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Lawmakers’ automatic pay hikes take effect

By   /   December 1, 2011  /   4 Comments

Some argue that giving COLA back to the state or to charity isn’t enough
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Lawmakers and executive officials here received an automatic 3 percent pay increase Thursday, and even if they give the extra pay back to the state or away to charity, taxpayers will shoulder the extra cost for years to come.

That’s because the higher pay will be reflected in lawmakers’ and state officials’ pension calculations.
For the next year, rank-and-file lawmakers will see their salaries climb from $79,000 to more than $82,000, while legislative leaders' salaries will jump from $115,000 to more than $118,000. Members of the General Assembly also receive generous benefits that require payment of only 1 percent for health insurance and daily expense payments of $157 for food and housing that do not have to be tracked with receipts for every session day.
The increased pay has a ripple effect. Even if lawmakers decline the pay increases this year — keeping their current salary of $79,613 — the higher amount is still figured into pension calculations. Under the state’s pension formula, a member’s average salary over their last three years of work is used to determine pension payments.
Lawmakers also are allowed to begin collecting their pensions at age 50, while most other state workers have to wait until they are 60 years old.
Robin Mastrocola, a former president of the Monroe County League of Women Voters, which advocates for accountable and transparent government, said the public pensions were “outrageous” when compared with what is available in the private sector and criticized lawmakers for receiving pay increases.
“Because of the limited amount of time that they spend in the Legislature and the huge expense account that they get, I think it could be tailored down to a more realistic expense for the time they put in,” Mastrocola told the PA Independent on Thursday.
There also is a gap when it comes to health insurance. Lawmakers pay about $800 annually for health-care coverage, while the average American worker contributes about $5,400 annually, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent nonprofit that researches health insurance issues.
The formula for calculating the pay increase is based on Philadelphia’s cost-of-living index, the most expensive region in the state. Since the Philadelphia index climbed by 3 percent this year, lawmakers received a 3 percent raise — no matter where they live — thanks to a controversial 1995 law.
Gov. Tom Corbett said last week that he will give his pay increase back to the state Treasury Department. The governor is eligible for a salary of $177,888, which is up from $174,914 last year.
Pennsylvania’s governors are the sixth highest paid in the nation, according to Sunshine Review, a national organization that works to make state government more transparent.
State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, is one of dozens of lawmakers who gives her pay raise to local charities each year.
“She wants to keep it in the Lehigh Valley,” said Stephen DeFrank, Boscola’s chief of staff. “She doesn’t want to send it to other parts of the state; she wants to keep it at home.”
Gary English, a political commentator from Allegheny County, argued that the donations to charity still benefit the lawmakers who make them.
“If you take the money and you donate it to charity, you get a tax write off,” English said. “And then that money is added to your pension, which is a legacy cost to the commonwealth.”
He also said the pay increase is unconstitutional, because lawmakers are supposed to have to wait until after they have won re-election to take a pay increase. 
However, the state Supreme Court upheld the 1995 pay increase law when it was challenged.
This story was updated to clarify the retirement ages of state workers at 3:14 p.m. on 12/2/11.