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The best way to rein in the Pa. Legislature: Follow the Constitution

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Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

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.

Imagine that.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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