Almost everyone in Pennsylvania is aware by now that our state legislature is the second highest paid in the nation — behind only California — since Pennsylvania lawmakers gave themselves pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent. Yes, 54 percent!
While it’s been widely reported that the pay raises range from 16 percent ($11,000 a year) to 34 percent ($32,000 a year), it turns out that some Pennsylvania lawmakers will make out like bandits, seeing their annual salaries go from $69,648 to $106,986 overnight under the July 7 pay raise they approved without debate at 2 a.m.
The vote approving the pay-jacking was 27-23 in the Senate and 119-79 in the House. Gov. Ed Rendell promptly signed the bill into law and praised the lawmakers for raiding the public treasury.
As the weeks went by and it became clear to Rendell that he might have made the biggest political mistake of his life, the governor flip-flopped quicker than John Kerry on the war in Iraq. Now Rendell is saying the pay raise was a mistake and probably against the law, and he is willing to sign a bill to repeal the measure, if the legislators would just up their ill-gotten gain.
Standing in Rendell’s way is Big Bad John Perzel, the most powerful man in Pennsylvania. Perzel, whose salary rose to $145,000 as speaker of the House, doesn’t want to give the money back. Not one penny.
In fact, Perzel thinks members of the Pennsylvania legislature are still underpaid, even though they now make at least twice as much as the average Pennsylvania worker and half of what a member of Congress earns. Perzel also thinks that the work of governing Pennsylvania is comparable to running California, so of course Pennsylvania legislators should be the second highest-paid in the nation.
The California comparison has been bugging me, so I decided to do a little research. Let’s throw out some facts and you can draw your own conclusions.
California is the most populous state in the nation with about 36 million residents. Pennsylvania is sixth in population with around 12.4 million and dropping. California has the fifth-largest economy in the world — not just the United States — but the world. Naturally, you would assume that a state that has three times the number of people would need a lot more legislators to run the place. Not so.
California has 40 state senators elected to four-year terms. California pays its legislators $100,000 a year. An independent salary board determines the pay of legislators in California. The board recently approved an increase that will pay California legislators $111,000 next year.) Pennsylvania legislators set their own salaries. Anyone see an inherent conflict of interest there?
Pennsylvania has 50 state senators, elected to four-year terms. Perhaps Mr. Perzel can explain why a state like Pennsylvania, which is one-third the size of California, needs more senators in its state capitol?
The disparity is worse in the House. California has 80 members in its House of Representatives. Pennsylvania has 203. Yes, 203! Can anyone explain why we need 203 politicians making at least $81,000 a year when California makes due with 80? Do the math. Multiply 80 times $100,000 and compare it to 203 times $81,000. Guess which state saddles its residents with a bigger bill to pay a corpulent legislative body?
California state senators can serve up to two terms and then have to get a job in the real world. That concept is foreign to Pennsylvania lawmakers. How do you make a career of feeding at the public trough if you can only serve eight years? There are no term limits in Pennsylvania, so politicians can leech off the public for 40 years if they so desire. And many do.
Over in the House, California residents may serve up to three terms of two years each. That’s it. Serve for six years and then you have to get a real job. In Pennsylvania, members of the House can serve as many two-year terms as they wish.
Did I mention that California legislators don’t get pensions? In Pennsylvania, a legislator who serves 20 years receives a taxpayer-paid pension of $57,000 a year. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
California also has an alien concept called democracy. In addition to constitutionally imposed term limits on politicians, California residents enjoy the power of initiative and referendum. Voters can petition to get a measure on the ballot. That’s how many propositions that have improved California (including term limits) have been passed. If Californians don’t like a law that the legislators have passed (hint: pay raise for themselves), they can use the referendum to repeal the law.
So let’s review. Because Pennsylvania has a bloated legislative aristocracy of 253 members, with 3,000 staff members to do their bidding, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend around $500 million a year to support their state legislature.
That gives Pennsylvania the distinction of having the most expensive legislature in the United States. Not only is Pennsylvania the No. 1 trash importer in the country, but we can also claim first place in the most tax dollars siphoned to pay career politicians.
E-mail Tony Phyrillas at firstname.lastname@example.org