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A blog that takes a look at West Chester area government, politics, and community events.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

COLA nonsense

"I think the political process has become too much about one-upsmanship," State Rep. Dwight Evans said. "It's stopped being about you."

Evans, the powerful Philadelphia Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said this today at an economic forum held at the Tredyffrin Township Building. The forum was sponsored by the House Democratic Caucus and included a Democrat-only panel of legislators. It was a clear attempt to give southeastern Pennsylvania's freshmen Democrats, including Paul Drucker, D-157th of Tredyffrin, and Tom Houghton, D-13th of London Grove, some exposure. But its other, more important function was to try to educate local leaders about the dire budgetary issues facing the state and to hear feedback from them regarding what next year's budget should look like.

Evan's comment caused me to recall that, for the last two months or so, our local legislators have been trying to one-up each other by making announcements about what they were doing with their 2009 cost of living adjustments. (Also referred to as COLAs, these are annual, automatic raises members of the General Assembly are required to accept. Given the failing economy, legislators from around here have been eager to reap the political and symbolic benefits of giving away this mandatory raise.)

First, Barbara McIlvaine-Smith, D-156th of West Chester, announced she was introducing legislation that would get rid of the automatic pay hikes. Then Drucker and Houghton announced they were forgoing the hikes - they said they would possibly donate their COLAs to charity. Then State Rep. Curt Schroder, R-155th of Downingtown, who hinted in November that he couldn't afford to give his COLA to charity, announced he would return the raise to the state treasury. He criticized legislators who were giving their pay increase to charity, calling it a politically-motivated move that would also allow them to benefit from a charitable tax-writeoff (McIlvaine-Smith said she wouldn't write off her donation).

Around the time Schroder offered this critique, Republicans all over the county said that they'd be giving their COLAs back to the state (a maneuver that involves writing the treasury a check). Area Democrats, without fail, began to announce that they would give their COLAs to charity.

This is nice, but as I will have reported tomorrow, Evans, at the economic forum, predicted that the state would face a deficit of between $4.1 and $4.9 billion over the next two years. If all state legislators did without their $2,200 COLAs, well, let's see...

50 Senators + 203 Representatives = 253 legislators.

253 legislators x $2,200 = $556,600

Hmm... in the government's hands, that's enough for a new playground or, perhaps, a grant for something really silly, like improving traffic flow in one of our communities that's not plagued by arson and uncontrollable crime.

While donating money to local charities is good (Rep. McIlvaine-Smith gave her COLA to local fire companies; Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19th of West Whiteland, gave his to the troops), and while boosting the state's coffers is nice (State Rep. Duane Milne, R-167th of Willistown, and State Rep. Chris Ross, R-158th of East Marlborough, are writing checks to the treasury), what, really, is the point of all of this hype? $556,600 is not $5 billion. I think we need to stop talking about COLAs (I'm guilty too - I've written three articles and a blog post about the issue) and start talking, seriously and soberly, about this $5 billion problem. The quantity of discussion should be proportional to the money at stake.

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