike models, lawmakers have to convince the public that the elected officials who meet in Harrisburg are worth the money they get.

The raise itself might have passed under the public's radar, but some lawmakers - 158 to be exact - decided to take their raises before the next term began by filing for something called "unvouchered expenses."

Now citizens groups are calling on lawmakers to return that cash, a proposal which is getting mixed reactions in the state capital.

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The Associated Press reports that while state Sen. David Brightbill, R-Lebanon, is planning to return the $11,300 he received, Reps. H. William DeWeese and Michael R. Veon, Democratic leaders are in the House, are saying they won't.

Not giving back the money is a bad idea, for a good reason that may not have occurred to the lawmakers: It isn't a complicated issue.

Consider this: In a paper regarding Ross Perot's effect on the 1992 national elections, Gregory Thorson and Stephen Stambough of the University of California at Riverside noted that "of the 24 incumbents defeated in the general election, 19 had at least one overdraft at the House bank."

That issue resonated with voters because it was easy to understand: Because they were elected, House members had a privilege the average citizen did not - to overdraw their checking accounts without penalty.

The amounts involved were not great, especially when compared with the pork contained in the last federal transportation bill. But it was not a complicated issue, hidden in the fine print of a giant bill.

Likewise, the $5 million in extra pay given to Pennsylvania officials in the last four months is not much compared to the state's overall budget. But it may be enough to irritate all the working people who can't set their own pay rate.

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