Bethlehem Press

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

lawmakers, other officials get automatic pay bump

Thursday, February 7, 2019 by The Press in Opinion

Just like clockwork, Pennsylvania legislators received a 1.6 percent pay adjustment on Dec. 1, raising their base salaries about $1,600 to $88,610. Our legislators are the second highest paid in the nation at the moment, next only to California, but that might change, depending on what happens in New York state.

The salary of legislators in leadership positions, such as Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, increased to $118,796.

Those making the most money are House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, at $138,327. Caucus officers are now earning between $104,040 and $128,385, depending on the position.

On top of this, legislators get generous pensions (after only 10 years of service), health care, travel allowances and other perks.

Legislators do not have to go through the messy and sometimes embarrassing ordeal of publicly voting on their pay raises. They passed a state law in 1995 giving themselves automatic cost-of-living adjustments, effective every Dec. 1.

To make these measures more palatable, executive branch officials and state judges were also included in the COLA that is based on the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers in the Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland region.

Five times during this 24-year stretch, legislators received an increase of 3 percent or more, but twice they received nothing because the CPI was negative or showed no increase.

In the early morning hours (2 a.m.) of July 7, 2005, they passed pay increase legislation without public review or comment, and it was quickly signed by then Democratic Governor Ed Rendell. Salaries were increased between 16 and 34 percent, depending on position. After much public backlash, these pay raises for the legislative and executive branches were rescinded four months later.

Several legislators pointed out that their pay increase this year is less than the 2.8 percent hike that Social Security recipients are enjoying, but don’t feel too sorry for the 203 state representatives and 50 state senators, whose salaries are considerably more than double the average base salary paid all state legislators nationally in 2017.

Meanwhile, if a proposal clears legal challenges, New York legislators will become the highest paid in the nation. The New York state Compensation Commission approved the first pay increase in 20 years, and it was a whopper that was set to take effect this month, but legal action by a number of organizations is holding it up.

The proposal would increase rank-and-file salaries from $79,500 to $110,000 this year, $120,000 in 2020 and $130,000 in 2021. The salaries of the governor, state judges and others would go up, as well.

At the moment, California, with 133 fewer legislators than Pennsylvania, pays their rank-and-file members $107,241, the highest in the nation.

Other Pennsylvania officials also received raises, these as of Jan. 1, including Governor Tom Wolf. He received a $3,100 increase to $198,000, but Wolf has donated his salary to favorite charities since he first took office in 2015 and said he will continue to do so through the end of his current term in 2022.

The highest-paid state official is Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, whose salary rose by about $3,400 to $217,000.

The salaries of county court judges in Carbon, Schuylkill and Monroe counties will rise to about $183,000; the president judge in each county will receive a little more. Lehigh and Northampton are home-rule charter counties, so these judicial salaries are handled a bit differently.

Newly elected Lt. Governor John Fetterman, who ran on the Democratic ticket with Wolf, will receive $166,300. He was sworn in this week shortly before Wolf was sworn in for his second term.

With the increase, the three elected row officers – Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Treasurer Joe Torsella, all Democrats, are now making $164,700.

The heads of Wolf’s cabinet departments also get raises, with the chiefs of the largest agencies, such as Education and Labor, making the most at $158,400.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com