The Susquehanna Sailors: Taking the Liberty to Live it up on your Property

Ronald Reagan is credited for having once said: “Some people say that the government spends money like a bunch of drunken sailors. That isn’t fair. At least the drunken sailors spend their own money.”

Although it was Congress-not Pennsylvania’s House and Senate leadership-that the President had in mind, the “Susquehanna Sailors” in Harrisburg have demonstrated that they know how to spend other people’s money with the worst of politicians.

Like the “Potomac Fever” that infects many politicians after they’ve stayed in Washington, D.C. too long, the “Susquehanna Virus” has been running rampant in Harrisburg. Whether it’s spending taxpayer money on lavish meals at expensive restaurants or traveling like the rich and famous on chartered planes and in limousines, Pennsylvania’s Democrat and Republican leaders exhibit more than a few symptoms of this seemingly incurable disease.

The final tab for all of this fine dining and comfy travel cost taxpayers the equivalent of more than double and triple the average working Pennsylvanian’s salary. One personally wealthy senator spent more than $73,000 of taxpayer money at just one Philadelphia restaurant while another long-serving House leader racked up nearly $97,000 in travel expenses in 16 months.

But our elected representatives aren’t just spending tax dollars for their own personal pleasure. Late in 2003, it was also revealed that more than $3 million of taxpayer money was used by both Democrats and Republicans to help incumbent House members in their re-election efforts. Using “public service announcements” as cover to inform constituents (voters?) in districts with vulnerable incumbents about, among other things, the abuse of the drug OxyContin just weeks and days before Election Day 2002, leaders in the House implemented their own version of taxpayer-funded campaigns out of a multi-million dollar slush fund.

The irony, of course, is that at the end of 2003 these same abusers of the public treasury voted to increase income taxes on Pennsylvanians earning as little as $10,000 per year-simultaneously increasing the pools of tax money from which their abuses are funded. It was these same politicians who raised taxes and fees on cell phones, cigarettes, death certificates, and passed a slew of other revenue “enhancements” to satiate-at least for the current budget year-the spending habits of Pennsylvania’s public royalty, er…, servants.

Indeed, just days before Christmas, Pennsylvania became the only state in the nation to both increase taxes and create massive new spending programs in 2003. This regrettable distinction was earned after months of wrangling between the General Assembly and Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell, during which it appeared that the Republican-controlled Senate (with a 29-21 majority) was actually going to prevent the governor from taking more money out of Pennsylvania families’ budgets.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, a last-minute deal was cut and new taxes totaling more than $1 billion were added in the General Assembly’s late-night, pre-Christmas tax grab. And still worse, while every working Pennsylvanian immediately felt the impact in his paycheck after the new year, most citizens remain unaware how the Susquehanna Sailors secured more “mad money” for themselves using, you guessed it, your tax dollars.

The process began in mid-October, when the House Republican leadership first cast votes in support of the governor’s higher tax and spending plans-despite the overwhelming opposition from the majority of its caucus members. So, having been the first body to sign off on the very idea of a tax hike, it appeared that any House action in late December would simply be a rubber-stamp approval of the Senate-negotiated deal.

But not even the die-hard political junkie who remained glued to PCN-TV’s coverage of that debate on the floor of the House of Representatives would have seen their freedom being sold in the General Assembly-or suspected that the price to the taxpayer was about to go up dramatically.

Unlike the high-school civics class portrayal of an open legislative process where the merits of each bill are debated and voted on by the General Assembly, the political reality is that no vote is ever taken in either the House or Senate where the outcome isn’t already known-or if at least the leaders think they know.

So it came as a surprise that what was thought to be a mere procedural vote was temporarily stalled on December 22nd. As the cameras broadcasting the House debate were turned off, House leaders took to the floor to persuade reluctant members to support the tax increase. Similar to the pork-barrel project deals in Washington, D.C. that have made Pennsylvania’s senior Senator famous, leadership in the State House bought tax votes with promises of district projects and other taxpayer-funded incentives in the upcoming election year.

Eventually, enough votes were purchased and less than a third of the Republicans-primarily members in “leadership” positions-joined with a majority of Democrats to hand Gov. Rendell his tax-increase victory. In return, Gov. Rendell has committed to refrain from campaigning against House Republicans who supported his billion dollar tax increase package.

Despite the valiant efforts of a minority of House and Senate members on both sides of the aisle who fought the tax increases every step of the way, the Susquehanna Sailors won the day and will be back in early 2004, taking the liberty to live it up on your property once again. The only question remaining is whether or not the taxpayer “Shore Patrol” will finally decide to bust up the party by throwing some of the worst offenders overboard at election time.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president at the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.