7 years after late-night raises, reforms of legislature unsubstantial

| Tuesday, July 10, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Little substantial government reform has resulted since the General Assembly's middle-of-the-night pay raise in 2005 that roused public anger and caused its repeal four months later, two citizen groups said Monday.

Pennsylvania's legislature still allows stealth legislation, late-night votes and unaccountable per diems for legislators, the reformers contend, releasing a list of payments to lawmakers in 2011 that showed taxpayers shelled out $2.2 million for House and Senate members' flat-rate daily stipends of up to $163.

Some lawmakers benefit from a “pension bump” they received from the failed 2005 pay hike, the citizen advocates said. Even with its repeal, the base salary for legislators grew 17 percent — from $69,648 to $82,026 — through automatic yearly cost-of-living adjustments.

Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, said “nothing has changed” except that the House agreed to match the Senate's contribution of 1 percent of pay toward members' health care costs. When lawmakers retire or lose their seats in an election, they still get health insurance for life and “Cadillac pensions,” Epstein said.

That assessment angered legislative spokesmen for both political parties, who contend much has changed at the Capitol.

“Who elected him to speak for you and me?” said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.

“Anyone who claims that little changed simply has not been paying attention,” said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats. “More than half the current members were not even in the House in 2005. That turnover and the arrival of new people is a tremendous change on its face. Nothing stays the same and things are very different indeed than they were in the middle of the last decade.”

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said “any objective observer can see the many clear and substantial improvements” in how the General Assembly operates. “There's really no comparison, if the analysis is unbiased,” he said.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said the body might not be radically reformed but “you have to give the Legislature a little bit of credit. They have tried to change the way business is done.”

Still, Epstein said remarkably little reform occurred given a wholesale change in leadership through voters' choices and the convictions of a number of Democrats and Republicans in corruption scandals.

Juries convicted six former leaders of crimes related to using public resources for campaigns, while two pleaded guilty. Most of them helped steer through the failed pay hike that would have raised lawmakers' salaries 16 to 54 percent.

“Just like before the pay raise, we saw stealth legislation and suspension of the rules to allow late-night voting again,” said Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA.

Lawmakers last month brushed by a rule they had imposed to put an 11 p.m. curfew on voting so that legislative leaders no longer could use late votes to get tired member to agree to proposals.

Epstein released the list of per diem payments -- money intended to cover lodging and food when lawmakers attend voting sessions or committee meetings.

Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, claimed the most — $39,333. The next-highest House member was Rep. Christopher Sainato, a Democrat who represents Lawrence County and part of Beaver County, with $31,357; Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, claimed $31,128. The Tribune-Review could not reach Cohen, Sainato or Costa for comment.

Also in the top 10 were Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, $25,192; Rep. Peter Daley, D-Washington County, $24,206; and Rep. Paul Costa, D-Turtle Creek, $23,375. The Trib could not reach Maher or Daley.

Paul Costa said being a member of the House Appropriations Committee accounted for some of his travel and lodging costs. “That's three weeks worth of hearings. I attended every single one. I've never missed a day or session and very rarely missed committee meetings.”

Costa said he also travels to Harrisburg more often as the Allegheny County delegation chair.

Rep. Joe Preston, D-East Liberty, who collected $21,671 in per diems, cited his duties as minority chairman of the House Consumer Affairs Committee.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, collected $19,979 in per diems last year. “He's the Democratic leader of the House, which requires him to spend a large number of days in Harrisburg and around the state,” Patton said. “In 2011 in particular, his duties with the reapportionment committee increased his time spent in Harrisburg.”

Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, claimed the most per diems in the Senate with $16,842. The Trib could not reach him, either.

Epstein questioned why several Harrisburg-area lawmakers within commuting distance collected per diems exceeding $1,000.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5644 or mguza@tribweb.com.

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