I expected a nice, relaxing Mother’s Day, when I opened the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on May 12th. Instead I read the broadside with all cannons fired against Rick Mirabito. What an evil man he must be. Perhaps our Representative’s name should be changed to Osama bin Mirabito. Reading the Sun-Gazette editorial and the well-crafted letter by Ronald Walko, Chairman of the Board of the Chamber of Commerce, it is clear that Mirabito is mad! Don Quixote, tilting at windmills on his old horse, must have had more common sense than our errant legislator.
What is going on here, that the Williamsport Sun-Gazette felt compelled to blow Mirabito out of the water on Mother’s Day, rather than extolling the virtues of motherhood, apple pie and America? I have asked before what is Mirabito’s great sin, but the Sun-Gazette has declined to run my op-ed. It seems as though, on this issue, there is only one point of view, and that is the one espoused by the Williamsport Chamber of Commerce.
Make no mistake about it; Rick Mirabito is someone whom I consider a friend. We both worked for Nixon appointee Malcolm Muir, albeit at different times. During the course of Rick’s campaigns, the question of the Visitor’s Bureau and the Lycoming County Hotel Room Tax has been the elephant in the corner of the room. Everyone knows that it is an issue, but everyone has been afraid to talk about it.
Rick was warned by his closest political advisors that to challenge the Chamber of Commerce on the question of where this tax comes from and where it goes would be the equivalent of throwing himself on a sword. “Your political future cannot survive challenging the Chamber and its intricate network of Lycoming County power brokers.” Indeed, those who have urged Rick Mirabito to keep his mouth shut seem to have been right.
Representative Mirabito is now clearly within the crosshairs of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette and the wealthiest members of the Lycoming County community. Whether Rick Mirabito can survive this will be up to the people. He will no doubt be challenged by someone hand-picked by the business community.
It does not seem to bother the Sun-Gazette or the Chamber when a state Senator promotes the gas industry, while having wells on his own land. When Brett Feese went to jail, the Williamsport Sun-Gazette editorial was weepy, and almost apologetic. Representative Garth Everett escapes any serious scrutiny altogether.
Rick Mirabito undoubtedly knows that questioning the use of tax revenues raised locally and used for well-connected local businessmen, is political suicide. Perhaps this State Representative has the unrealistic notion that idealism and integrity can trump even the most powerful political forces in the community. There have been many men and women who have been successful muckrakers, but most of them end their political career being stomped in the gutter.
In spite of the sanctimonious editorial and the brilliantly written letter from the Chamber, the bottom line question still has not been answered. What individuals, partnerships and corporations have received the millions and millions of dollars raised by the Visitor’s Bureau, at what interest rates, and based upon what criteria? Can anyone in the community apply for and receive these taxpayer perks? Will the Chamber put in print where every dollar of the money has gone, under what terms and conditions and how one person was chosen over another? Will the Chamber and the Visitor’s Bureau subject themselves to a public hearing where anybody can come in and ask any question?
Serving on the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, I have observed an interesting trait of government. People with money and power have a tendency to circle the wagons when they are questioned. Two years ago, I was the only member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority to abstain from the budget. In the last budget, I was the only member to vote “no.” I just could not see raising the budget when ordinary Pennsylvanians were struggling. I was told by more than one member that I was not “playing ball.” The money for the Patient Safety Authority comes from hospitals, and where do the hospitals get their money from? Ultimately the taxpayers will foot the bill for unnecessary expenditures.
Is the problem that Democrats are not supposed to question irresponsible taxing and spending policies? It may be that such issues are only the province of the Republicans. When a Republican expresses concern about where the money has gone, that politician is heroic. When a Democrat raises the same issue, that man or woman is a troublemaker and undermining the very fabric of society.
The Williamsport Sun-Gazette and the Chamber seem equally distressed about Rick Mirabito’s stance on privatization of the liquor system and the gas tax. Mirabito is upset over the fact that Pennsylvania raises less money from gas drilling than Texas. Some of our gas drilling money winds up locally, while much of it is an unguided missile. Preparation for future environmental disasters are virtually nil.
Why is Mirabito against privatization of liquor stores? The Sun-Gazette, the Chamber, and other business types want to get rid of unions whenever and wherever they can. To privatize the liquor stores undoubtedly will bust another public services union. Is that entire dispute about unionization efforts? I really do not know, but I do know that other states which have faced the same problem have not necessarily benefited by the privatization movement. I think I probably disagree with Mirabito on this, and I see an opportunity for liquor business to bring in a lot of one-time money for the state if the stores are privatized. Privatization will undoubtedly make a few high-flying entrepreneurs very wealthy, while throwing a whole lot of public employees out of work. I am not sure that privatizing the liquor business is any kind of panacea, but if Mirabito is against it then he must be a really bad guy.
What made the Sun-Gazette really hot was the suggestion that the media would benefit from advertising revenue should privatization of the liquor industry occur. How dare any legislator suggest that the media might benefit from legislation which they support? We all know that the media, whether left wing or right wing, is sacred in this country. They are protected by the First Amendment, and hide behind it whenever they can.
As an old-time constitutional lawyer, I love the First Amendment. I believe that newspapers can rant and rave publicly and say irresponsible things, and essentially walk away unscathed. Washington and Adams were so frustrated by irresponsible media that they supported the Alien and Sedition Act; one of the most horrendous and unconstitutional pieces of legislation that ever passed in this country. Newspaper writers and editors were jailed for criticizing the government. We don’t want to go back to those bad old days, but is it too much to ask for the press to occasionally admit their own self-interest?
As with any other dispute, there is plenty of good and bad to go around. All I ask, is that Representative Mirabito be given the same opportunity to express his views that the Williamsport Sun-Gazette and the Chamber of Commerce reserves to itself. Let us hear what Mirabito has to say. Perhaps there should be a public forum with Mirabito, the Chamber, the Sun-Gazette, and everyone else interested in these important issues, to answer questions from the public. Most importantly, let’s see where every dollar of public money has been raised and where it has gone and under what circumstances. Then it will be up to the voters to decide whether Mirabito is a madman or a messiah. Probably he is neither.
Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters
161 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
(570) 323-4192 (facsimile)
Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.