Pennsylvania legislators need to justify pay raise
Public service pays when you're an elected officials in Pennsylvania and can give yourself a pay raise every year.
Christmas came early for the 253 members of the Pennsylvania Legislature.
An automatic pay increase the lawmakers voted themselves will show up in their paychecks after Dec. 1, boosting their salaries by 3 percent, from $79,613 to $82,026 per year.
That's just for the rank-and-file members. Legislative leaders will see their salaries jump from $115,364 to $118,845 per year.
Public service pays — at least in Pennsylvania.
State lawmakers were already the second highest paid in the nation and the cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) cements that standing. Act 51, the 1995 law that grants the automatic pay raises, was set up to keep legislative salaries in line with the consumer price index of the Philadelphia area, which is the highest in the state.
Because Pennsylvania has the largest full-time state legislatures in the country, taxpayers are on the hook for $300 million every year to support the legislators and the 3,000 staffers who support them.
Why nobody from the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn't set up an Occupy Harrisburg encampment yet is beyond me. The gap between the political aristocracy and working class Pennsylvanians has never been wider.
The average annual salary for Pennsylvania workers is $43,050, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. State lawmakers will make more than twice what their constituents get paid.
Legislative salaries in Pennsylvania are also out of line with the pay elected officials receive in other states. The average salary for a state legislator in the United States is $34,000.
And it's not just the legislative branch that makes out like bandits in Harrisburg. The same law that gives lawmakers automatic pay raises also covers the judicial and executive branches.
Raises for top executive branch and judicial positions take effect Jan. 1. Gov. Tom Corbett's annual salary will rise to $183,250, from $177,888.
And salaries are just the tip of the iceberg. State legislators enjoy top-of-the-line health benefits paid mostly by taxpayers and lifetime pensions.
Legislators also receive "per diem" expenses that allow them to collect $163 for every day they show up while the General Assembly is in session. That would be like your boss giving you an extra $163 every day you show up for work on top of your salary.
Only a handful of lawmakers defend the pay raises, saying they deserve the money. Most will sheepishly tell you they are forced to take the higher pay by law, but will donate the money to charity or return it to the state treasury. The two state lawmakers who represent Pottstown — state Sen. John Rafferty and state Rep. Tom Quigley — both told me recently they plan to return their pay raises to the state.
Many others will donate the money to a charity of their choice. The problem I have with this maneuver is that why should they get to choose the charity since it's our dollars they're giving away and the lawmakers still qualify for higher pensions because their base salary will now be $82,000 a year.
There was a half-hearted effort made earlier this fall to stop the COLA travesty but a bill introduced by Rep. Brad Roae died in committee. The legislative leadership just couldn't find the time to take a vote to turn down the pay raises.
A handful of newspaper columnists and citizen activists have been trying to keep the pay raise issue on the front-burner.
Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a citizen watchdog group that advocates good government practices, has been one of those lone voices crying in the wilderness when it comes to scaling back legislative perks.
"It's time to kill the COLA," Epstein wrote in a recent op-ed. "Act 51 needs to be abolished — or at a minimum — COLAs should be announced one week prior to the general election, so voters can decide if a pay raise is warranted."
Epstein recommends the creation of a Citizens Compensation Commission similar to one in California. It sets compensation rates for state officials and when the fiscal condition of state government requires it, the commission can reduce the salary of government officials.
That's the kind of shared sacrifice the permanent political class in Harrisburg refuses to abide be.
Pennsylvania taxpayers are struggling. Elected officials are thumbing their nose at constituents as they had to the bank to cash their big fat checks.
The only recourse voters have is to vote out incumbents in 2012 when all 203 members of the House and half of the 50-member Senate is up for re-election.
Tony Phyrillas is a leading conservative political columnist and blogger based in Pennsylvania. He is a veteran journalist with 25 years experience as a reporter, editor and columnist for several newspapers. Phyrillas received recognition for column writing in 2010 from the Associated Press Managing Editors, in 2007 from Suburban Newspapers of America and in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Keystone Chapter. A graduate of Penn State University, Phyrillas is the city editor and political columnist for The Mercury, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper in Pottstown, Pa. In addition to The Mercury website (www.pottsmerc.com), his columns are featured on more than a dozen political websites and blogs. Phyrillas is a frequent guest (and occasional host) on talk radio and has been a panelist on the "Journalists Roundtable" public affairs TV program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Phyrillas was named one of the '10 Leading Greek-American Bloggers in the World' in 2007 by Odyssey: The World of Greece magazine. BlogNetNews.com ranked Phyrillas the Most Influential Political Blogger in Pennsylvania for three consecutive years (2007-2010). You can follow Phyrillas on Twitter @TonyPhyrillas