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Friday, October 21, 2005

The charmed life of a Pennsylvania legislator

I have a confession to make. I’m obsessed with the Great Pay Grab of 2005. It’s more than three months since Pennsylvania lawmakers looted the state treasury to line their own pockets in a middle-of-the-night heist, but I still can’t get over the theft.

This is the 17th time I’m writing about the issue since July 7. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about my state senator (Michael A. O’Pake) and my state representative (Dante Santoni Jr.) cashing their big fat paychecks at my expense.

I try to find other news to get my mind off the larcenous legislators, but I keep coming back to the pay-jacking. Three items that made the news this past week seemingly are not related to the betrayal of Pennsylvania taxpayers by the 253-member House of Lords.

Item 1: The Social Security Administration announced that retirees can expect to see a 4.1-percent boost in their monthly checks starting in January. It’s the biggest increase in 15 years, but before you go on a mad spending spree at the neighborhood dollar store, let’s put things in perspective.

The cost-of-living increase is tied to the inflation rate, which took a dramatic post-Katrina jump thanks to record-high gasoline prices. The COLA for 2006 does not factor in the anticipated 50 percent increase in home heating costs this winter. Don’t forget that Pennsylvania lawmakers gave themselves minimum pay raises of 16 percent — four times higher than the rate of inflation.

While the average senior has to wait a couple more months to see that extra $39 a month, Pennsylvania legislators circumvented the state Constitution by collecting their minimum $11,000 annual pay raises early. The Constitution prohibits pay raises from starting in the same term that legislators approve them, but when you give massive pay raises to the judicial and executive branches, who is going to let a little thing like the Constitution stand in the way?

As our state lawmakers sit in their cozy mansions, will any of them give a thought to the millions of Pennsylvania seniors who are freezing in their homes because they can’t afford to pay for home heating oil or natural gas? As legislators drive around their districts in taxpayer-furnished SUVs fueled by taxpayer-paid gasoline, will they think about the senior waiting at the bus stop in freezing weather because they can’t afford $2.50 for a gallon of gas?

Does Pennsylvania’s aristocracy care about the 22 percent of senior citizens for whom Social Security is their sole source of income? When you’re making $81,000 to $145,000 for a part-time job, it’s hard to relate to a bunch of old people who have to survive in $1,000 a month.

Item 2: "Americans act to trim health care costs" was the headline on a recent Associated Press report on how working people are struggling to deal with skyrocketing health care costs.. (And the story was just about people who had jobs and health coverage. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 46 million Americans — including 1.4 million in Pennsylvania — have no health insurance coverage at all).

A study by the Principal Financial Group showed that 41 percent of growing companies have raised employee co-pays, 37 percent have increased deductibles and 20 percent have cut medical benefit coverage options, according to the AP article. That has led to all sorts of stress on the typical American family, forced to juggle cover health care expenses with other rising prices. The Employee Benefit Research Institute's 2005 Health Confidence Survey shows 79 percent of those asked are choosing generic drugs, according to the AP. The study also revealed that 40 percent of workers are delaying going to the doctor and 21 percent are not taking prescribed medications, the AP reported.

Most people surveyed said that if given the choice between a pay raise and increased health care coverage, they'd take the latter, the story said. This is not a dilemma for the 253 members of the Pennsylvania House of Lords. They can have their cake and eat it, too. In addition to raising their salaries whenever they want, legislators enjoy free medical, dental and eye care coverage for themselves and their families, free life insurance and free long-term disability insurance.

Item 3: Much to the chagrin of Pennsylvania lawmakers, it appears that greed does not drive every politician in America. The U.S. Senate voted 92-6 on Tuesday to give up a scheduled 2006 pay raise. Senators said they needed to do their part to save money in light of the massive federal effort to pay for the cleanup and rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina and the growing U.S. budget deficit. While largely a symbolic act — forgoing the 1.9-percent cost-of-living increase will save only $2 million — it’s more than Pennsylvania lawmakers are willing to do for the people back home.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at tphyrillas@pottsmerc.com

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