By Lowman S. Henry
In politics, as with many aspects of life, timing is everything. The timing of the awarding of this year's annual cost-of-living pay increase for state officials could not have been worse. Announcement of the COLA followed by days of the enactment into law of what will in effect be one of the biggest gas tax hikes in state history.
Taking more from the taxpayers’ pockets and then pocketing more money for yourself is not a prescription for political success. Few involved in state government today are responsible for the annual raises. They were instituted back in the mid-1990s as a way for legislators to avoid periodic tough votes over pay hikes. Ten years later lawmakers got greedy and voted themselves a raise over and above the COLA. That now infamous middle-of-the-night vote led to a voter backlash that ended the career of numerous legislators and even a couple of state Supreme Court justices.
This year's COLA is really nothing to write home about: just one quarter of one percent. That translates to $210 per year for your average legislator. Many members, as well as Gov. Tom Corbett, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, cabinet members and the statewide constitutional officers reject the COLAs either turning them back into the state treasury or giving the money to charity.
Even those rejecting the cost-of-living raises benefit to some degree as their pensions are calculated off the higher pay number. Very few lawmakers have declined to participate in the state pension system, so most benefit. Many reformers argue both the COLA and pensions for lawmakers are unconstitutional. The state constitution very clearly authorizes regular pay and travel costs for legislators. It also prohibits elected officials from getting pay raises during their terms of office — which is exactly what COLAs accomplish.
So why do elected officials put up with the political damage COLAs cause when there is so little benefit? Likely because repealing the COLA would open the gates to other reforms. A growing number of lawmakers are pushing for a wider variety of reforms that would make state government more open and accountable. Those trying to preserve the status quo fear that once the reform ball starts rolling, other perks may bite the dust as well.
And that is as it should be. First, the law enabling COLAs should be repealed. State Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, and State Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland, have each introduced legislation in their respective chambers to end COLAs. This is not to say that lawmakers never deserve a raise. But if raises are to be given they should be awarded in a constitutional manner with a roll call vote in the full light of day.
Giving credence to the status quo crowd’s concern, the legislature should not stop there. With numerous former legislative leaders of both parties sitting in jailhouses around the state, the General Assembly's job approval rating is in the tank. The time has come to reform the institution in a manner that will restore the public trust and confidence.
An easy, but significant, step to take would be enactment of a law proposed last week by state Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union, that would require the phrase "prepared or compiled using taxpayer resources" on any piece of literature, web site or electronic communication paid for by taxpayer dollars. This would include constituent newsletters which provide a political benefit to legislators as well as an informational benefit to constituents. It is important for voters to know if they are paying for such publications.
Voters also need to be wary of reform proposals that sound good, but would actually concentrate more power in fewer hands. An example of this is a bill that would reduce the size of the state legislature. Fewer lawmakers to support sounds like a good idea, but bigger districts would take power from the hands of grassroots voters and vest it in the special interests that would fund more expensive campaigns in bigger districts. The problem isn't the size of the General Assembly, it is the cost.
Another major step toward restoring public confidence in state government would be expansion and toughening of the state’s Open Records law. Pennsylvania has come a long way in this regard, but implementation of the current law has revealed several significant shortcomings that must be fixed to make it more effective. State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, has proposed such legislation which would give residents of Penn's Woods greater access to their commonwealth's government.
Unfortunately, these reform proposals — both the modest and the ambitious — remain bogged down in the legislative process. The time has come for the logjam to be broken.
Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research in Harrisburg and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org