Pay Watch 15 – No COLA for Lawmakers?
Thoughts on Covering Democracy in Pennsylvania
November 17, 2005
As the General Assembly flailed around trying to undo its mistake of July 7, it clung to its annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) like a drowning sailor to a piece of flotsam. On November 2 when Sen. Sean Logan (D-Allegheny) offered his (unconstitutional) repeal amendment to House Bill 1539, he included a COLA in his amendment to make clear that repealing the July 7 pay raise didn’t repeal the COLA.
Not surprisingly, the repeal enacted by the House on Monday and the Senate yesterday (House Bill 1956) says the COLA survives. It is the same COLA that has increased the salaries of public officials in all three branches – not just lawmakers – since the pay raise of 1995.
Of course, lawmakers will tell you that the COLA is not a raise. They’ve been saying that since July 7. Sometimes, they think, they can’t lose for winning.
On December 1, most of our legislators, judges, and executive officials think they will receive a pay raise of 3.6 percent. That’s the number reported on Wednesday for the Consumer Price Index that HB 1956 says should be used to calculate the pay
raise/COLA. It amounts to a little more than $2,500 on a base salary of around $69,500, taking the base salary to some $72,000. But this is not a raise, they say.
Now that they have repealed the July 7 pay raise, lawmakers believe they will get the COLA on December 1. But the Constitution says otherwise: “…No member of either House shall during the term for which he may have been elected, receive any increase of salary, or mileage, under any law passed during such term.” Article II, Section 8.
Since the repeal was passed during the term for which current lawmakers have been elected, namely the 2005-06 term, the December 1 pay raise/COLA is clearly unconstitutional for lawmakers, although it’s OK for other public officials.
Lawmakers will argue that HB 1956 merely reinstates the old law. Nevertheless, it is a new enactment, just as the July 7 pay raise was a new enactment (Act 44 of 2005), repealing the old law. The repeal will be on the books as an Act of the General Assembly in 2005 bearing Gov. Rendell’s signature, not an Act of 1995 with
former Gov. Ridge’s signature.
Ironically, legislators would have been better off if either:
- they had never let their leaders talk them into one of the most arrogant sneak attacks in our history on Pennsylvania’s Constitution and citizens; or
- they had joined Gene Stilp and asked Commonwealth Court to declare the pay raise law unconstitutional, thereby repealing the pay raise and reinstating the old law without having to pass a new law to do it and thus denying themselves the COLA.
State officials confirmed this week that money for the COLA in previous years has been paid as “salary” in lawmaker’s earning statements. Because the previous law was enacted in 1995, the COLA for subsequent years was not based on a law passed during the same term and therefore could pass the Constitutional requirement.
Of course, this could be yet another question for the courts unless legislative leaders voluntarily acknowledge the plain language of the Constitution and refuse to authorize the COLA for their members this year – and refuse to pay it out as “unvouchered expenses” from their $135 million in slush funds.
Thanks to 806,000 voters who removed Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro from the bench, legislative leaders may decide that citizens stand a chance in court this time because there is no severability issue. Also, the courts have no personal economic conflict of interest in deciding the case.
As mentioned in the November 6 “Pay Watch Special,” the pay raise/COLA would have arrived at a time when lawmakers are considering whether to impose a limit on growth in the state budget. Under the moniker “Taxpayer Bill of Rights,” or TABOR, the House proposal (HB 2082) would have limited the growth of state spending to just 2.2 percent if it were in effect this year, less than two-thirds of the increase lawmakers would have allowed for themselves.
Questions for Legislators
Why shouldn’t salary increases for legislators be tied to something that reflects the economic reality of working Pennsylvanians such as increases in the Statewide Average Weekly Wage (SAWW)? Wouldn’t that provide a strong incentive for lawmakers to ensure that the state’s job creation programs actually work?
Why shouldn’t legislators have to live within the same limits as the rest of us? Why shouldn’t increases for the salaries of public officials be limited to the increases in programs that serve citizens?
How many of your constituents will get a COLA of 3.6 percent this year?
How many of your constituents got a COLA of 5.2 percent last year?
If the repeal is intended to reinstate the old law, and the old law did not provide for the “unvouchered expenses” some lawmakers have received since July 7, why shouldn’t those lawmakers have to repay what they have received?
Will you support the creation of an independent commission, like a BRAC commission, with recommendations of compensation for public officials that must be voted up or down by the General Assembly, without amendment, before they can take effect?
What other ideas do you have for avoiding future debacles of the type that our three branches of government inflicted upon Pennsylvania citizens on July 7?
Have you apologized yet to your constituents for shutting them out of their own government on the pay raise and many other issues and laws?
For previous editions of Pay Watch, visit:
Tim Potts, Co-FounderDemocracy Rising PA
P.O. Box 618,
Carlisle, PA 17013
“Legislation without representation is tyranny.”
“Arrogance is a fool’s disease!”
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