PITTSBURGH -- The key problem with the latest pay grab that Pennsylvania's lawmakers in Harrisburg have awarded themselves is that their salary boost is totally unrelated to performance.
In the rest of the economy, raises are generally linked to performance, a reward for perhaps developing an improved surgical procedure or selling more cars. In Harrisburg, a legislature that's stalled economic growth and destroyed jobs by perpetuating one of the worst business climates in the nation has now established itself as the second-highest-paid state legislature in the country, second only to California.
Adjusted for the difference in the cost of living in Pennsylvania and California, the latest Harrisburg pay hike, in fact, might well have made my state's lawmakers the highest-paid in the nation. "In California, a middle-class family with two earners each making $50,000 a year now owns, on average, an $830,000 home," reported the Washington Monthly last April. That's not exactly the kind of housing cost that Pennsylvania's lawmakers are faced with in Scranton or Turtle Creek.
This latest pay increase, hammered out in secret by legislative leaders and voted on at 2 a.m. without debate or public hearings, will boost the annual base pay of lawmakers by 16 percent, from $69,647 to $81,050. For committee chairman and vice chairman, respectively, the base pay increases by 28 percent and 22 percent, to $89,155 and $85,103. For the majority and minority leaders, paychecks jump by 24 percent, from $100,911 to $124,788. For the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore, base salaries are hiked by 34 percent, from $108,724 to $145,553.
In the Senate, none of the 50 members will be paid just the new base salary, since they all have some sort of leadership title. Overall, the average new salary in the Senate will be in excess of $98,000, plus benefits.
All these pay increases are on top of the 5.2 percent automatically provided cost-of-living increase that the lawmakers received at the beginning of the year. In 1995, Harrisburg's lawmakers voted themselves a 19 percent base pay increase, from $47,000 to $55,800, and added automatic annual cost-of-living increases that, in theory, were supposed to put a stop to the kind of pay grab that just transpired.
In any case, Pennsylvania lawmakers, in addition to their rapidly escalating base salaries, also receive taxpayer-leased cars, at an annual cost of up to $7,200 per member in the House and $7,800 in the Senate. Lawmakers also receive fully paid pensions, fully paid prescription coverage and health insurance, fully paid life insurance and long-term care insurance, and fully paid vision and dental coverage. On average, the annual cost to taxpayers for each House member's health care insurance and prescription drug coverage is, respectively, $8,016 and $3,096.
The pay hike vote was taken just hours after lawmakers approved cuts in Medicaid services for disabled, elderly and poor residents across the state.
Justifying his own enhanced base pay, raised to $134,688, Democrat floor leader Robert Mellow of Scranton explained that higher paychecks are needed to produce a first-rate Legislature: "It will attract the proper type of individuals for the General Assembly and the proper people to serve as judges and Cabinet members." In other words, we're supposed to be glad we're being forced to pay the current crop of legislators big-bucks protection money so as not to get an even worse crop in the future.
With his base pay jumping to $137,771, House Democrat Leader H. William DeWeese of Waynesburg said that legislators deserve the robust pay hikes because they're doing more than a full-time job. "This assignment is 24-7 and we are at work when we are at Giant Eagle or the Friday night high school football game," he explained.
DeWeese's "24-7" contention doesn't precisely mesh with the fact that the legislature averaged only 77 days in session per year over the past five years, or with the fact that half the members of the Senate and a fourth of the House members have outside jobs or business interests.
If only the rest of us could rack up big pay hikes for shopping at the Eagle or schmoozing at weekend ball games! Between the time my wife spends shopping at South Hills Village and I spend at Chapon's Greenhouse searching for the perfect perennials, I could be a friggin' multimillionaire.
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