The Federal Government is a groaning corrupt behemoth, currently being run by unapologetic crooks like Dick Cheney and Tom DeLay.

Yet, there are many citizen groups and big-foot reporters that keep a close eye on what Congress does. That fact provides a restraint on what they can get away with. State politics are much less accountable.

Pennsylvania landlords may soon be responsible for their deadbeat tenants’ bills. Under the Responsible Utility Consumers Protection Act, which Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law in November, utility companies across the state will be able to file liens against landlords’ properties to secure the unpaid bills of tenants who occupied their properties.

The forthcoming change has some city landlords worried that PGW will be coming after them.
Philadelphia Weekly

I don’t ordinarily concern myself with the rights of landlords. But this story is emblematic of how corruption works in bill writing, and this bill will hurt the city of Philadelphia and the poor.


The bill was signed into law during the hectic final week of the last legislative session. During that week 118 bills found their way to Rendell’s desk. To lend some perspective, Rendell signed 117 bills in the 11 months between Jan. 1 and Nov. 19.

“At the tail end at the last legislative session,” explains Darrell Zaslow, legal counsel to the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, a group lobbying in Harrisburg on behalf of landlords, “a law was passed at 2 a.m. that permits PGW to file liens against property owners. It was attached to a law about motor vehicles. They literally crossed all the stuff about vehicles out and stuck in this language about landlords and liens. They snuck it in under the wire.”

Republican state Sen. Joe Conti from Bucks County told the Inquirer last fall that when they’re pushing to finish their work at the end of a session, legislators don’t read every word of every law they vote on. In some cases, he says, legislators become familiar with laws through only Senate discussions and hearings.

So when a law is completely changed and voted on in the wee hours of the morning, chances are most legislators decide their votes based on the title of the bill and the little information they have about it.

“A lot of legislators are outraged by this law,” says Zaslow. “A lot have said point blank they had no idea this provision was in there.”

This is reminiscent of the scene in Fahrenheit 911 where John Conyers makes a similar point about the Patriot Act. But at least the Patriot Act was created for its stated purpose, not turned into a bill on highway spending in the dead of night.

Now that the law has been passed, all eyes are on PGW. The municipal company, which is about $1.1 billion in debt, has promised not to start filing liens on properties until Dec. 14, a full year after Rendell signed the bill into law. But this leaves landlords whose tenants owe PGW little time to figure out a solution.

PGW spokesperson Doug Oliver points out that laws dating back to the ’20s have given the utility the right to put liens on properties. Even so, he continues, PGW is considering pushing back the new law’s enforcement to next May.

“Most landlords don’t like the fact that PGW can file liens,” Oliver continues. “People want the potholes in their streets filled, but don’t want to pay taxes for it. Similarly, property owners want the benefit of having gas lines so their property is profitable.” But they don’t want the responsibility for paying off the debt accrued on their property.

“It’s not fair that a person should consume service, and someone else should have to pay for it,” counters Zaslow. “The property owner already pays taxes, licenses and repairs, among other things. If a tenant goes through a winter without paying their gas, and then skips out, the landlord shouldn’t be stuck with the bill.”

These two gentlemen can make their arguments, but the bottom line is no landlord is going to rent to a poor person, or a person with bad credit, if they are going to be responsible for their utility bills.

But it may hurt the city. Zaslow says if PGW is allowed to file liens on properties, landlords will be less willing to rent to low-income tenants.

“Eventually,” he says, “we’ll end up with a lot more homeless people and a lot more abandoned properties.”

That is certain. It’s also why they never could have passed this bill without resorting to subterfuge.

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