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Pay raise simmers behind scenes

| Friday, Nov. 19, 2004

HARRISBURG -- State lawmakers will be hard-pressed to vote themselves a pay raise without first delivering a fiscal fix for Pittsburgh and more state funding for mass transit.

That's the view of several area lawmakers, who could face a vote as early as today on boosting their own salaries by 19.4 percent and providing raises to judges and other state officials.

As the 2003-04 legislative session draws to a close, leaders confirm that pay-raise legislation continues to be discussed.

"I don't know how we can possibly vote for a pay raise if we haven't taken care of mass transit or Pittsburgh," said Rep. Don Walko, a Democrat from Pittsburgh's North Side.

Rep. Frank Pistella, a Democrat from the city's Bloomfield section, said a pay increase would be "a tough sell if there's no solution for Pittsburgh."

The city will run out of cash in December without additional revenue, city officials say. The Port Authority faces a deficit that it says will prompt fare increases and service cuts.

Before they bring up a pay increase bill, legislative leaders want an assurance that Gov. Ed Rendell will sign it.

Rendell wants key portions of his agenda approved, including fiscal relief for Pittsburgh, mass-transit funding and his Growing Greener environmental initiative, said his spokeswoman Kate Philips.

The session may end late tonight or early Saturday. If there is no agreement on key issues, lawmakers could return next week and finish before Thanksgiving. Leaders, however, insist this is the last week of the 2003-04 session.

Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith, a Republican from Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, said lawmakers are considering "pay restructuring."

The plan is to tie state officials' salaries to those of federal officials. Legislators, for instance, would get half of U.S. Congress members' pay of $158,100.

State legislators' salaries would increase from $66,203 to $79,050 under the plan.

Pennsylvania legislators are now the fourth-highest paid in the nation behind California at $99,000, New York at $79,500 and Michigan at $77,400, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

They may collect per diems of $127 when they're in Harrisburg for food, lodging and miscellaneous expenses. They're entitled to lease a state-paid car at up to $650 per month in the state House and $600 per month in the Senate, although many spend less and some drive their own vehicles.

Legislators' last pay raise was in 1995, when they increased their salaries from $47,000 to $55,800. The law provided for automatic annual cost-of-living increases starting in 1997, which have raised the base salary to the current level.

Details on proposed salary increases are thin. There's currently no bill available to the public, and talks are taking place behind closed doors.

Rendell himself would get a pay increase under the proposal being considered, according to a key legislative leadership staffer. The figure was not available.

Most area lawmakers interviewed would not make a commitment on whether they will vote for a pay increase.

Republican Rep. Mike Turzai, of McCandless, Allegheny County, said flatly he will vote against an increase.

"Look, I knew what the position paid when I ran for it," he said.

Rep. Frank LaGrotta, an Ellwood City Democrat, said the "vast majority" of legislators work long hours and deserve a pay hike.

"This job is 12 hours a day, seven days a week if you do it right," said the lawmaker from Lawrence County.

Additional Information:

Pay increases

Proposed salary hikes for state officials under consideration by the General Assembly include:

  • Legislators: $12,847 increase (19.4 percent) from $66,203 to $79,050 annually

  • Common Pleas Court judges: $21,317 increase (17 percent) from $124,135 to $145,452

  • Supreme Court justices: $24,664 increase (17 percent) from $142,936 to $167,600

  • Cabinet officers: increases of $22,524 to $25,027 depending on the position (rate of increase: 21.6 percent). They now are paid between $103,980 and $115,533.

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