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Pennsylvania legislative payroll is bigger than ever

| Sunday, April 10, 2011

HARRISBURG — During a time when most Pennsylvanians were forced to live on leaner budgets, the General Assembly's payroll soared 22 percent to $119.5 million, and the number of legislative employees paid at least $100,000 nearly doubled, a Tribune-Review analysis found.

Staffers making triple-figure salaries went from 36 in 2005 to 69 this year, records show. Edward J. Nolan, executive director of the House Appropriations Committee, is the highest-paid staffer at $191,854 a year. That is more money than Gov. Tom Corbett's salary of $177,888 and more than $18,000 above the next highest-paid employee.

"It is what it is," Nolan said.

The Legislature's payroll growth since 2005 was almost double the rate of inflation. It happened while a recession slammed Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation in 2008, and last year the state's unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 8.8 percent in January, February and April.

"There's no oversight on who gets these raises. They're handed out, I believe, to political cronies," said Slippery Rock resident Mike Homison, 55, a retired auditor for the federal Civil Service Commission. "When everyone else is cutting back, the government seems to be on a growth spurt and spending spree."

Lawmakers should lead by example and cut staff, said Karen Kiefer, a Scottdale attorney and Tea Party activist. "Especially with this economy today, if you were a private corporation, you could never afford it," she said.

Legislative leaders say they've taken steps to stem salary increases and trim staff through attrition and hiring freezes. Key aides are paid well, said former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, because lawmakers rely on them to help analyze complex issues, such as budgetary matters.

"To read that budget would take at least a year," Perzel said. "It's 16 feet thick, with documentation."

Pennsylvania pays each of its 253 legislators a base salary of $79,646, plus automatic annual raises tied to the cost of living. The General Assembly is the nation's largest full-time state legislature, with a $300 million annual price tag for taxpayers, and its staff of about 2,650 is one of the largest.

The Trib conducted a six-year comparison of Pennsylvania's legislative staff and salaries, using 2011 payroll records obtained through a Right to Know law request to the House, a 2011 Senate payroll provided to The Associated Press, and a database the Trib compiled from state payroll documents in 2005. The review found:

• The number of House employees grew from 1,714 to 1,812, and payroll increased by $17.3 million from $59.4 million to $76.7 million. The House payroll includes "lounge attendant" Lynn Bias, paid $37,300 annually for duties that include cutting members' hair. Bias declined to comment. In a "Members Only" room, Bias "takes care of members' needs and grooming" because they are away from home for long periods and make public appearances, said House Chief Clerk Anthony Barbush. Bias cleans a men's restroom in that area, and sometimes works on legislative bill calendars, Barbush said.

• Though the number of Senate employees declined from 905 to 835, the payroll grew $4 million to $42.7 million this year. The Senate pays staffers Robert Nagle and Chris Miller $37,384 and $45,888, respectively, to cook meals and clean the room where members dine at their own cost on Senate session days. The employees have other duties on nonsession days, such as moving furniture, cleaning carpets, changing lightbulbs, sweeping high ceilings and chandeliers for cobwebs, running errands and delivering ice to Senate offices, Chief Clerk Russ Faber said. Miller supervises 19 people on the custodial staff.

• Pennsylvania was the only large state with legislative staff growth — 8 percent — from 1996 through 2009, according to a Trib analysis of figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ohio, New York, Michigan, Florida, Texas and California reduced staffs from 1 percent to 31 percent.

Those who study the Legislature — including four grand juries Corbett empaneled as attorney general during the past three years — say patronage hiring, duplicate caucus operations and illegal use of public employees for political campaigning contribute to the staff size. In a report released in May, one grand jury said no witness "was able to justify such a large number of employees for this body."

"The vast overstaffing problem is linked to the patronage system within the Legislature, which in turn is a symptom of the 'time warp' in which the General Assembly operates," the report said.

Several key staffers told the grand jury that Democratic and Republican House Caucuses could perform core functions with 25 percent to 75 percent of existing staff. The grand jury concluded some "competent" staffers were hired to do work patronage workers could not do.

"I think there was a day that was true," said House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney. But he said newer legislators "are telling me they are worried about getting good people, rather than patronage hires."

Pricey duplicate positions among political caucuses — for legal services, human resources, computer technology and printing — caught Smith's attention. He recently suggested consolidating House print shops, as the Senate did long ago.

In 2009, Pennsylvania outpaced New York with the nation's biggest legislative staff. But the national conference's analyst, Tim Storey, didn't know whether that holds true today because states made changes and the survey wasn't updated. Storey said legislative budgets, a small portion of state budgets, aren't fertile ground for savings as states face multibillion-dollar budget deficits.

That argument doesn't fly with Rick Mossinghoff, 63, of Robinson, who recently lost his state-subsidized health insurance because of a funding shortfall. Neither Corbett nor the Republican-controlled Legislature has tried to restart the adultBasic insurance program.

"They preach smaller government, but what they say and what they do doesn't seem to match up," said Mossinghoff, who works 20 hours a week at a bank.

Republican and Democratic leaders insist they imposed stringent controls to prevent campaigning by legislative staff. Yet, personal and political affiliations in staffing continue.

Democratic Sen. Richard Kasunic of Dunbar pays his fiance, Janet E. Michael of Dunbar, $62,992 to handle constituent relations in his district office. Michael, who could not be reached, began working for Kasunic in 1994, Senate records show. Kasunic could not be reached.

Sandy Gillette began working in the district office of Republican Sen. Don White of Indiana in 2001, and makes nearly $54,000 annually. Gillette is vice chair of Indiana County's GOP committee. White's office didn't respond to requests for comment.

Gillette said politics didn't help her land the job.

"Absolutely not," she said, noting she worked for White before becoming involved with the county Republican committee. "That's how I got interested in politics."

Tim Potts, a former House Democratic staffer and co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, said lawmakers "view the Legislature as an employment agency for folks back home."

Perzel and former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, a Waynesburg Democrat, face trial on attorney general's charges of diverting staff and taxpayer resources to political campaigns. Allegheny County prosecutors charged former Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, R-McCandless, with using staff members to campaign. All maintain their innocence.

Former House Minority Whip Mike Veon, a Beaver Falls Democrat, is serving six to 14 years in prison on his conviction for theft, conflict of interest and conspiracy. Nine former Veon staffers were convicted.

Perzel defends the legislative staff expansion that occurred during his 30 years in the House.

"If you want, you could cut staff," he said. "But it really depends whether you want a professional Legislature."

Staff writers Brian Bowling and Rich Gazarik contributed to this report.

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