Dear Ms. Helm

July 19, 2009

An open letter to Sue Helm, who represents the 104th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania General Assembly

Dear Ms. Helm:

Here we are, nineteen days past the annual deadline mandated by the state constitution for the passage of a budget for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I shouldn’t have to remind you what failure to meet this deadline by the members of the state house and senate means, but I will, in case the consequences of this inaction have escaped your attention.

It means that for the seventh year in a row (the third since you have been serving), you and your colleagues have failed to meet a key objective of your job description. It means that many (although not all) state employees cannot be paid for work done in July. As a consequence, they have endured one payless payday and face more, even though they stay on the job and perform according to the requirements of their job descriptions. It means that Tina Cooper, a state employee who lives in the district you represent, has had to cancel her annual trip to the seashore and take a loan and a part time job to cover her living expenses and those of her daughter.

Along with others in her office, she is planning a visit to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in order to conserve her borrowed cash for utilities and the gas she needs to travel to the job she is faithfully performing but not getting paid for. The promise that she and her associates will be paid retroactively some time after whatever future date you and your colleagues manage to deliver a budget is cold comfort in the here and now as missed payments to creditors accrue late fees and penalties.

I read about Ms. Cooper and others like her in yesterday’s paper. Not long afterward I brought in the day’s mail. It included a greeting card from you to my husband, whose birthday is today. “On your birthday and always, may your life be filled with happiness,” it says above your signature, which appears to be a slightly pixelated graphic.

At least you haven’t been whiling away budget discussion time signing your name over and over again. But I have to wonder, Ms. Helm, whether sending birthday cards to constituents whom you have never met is a good use of office resources, because surely it is some staffer, not you, who has compiled the database of citizens’ birthdays and who then supervises the mailing of each week’s batch.

This is the third occurrence of Ron’s birthday since you have been our state representative, yet it is the first time he has received a birthday card from you. Is this some new strategy designed to build good will among those you supposedly serve? The card contains on its back your picture, the addresses of your three offices, and the URL for your website. Looks like a piece of campaign material to me.

The front of the card contains a photograph of the interior of the state House of Representatives. It’s a handsome space, full of antique furnishings, 18th and 19th century architectural details, and graceful insertions of modern communications devices. I think it is significant that the photograph shows the chamber empty. There are no legislators at work, no materials open on desks suggesting that perhaps everyone has stepped out for a moment — just carpet, ceremonial chairs, and marble. Perhaps all that emptiness represents our representatives well. Nearly three weeks past the day that you and your colleagues know comes every single year, you have not done your jobs. Neither have you passed stopgap measures as your counterparts in North Carolina and Connecticut have done to insure relief for those least able to carry the burden of the payless paydays you have caused.

When you ran for reelection this past fall, you said in an interview that you should be returned to office because you had much “unfinished business” from your first term that you wanted to see to completion. When you first ran for office, you said,“The taxpayers of the 104th District deserve a representative who listens to and acts on their concerns, a representative that [sic] supports reform in the state House.” You won the chance to run in the first place because your predecessor declined to run again, having disgraced himself in the shenanigans known as the Midnight Pay Raise of 2005.

I don’t know if you have completed any of that unfinished business from 2006-2008. Maybe all your work on whatever that was, as well as your birthday greeting program, has prevented you from addressing effectively the need to pass a state budget by midnight on June 30 (same time and date every year). But I say, today, Ms. Helm, get busy. Do what you were elected to do, so that maybe Tina Cooper can still take a vacation.

And don’t send me a birthday card.



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