The best way to rein in the Pa. Legislature: Follow the Constitution
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
There's no warrant in the Pennsylvania Constitution allowing state legislators to have taxpayer-paid vehicles. Neither does it say they can receive health or life insurance or $160 per diems when they show up for work.
The state charter also does not provide for current and former members of the 253-member General Assembly, largest among “full-time” legislatures, to receive state pensions that average $31,000 a year and can top six figures for those serving long enough.
The state Constitution says nothing at all about the state cars afforded to legislators costing more than $7,000 a year or taxpayers paying $3.9 million for per diems in 2011-12.
And very clearly, it does not say legislators may collect a “COLA” — a cost of living adjustment that gives them a pay raise each year.
Here's what the Constitution does say:
The members of the General Assembly shall receive such salary and mileage for regular and special sessions as shall be fixed by law, and no other compensation whatever , whether for service upon committee or otherwise. No member of either House shall during the term for which he may have been elected, receive any increase of salary , or mileage, under any law passed during such term.
That language was part of the Constitution adopted in 1874. Granted, that was a year Jesse James was robbing trains in the West when modern cars and comprehensive health care did not exist.
But the Constitution says what it says.
And all of the benefits not described in the Constitution are legal according to several rulings by the Pennsylvania courts, the latest by the Supreme Court in 2009.
Reformer and rabble-rouser Gene Stilp filed a lawsuit to have the numerous perks declared unconstitutional.
His lawsuit was struck down by the Supreme Court, the same court that gets its annual funding from the Legislature and the same court that some say conspired in 2005 to arrange the middle-of-the-night pay grab (which eventually only the judicial branch continued to receive).
Stilp's argument was described as an “absolutist view.” A constitutional provision “is to be interpreted in terms of its spirit and intentions,” the court wrote. The court won't invalidate such benefits of another branch of government “unless it clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Constitution.”
Never mind that the language clearly does go well beyond the Constitution.
Can you imagine the havoc that would have been created if the court had agreed with Stilp? Legislators would have had to give up the cars and charge only mileage. They'd have been scrambling to find private health insurance. Because they couldn't have afforded to stay over in the capital without per diems, lawmakers would have prevailed on leadership to meet as little as possible, maybe a month a year.
That would have had the effect of returning to a part-time legislature. The now-$83,000-a-year salary would have been so outrageous to constituents, for so little work, that a pay cut would have been in order.
Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or email@example.com).
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Kovacevic: Panic over Pirates? In April?
- Undersized rookie Gibbons is blur on ice for Penguins
- Panthers pulling weight for new strength coach
- Patience pays off as starting pitcher Volquez gets 1st win for Pirates
- Pens insider: Penalty killing a concern in Stanley Cup playoffs
- Murrysville woman sues Giant Eagle over burns
- 4 dead in ‘horrific’ Armstrong County crash
- Pirates should exploit free-swinging Brewers
- Body found on train tracks in West End
- Penguins’ Bylsma and Blue Jackets’ Richards know each other well
- Penn State has hand in discovery of most Earth-like planet yet