Champion of Reform Targets More Than Legislative Perks
State Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny) never saw a legislative perk he liked. During his six years in the House, he led the charge to end car leases and pushed to restrict other legislative comforts that didn’t “pass the smell test.” The retired police officer now carries the same reformist flag to the other side of the Capitol. After all, he succeeded two Republican legislators convicted of corruption charges: Jeff Habay in House, and Jane Orie in the Senate. While he could have hung his hat on these accomplishments alone, his reform efforts go even further.
“Senator Vulakovich is a champion of reform and honest government, and he understands that the only way we get honest government is with limited government,” said PMA Executive Director David N. Taylor. “Leaders lead first by example, and ‘Officer V’ sets the standard for public service.”
Vulakovich, for instance, helped write a new law that changed the governance of the Pittsburgh Port Authority. Claims that the Authority’s Board of Directors was a nest of inefficiency and cronyism dogged it for years. Just this past spring, the Port Authority was on the verge of appointing Joe Brimmeier its top executive before he resigned in light of a grand jury presentment over his involvement in a ‘pay to play’ scheme while running the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
“I just wanted the governance to be more professional, and not have something run by a bunch of political hacks,” Vulakovich said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) introduced the Port Authority legislation, SB 700, and the bill made it to the Governor’s desk after a compromise with the House.
“Senator Randy Vulakovich deserves tremendous credit for playing a vital role in forging a compromise on this important issue,” Senator Scarnati wrote in an e-mail.
The Port Authority runs the buses, light rail, and other public transportation services for 230,000 daily riders in Allegheny County. This fiscal year, the state General Fund will underwrite 63 percent of its budget, to the tune of $259 million.
The law fittingly gives the General Assembly a say in who sits on its Board. It also allows the Allegheny County Executive to appoint six of 11 members to the board, down from all nine members now. The governor and legislative leaders from each of the four caucuses will appoint the remaining five members. The new law also requires PennDOT to conduct two studies on the feasibility of privatizing some of the Port Authority services and to potentially regionalize services.
“I know the commonwealth will always be put in a position to subsidize the services, but the more professionally it runs, and the more it runs like a business, the better it’s going to run for everyone,” Vulakovich said.
Besides ending car leases in the House, he worked to have lawmakers pay a portion of their health care insurance coverage. “It’s only one percent of salary,” he said. “I would like to see at least three percent and have it reflect more what those in the private sector are paying.”
He fought to have lawmakers reimbursed for actual expenses incurred and not just pocket per diems. “Everywhere else, you have to show receipts,” he said.
Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny), Vulakovich’s likely 2014 election opponent, ranked 10th highest of 253 on the recently released list of Per Diem Kings and Queens for March 2013, as researched by the PA Independent.
The per diem rates are tied to a formula established by the federal government and are linked to the cost of living in each city. Last session, the Harrisburg rate was $160 per day, while the rate for travel to Philadelphia was $242.
In the Senate, Vulakovich is pushing to require re-elected lawmakers to move their pensions from a defined contribution pension plan to a 401(k) plan. The defined contribution plan is cited as one of the reasons for an unfunded liability for teacher and state employee pensions approaching $50 billion.
He says he was livid when the General Assembly recessed for the summer without approving a transportation funding plan. The Senate did approve legislation that, through the uncapping of the wholesale price of fuel, increases in licensing, and other fees, would raise $2.5 billion for the highway fund annually – a good number, he says. The effort, however, became a politically tangled web with the proposal to privatize liquor sales.
“It’s a tough vote because we’re raising gas prices and fees,” he said, “but it’s a way to unleash the amazing potential this state has to create jobs.”
He is currently in the district meeting with constituents and is eagerly awaiting the chance to return to Harrisburg to pursue unfinished business.