Veon's conviction doesn't end abuse

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Mike Veon was convicted last week of using your tax money to give statehouse staffers bonuses to work on election campaigns. But on the charge of "double-dipping," essentially charging taxpayers twice for the same meal, he was found not guilty.

Evidently, that's still acceptable behavior for our state lawmakers. That's nuts.

Mr. Veon, former Democratic whip from Beaver Falls, would routinely host dinners in his Capitol office after pickup basketball games among lawmakers and staff. The four-year tab ran to $15,600, yet Mr. V also collected taxpayer-funded per diems of $126 to $148 each day.

His defense was that this was standard practice in Harrisburg. The jury evidently bought that, holding him to no higher standard simply because he was, you know, a leader.

After the trial, former Democratic Rep. Dan Surra of Elk County, who attended those free dinners, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News, "You could argue about whether it looks good or not -- paying people per diems and feeding them -- but is it illegal? That's a big leap."

Translation: Party on, Shriners. The folks back home will just have to live with our open-ended tab.

How long will we let this go on?

"We are becoming a society of haves and have-nots," an anonymous e-mailer wrote the other day. "The haves are government employees on all levels, from the local through the county, state and on up to the federal level. The have-nots are those employed in private industry."

The have-nots make concessions in a tight economy. As for the haves, they don't have to.

If that is an exaggeration, it is slight. Rep. Bill DeWeese of Greene County, himself under indictment for corruption, put an end to catered, taxpayer-funded "working lunches" at the Capitol in 2007. (This came days after a Post-Gazette report that some meals cost more than $6,300, or $67 a plate for the 94 House Democrats.)

There have been brush strokes of reform, but the automatic per diems of $163 each day the Legislature is in session, atop the $78,000 salary and superlative pension benefits for the legislative rank-and-file, are emblematic of an ingrained mentality of entitlement.

I'd expect there is no imminent threat to the venerable lawmaking tradition of getting a lobbyist to take you to dinner so you don't have to spend any of your per diem. Likewise there should be no necessity for lawmakers to turn in receipts for their expenses. Leave that to their lessers in the private sector.

This goes on because Pennsylvanians let it go on. Three senators are retiring and 21 House members are leaving at the end of the year, and that is about the only way seats change in Harrisburg.

We had a brief citizens revolt in 2006 that turned over a fifth of the statehouse, but do you know how many of the 22 state senators seeking re-election this year have an opponent in the May primary? Three (and only 11 will have opposition in November).

Among the 182 state House members looking to serve another term, only 33 face any opposition in May. Only 100 will have an opponent in November.

Tim Potts, leader of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, an underfunded but undaunted citizens reform group, would like to see receipts required for the per diem reimbursement "so taxpayers only have to feed these guys three meals a day -- what a concept!"

More broadly, his group is still collecting signatures for a petition for a state constitutional convention to overhaul the Legislature. (The petition can be found at www.democracyrisingpa.com or by writing Democracy Rising Pa., P.O. Box 618, Carlisle, PA 17013. )

As of a couple of weeks ago, some 3,400 people had signed the online petition and more than 1,400 had signed paper petitions. But that's fewer than 5,000 signatures in a state where nearly 6 million voted in the 2008 presidential election.

That won't scare anyone into reform.

More than 40 percent of the signatures have come from the seven-county Pittsburgh metro area, so Western Pennsylvanians are leading the way. Meantime, Philadelphia has contributed just 18 signatures. Until Eastern Pennsylvania cares about this, nothing will change.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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