Time to un-COLA Harrisburg
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
In 1995, legislative leaders let then-Republican Gov. Tom Ridge know that to open the floodgates for more of his priorities in the General Assembly there'd have to be a legislative pay raise. But former House Majority Leader John Perzel said this would be different: a pay raise to end all pay raises.
The 1995 pay grab established a cost-of-living adjustment for top elected officials' pay, from legislators, to judges, to the governor. But the inflation-hedging raises lasted only a decade until leaders, Perzel included, went for broke by pushing through a middle-of-the-night pay grab that varied by position but boosted rank-and-file legislators' pay by 16 percent to $81,027.
But Perzel, who's now in state prison for felony theft of state resources for campaign purposes, was only one of a cabal of legislative leaders who conspired to jack up the pay of the Legislature, judiciary and top officials in the executive branch.
Taxpayers across the state considered pay-jacking that passed with no hearings and no debate to be theft by any other name. It did an end-run around the state Constitution by allowing legislators to collect the money right away as “unvouchered expenses.” The Constitution holds that legislators can't give themselves midterm pay hikes.
In a rare display of contrition, legislators bowed to public pressure and repealed the raise in November 2005. The state Supreme Court would later restore it for judges.
In 2005, legislators received a 3.6 percent pay raise anyway due to the COLA. There's been a raise almost every year since then. As of Dec. 1 they get another. But this year it is modest, like many of their constituents face. Their salaries will go up from $83,802 to $84,112.
Still not too shabby for 70 to 80 session days a year, two months off in the summer, extended holiday vacations, time off for elections. It's also cushioned by state-paid vehicles or mileage and $160 per night for staying over in Harrisburg (food and lodging) despite many lobbyist-paid dinners.
The COLA is based on inflation in the Mid-Atlantic area, which includes Philadelphia. That's usually a gift for legislators representing less affluent rural areas. They also receive generous health care and pensions heavily subsidized by taxpayers.
Executive branch and judiciary COLAs kick in on Jan. 1. Some officials, including Gov. Tom Corbett, turn it down. Corbett's salary on paper is currently $187,256 but he limits it to the $175,000 when he took office.
It's time, reformer Eric Epstein says, to repeal Act 51, the 1995 COLA bill. It certainly would make sense in the aftermath of a string of scandals that saw eight ex-legislative leaders in prison at the same time until this summer.
Many newer legislators and leaders say things have changed, gotten better. Killing COLAs would be one way to prove it.
Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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