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Pennsylvania wake-up

Voter revolt tells Republicans big spending is a big problem

If Pennsylvania's primary election is an indicator, GOP leaders risk a nationwide revolt among their conservative base in November. Republican voters, spurred on by a bipartisan effort to topple the sitting legislature, ousted at least 11 state lawmakers, including the Senate President Pro Tempore, Robert Jubelirer, an eight-term Republican from Altoona with the longest record in state history in the leadership position. Voters also turned out Majority Leader David Brightbill.

Democrats did not remain unscathed: At least six Democrats lost seats, while 30 other lawmakers in the 253-member General Assembly avoided voter wrath by resigning in the fall and winter.

Voter frustration began to climax last year, when Republican-led legislators voted themselves a 16 percent to 54 percent pay hike without floor debate or public hearings and in circumvention of a state ban on midterm raises. The base legislative salary-already nearly double the average state salary-jumped from $69,647 to $81,050 annually, while most lawmakers in leadership positions received a 34 percent increase to $145,463. These numbers do not include the free health care, prescriptions, dental coverage, $10,000 no-receipt expense accounts, pension benefits, or the $128 they collect just for showing up for work.

Although Democratic Governor Ed Rendell signed the bill-later revoked under pressure-Republican lawmakers suffered the heaviest punishment. Rep. Thomas Stevenson of Pittsburgh was defeated by a 21-year-old college graduate, while a tire salesman with little political experience thwarted Mr. Brightbill, even though the majority leader outspent him 20 to 1.

For U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who ran unopposed and was not involved in the state government spending scandal, the revolt against Republicans meant he received a lukewarm endorsement, collecting 22,000 fewer votes than did gubernatorial candidate and former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, also unopposed-numbers suggesting that many voters consciously withheld support from the senator.

Support for Mr. Santorum cooled when he endorsed the 2004 reelection campaign of fellow Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-abortion Republican dubbed 2003 Porker of the Year by Citizens Against Government Waste. Mr. Santorum trails pro-life Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. in the polls.

For conservatives, the pay raise was the last straw after 14 years of fiscal irresponsibility under a Republican-controlled legislature. The state has the second-highest gasoline tax (32.3 cents per gallon) and the third-highest corporate net income tax (9.99 percent) in the nation and ranks 48th out of 50 states in economic growth. Two out of three times, the Republican-led legislature approved a higher budget than what Democratic Gov. Rendell proposed.

The fiscal year 2005-06 budget saw a 6.1 percent spending increase-from $22.87 billion to over $24 billion. The legislature also voted down a bill that would have limited spending increases to the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index (a measure of the increase in the cost of living) last year.

"The pay raise was a trigger," said John Eichelberger, the Blair County commissioner who toppled 32-year Senate incumbent Jubelirer. "I think the base is energized now. People want to see a change. I think we have a lot of problems in the Republican Party."

Mr. Eichelberger and three other candidates created the "Promise to Pennsylvania," a document calling for term limits, tort reform, strict regulation of lobbyists, and a three-fifths legislative majority for tax hikes.

If the message to Republicans from the state primary is for conservatives to engage, some wonder if it's not already too late. Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth lobbying group, warned that Republicans who voted against incumbents may stay home for the general election.

Anthony Paul Mator

Anthony Paul Mator