JOHN BAER believes he has found the Achilles' heel of all politicians who accomplish anything - they spend money. He has recently criticized President Obama, whose foreign policy has had many successes, for spending money on state dinners for foreign leaders. He not too long ago described Pennsylvania state government as a "loathsome self-protective culture that abhors attempts to change it."
And of course he brings his libertarian-light rhetorical firepower on me, because he strenuously disagrees with my support of many of his targets: unions, low-income people (he once called for the abolition of all welfare payments) and people who consume governmental services and, thus, add cost to government.
From the time Baer started writing for the Daily News in 1987, after working against Robert Casey for governor, he has been critical of me. He started by looking at my campaign expense reports and criticized me for taking contributions from labor unions. He searched for impropriety in my joining other legislators in a personally-paid-for trip to the Soviet Union in its waning days. Then, more than 26 years ago, he discovered his cynical version of gold in my legislative expense account.
Reading his propagandistic diatribes, one would never know that I do not use a taxpayer paid car or cellphone, that no state funds have ever been used to hire a defense lawyer for me for any member of my staff, that I have never hired a personal press secretary, that I have commuted by train to Harrisburg far more than the vast majority of state legislators, that I have personally paid for office furniture to avoid the outrageous rates that the House used to insist upon paying, that my total office payroll is unnoteworthy, and that I have rarely asked the House for more expense money than was allotted to me.
Baer's fixation on a small number of my expense items ignores the fact that, during a record 21 years as a Democratic leader and 13 years as a committee chairman of three different committees, I have been a legislative leader for meaningful improvements in people's lives. From my leadership in toughening Pennsylvania rape laws from my first days in office to my leadership in passing medical marijuana legislation and pushing for Medicaid expansion and online voter registration in this session, I have been an active leader for worthwhile change. Both Democratic and Republican legislators over the years have seen me as an objective source of information about legislation and state government. Baer ridicules my spending time on preparation, but preparation produces results in the legislative process and elsewhere.
I initiated the creation of district offices for the House of Representatives, linking legislators with community concerns in an unprecedented way. I was one of the first legislators to get behind the idea of paid subsidized prescriptions for low- and moderately low-income senior citizens (PACE), the establishment of a Health Care Cost Containment Council and the organ donation program people see referred to on their driver's licenses and applications. I voted to expand all Pennsylvania health-care policies to include services of chiropractors, physical therapists and specialists in the treatment of autism.
I was the first legislator in Pennsylvania history to push through minimum wage legislation, raising the minimum wage to $3.80 in 1988. Then I led the successful effort to raise the state minimum wage to $7.15 in 2006 and was advocating that the minimum wage be raised to $15.00 over time in the 2015-2016 session.
Legislation I succeeded in getting passed has reduced crime, lowered property taxes and wage taxes, expanded public information about all layers of government and dangerous chemicals in the workplace and improved educational opportunities. My legislation providing for advanced notice of plant closings was a national first that led to action by the Philadelphia City Council and the federal government.
It is legitimate to report costs legislators incur, but not legitimate to ignore public benefits of legislative work, to assume legislative work has no significant value or to selectively turn data into propaganda. Any realistic cost-benefit analysis of my legislative record will show that the penny a year the average Pennsylvania spends on my salary and expenses is well worth the cost.
Mark B. Cohen, Democratic Chairman
House State Government Committee