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Protesters urge state legislators to roll back pay raises
1,500 join rally at Capitol
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

HARRISBURG -- They came to the Capitol yesterday by car, by bus and on foot.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
On the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg, volunteers unroll rows of petitions containing 129,000 signatures from Pennsylvanians protesting lawmakers' pay raises yesterday. The "Rock The Capital Rally" attracted about 1,500 protesters from all over the state.
Click photo for larger image.
They screamed for two hours about the legislative pay raise.

They got soaked, and ignored by the leaders they hoped to see.

But leaders of yesterday's "Rock The Capital'' protest were generally satisfied with the results, which they described as just a first step toward pressuring lawmakers to undo the 16 percent to 34 percent raises approved in the early morning hours of July 7.

About 1,500 angry Pennsylvanians gathered on the state Capitol steps amid a light rain yesterday afternoon to let legislators know of their unhappiness over the raise.

The chances of a pay raise repeal bill even getting a vote in the House or Senate remain highly uncertain, however.

"Oink-oink-oink!'' demonstrators shouted, egged on by speakers from Common Cause/Pennsylvania, Democracy Rising PA and other citizens groups.

"A firestorm of protest is sweeping the state,'' said Barry Kauffman of Common Cause. "We have to keep this pay raise issue alive for another 14 months," until incumbent legislators seek re-election in November 2006.

"This rain is not going to extinguish the flame of change that we've ignited here today," said Harrisburg talk show host Bob Durgin, another leader of the rally.

Leaders had refused to predict a crowd size in advance, saying they didn't want predictions to fall short and weaken the impact of the demonstration.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Joyce Bentley, of Newport, gets vocal during the "Rock The Capital Rally."
Click photo for larger image.
Kauffman announced to the crowd what has been rumored for weeks -- that his group, supported by others unhappy with the Legislature, will file a lawsuit next week in federal court seeking to block the pay raise.

Kauffman said the lawsuit can't get a fair hearing in state courts because state judges benefited from a pay raise in the same bill that gave legislators raises.

After listening to an hour of speeches, protesters crammed into the Capitol and filled the historic hallways outside Senate and House offices with repeated shouts of "Repeal the Raise!"

They delivered several large boxes containing what Durgin said were petitions signed by 129,000 people, most from central Pennsylvania.

A hundred or more people went down the main hall to House Speaker John Perzel's office, only to be greeted by his press aide, Beth Williams, who said Perzel was in a House session and unavailable to meet with them.

Perzel has previously dismissed any thought of repealing the raise and said he won't even consider a bill to do so unless at least 102 House members, a majority of the 203 members, support such a move.

Several protesters shouted that Perzel was afraid to meet with them, but Williams said that wasn't true.

Two hours after the rally ended, House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, met with reporters and said the repeal bill might be voted on if enough rank-and-file legislators want to. But he wasn't sure when or if that would happen.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Mike Odgen, left, and Gene Stilp, center, both of Dauphin County, leave stacks of petitions at the State Capitol signed by Pennsylvania residents angry about pay raises.
Click photo for larger image.
After failing to get into Perzel's first-floor office, the protesters went to Gov. Ed Rendell's reception room on the second floor. Rendell was out of town and they met with aide Kate Philips. Later they trekked to the opposite end of the building, to Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer's office. They couldn't see him, either, because he was in a closed GOP Senate caucus. Instead, they talked to aide David Atkinson.

Protesters came from various corners of the state, including Pittsburgh, Mercer, Greensburg, Scranton and numerous towns in central Pennsylvania.

Brothers Frank and Gerald Schiller, who live in Wilkins and own property in Downtown Pittsburgh, held signs reading "The Costas cost too much," referring to their legislators, Sen. Jay Costa Jr., D-Forest Hills, and his brother, Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, who both voted for the raise.

The Schillers said they supported the Costas for election in the past but no more. Jay Costa later declined comment.

A trio from the Greensburg area, LaVerne Sober, Toni Ritchey and Thomas Ridella, said they were there to support Rep. Tom Tangretti, D-Greensburg, who has joined with 45 other lawmakers in an effort to repeal the raise.

The large inflatable pink "anti-pay raise pig,'' which got statewide attention in newspapers last week, was back for another appearance at the rally.

The protest rally was organized by Harrisburg activists Gene Stilp, who has filed a state lawsuit seeking to overturn the raise, and Eric Epstein, who has led protests over the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg.

They joined a dozen groups including Common Cause, Pennsylvania Clean Sweep, the Commonwealth Foundation, Democracy Rising PA and others that have kept alive the protest against the raise.

"We're angry because they took our money and didn't even have the political guts to tell us what they were conspiring to do in the middle of the night," Tim Potts, a leader of Democracy Rising, told the crowd.

First published on September 27, 2005 at 12:00 am
Harrisburg Bureau chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.
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