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Nearly all Pa. legislators accept pay during state budget gridlock

| Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

State Rep. Mark Mustio began saving for this day in January.

He planned to forgo collecting his $85,338-a-year salary in the event of a budget stalemate between newly elected Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature, and he wanted to be prepared financially.

“I thought it would be the proper thing to do,” said Mustio, a Republican from Moon.

The last paycheck he took was issued July 1. The day before, Wolf vetoed an on-time, $30 billion Republican-passed spending plan.

“I didn't collect it this month. I won't do so in October or November or December, until we have a budget,” he said.

A summer of negotiations yielded little progress toward a state spending plan. The halt in state money has spawned a lawsuit from 110 child welfare providers against the commonwealth, but the state has spent millions in paying lawmakers' salaries and funding the Legislature's operations.

Lawmakers are paid monthly. At this year's base salary of $85,448, one pay cycle costs the state nearly $1.8 million, not counting the higher salaries of legislative leaders. Legislators — 131 representatives and 22 senators — took a collective $90,000 in flat-rate per diem payments from July 1 through Aug. 22, money that's used to compensate for state-related overnight stays, meals and travel.

Caucus leaders leave it up to lawmakers to decide if they want to continue drawing their pay. About two-thirds of Pennsylvanians think lawmakers should give up their salaries during a budget impasse, according to a statewide poll in late August from Franklin & Marshall College.

Ryan Welsh, 20, of Saxonburg is a college student studying economics. He works as a restaurant server and has followed state politics closely since his debate team days in high school.

“If I don't show up to my tables at work tonight, I'm not getting paid. I'm not walking out with any money at all,” he said. “It should be the same across the board, whether you're publicly employed, privately employed: You don't do your job, you shouldn't get paid.”

State records show 14 state representatives in August did not claim their paychecks from the House chief clerk's office, though more may have retrieved them but not cashed them.

Even without a budget, day-to-day business takes place, including lawmakers running their district offices. Legislative service agencies are operating. Drew Crompton, chief of staff and general counsel for Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said the chamber spends about $3 million every two weeks on staff pay and operations. It has less than $10 million left as it nears September's end, even after funds were moved from one line item to another.

“We can argue about how much and what is the appropriate amount of reserves,” he said, “but come October, we will have dried up a very large percentage of our reserves.”

Funds are available to cover lawmakers' payroll on Oct. 1, Crompton said, but discussions are under way about whether it is time to begin borrowing.

Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democrats, said the caucus had about $25 million in June 2014, and ran out in mid-September. It took an advance from the state treasury to begin covering payroll for staff; legislative pay is covered by a different line.

“In terms of what's left of our caucus reserves that had been built up in previous years, it's essentially gone,” he said. “It's all part of the larger problem that the lack of a budget is causing.”

Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, and Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin County, are co-sponsors of a proposal to suspend lawmakers' pay in the event of a budget impasse. Doing so, Vulakovich said, might add a sense of urgency to getting the budget done.

But in this unprecedented scenario, decades removed from the last time a governor vetoed an entire budget instead of blue-lining certain items to keep some spending going, Vulakovich said he doesn't know if his proposal would have to be tweaked.

“Some if it probably has to do with how you negotiate in good faith and from a point of reasonableness,” he said. “Why should we risk not getting paid when we're doing our job?”

Teplitz, who took out a loan this summer instead of cashing his state paychecks, admits it is far-fetched to think his proposal might pass in these times.

“I think the only way we're going to get some of these reforms, particularly the ones that require legislators to vote against their narrow financial self-interest, is for the public to demand it,” Teplitz said.

Anne McCoy, 54, of Baldwin said she has read about school districts concerned about shutting down without a state budget helping to fund operations. Lawmakers, she said, should not accept pay while that occurs.

“It strikes me as people in positions of power looking out for themselves,” McCoy said, “instead of looking out for ordinary people who will be affected by these things.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media

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