PITTSBURGH -- "Harrisburg is one of the sleaziest state capitals in the country," said Jake Tapper, then the Washington correspondent for Salon, and that was before he saw the sleaze that oozed from under the closed doors of the state Legislature at 2 a.m. one recent night after the politicians voted themselves an illegal pay hike.
The pay increase is illegal because, by allowing legislators to pocket the new money in the form of "unvouchered expenses," it violates Article 2, Section 8 of the state constitution, which specifically forbids legislators to collect new pay raises until they've been re-elected.
"It's illegal to give yourself a raise now," says Temple University Law School professor David Kairys. "If you want to give yourself the raise and call it lunch money, that's not going to make it legal."
As explained to me by a couple of insiders in the process, legislative leaders lined up the votes for the unlawful pay grab by promising special so-called WAMS (walking around money) to legislators who "cooperated." Once more than enough votes were secured, other incumbents, less secure in their districts, were given the green light to vote against the pay hike in order to strengthen their chances of re-election.
To vote themselves instant pay increases in the past, lawmakers did end runs around the state constitution with the full approval of the courts, by the state Supreme Court in 1986 and Commonwealth Court in 1997. What's likely to make this organized theft all legal again is the inclusion of hefty salary increases for the judges who'll be deciding on the pay hike's legitimacy.
"This should be challenged again, and it should go before the state Supreme Court," says Bruce Ledewitz, a professor who teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University. "It's terrible. There's no other word for it. It's a disgraceful refusal by the court to enforce the state constitution."
Says Gov. Ed Rendell, no professor of law: "It's legal, and that's all I'm going to say about it."
Seeing a mismanaged state that has "more uncontested state legislative elections than most any other comparably sized state," Tapper concluded that "the state's spirit of democracy has seen better days."
Demonstrating that the current state of shady politics in Pennsylvania is nothing new, the aforementioned conclusion by Mr. Tapper that Harrisburg is "one of the sleaziest state capitals in the country" is from Salon's "Politics 2000."
Further back, 300 protesters jammed the Capitol Rotunda in 1995 carrying placards to express outrage about a legislative pay grab. "Thieves and Scoundrels," said one sign. Another showed Porky Pig clutching a wad of cash, saying, "They'll take it all, folks."
Former gubernatorial candidate Peg Luksik warned the crowd not to forget the pay increase during the next election. Voters, she said, were angry in 1983 and 1987 when lawmakers in Harrisburg voted themselves a raise, but, come election time, the public forgot and the incumbents were easily re-elected.
"They know they're not accountable," explained Luksik. "They're counting on you crying wolf," counting on voters to put their anger on the back burner after a few weeks of venting.
This time around, Pennsylvania's lawmakers voted themselves raises of 16 percent to 34 percent, on top of the 5.2 percent cost-of-living increase they received in December, a "cost-of-living" pay boost that was more than double the core rate of inflation at the time.
The 16 percent produces a minimum annual pay increase to lawmakers on the bottom rungs of the Legislature of $11,403, an amount larger than the total pre-tax income that a person earns in Pennsylvania working 40 hours per week at the minimum wage for a year.
Overall, the pay hike raises the base legislative salary from $69,647 a year (nearly double the average salary in Pennsylvania) to $81,050, in addition to boosting the compensation of those in leadership roles by up to 34 percent, to $145,463 per year -- not counting the cost of free cars, $10,000 no-receipt expense accounts, free health care, fully paid vision and dental coverage, free prescriptions, fully paid life insurance and long-term care insurance, the 50 percent increase in pension benefits the legislators awarded themselves four years ago, and the extra $128 they pocket on every session day just for showing up.
Will Rogers had it right. "A politician," he said, "is just like a pickpocket."
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