Friday, November 17, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: Legislators off to a bad start

Pennsylvania politicians delivered a one-two punch to the gut of their contituents this week.

The first body blow came when Democrats and Republicans in the state House each re-elected the same leadership team that orchestrated the July 2005 legislative pay raise.

Despite all the talk of reform and promises by incumbents to mend their evil ways, little has changed in Harrisburg. One in five legislators were forced into retirement or voted out in the May primary and November general election, but the remaining members of Pennsylvania's political aristocracy decided to maintain the status quo.

Another blow to taxpayers came Friday when officials announced that the Legislature, the governor and most other statewide officials would get an automatic 2 percent pay raise. The legislators will see more money in their paychecks starting Dec. 1. The governor, his cabinet and state judges will get theirs come Jan. 1.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, one of the architects of the July 2005 pay raise, will be the highest paid elected officials in Pennsylvania in 2007 with an annual salary of $180,336. The other six members of the state Supreme Court will earn $175,236 a year.

Gov. Ed Rendell, another prime mover behind the pay raise, will be paid $164,396. (This would be the very same Ed Rendell who vetoed a bill to allow communities to spread out collection of the $52 local services tax. Workers will see the entire amount removed from their first paycheck of 2007. When you’re making $164,000 a year, $52 means nothing, but when you work for a living, a $52 hit in your paycheck is significant.

House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, another originator of the July 2005 pay raise, will pocket $114,916 a year.

The Senate president pro tempore will also get $114,916, but we won't find out who that is until next week when the Senate picks its leadership slate. The last pro tempore, Robert Jubelirer, was voted out of office in the May 2006 primary.

The starting salary for a Pennsylvania legislator will rise to $73,614 on Dec. 1, keeping the Pennsylvania's House of Lords among the highest paid lawmakers in the country, behind only California, Michigan and New York. Because Pennsylvania has the largest full-time Legislature in the country, it keeps its ranking as the most expensive in the land.

Pennsylvania politicians get an automatic pay raise every year unless they vote to turn it down. That hasn’t happened in the past 10 years. This year’s 2 percent increase is the lowest cost-of-living adjustment for state officials since 2002. In other years, the pay increase has exceeded 5 percent.

Although the base salary for legislators is $73,614, many of the 253 legislators will make much more because they hold various caucus leadership positions or serve as committee chairmen.

Salaries for 28 elected caucus leaders will range from $106,657 for majority and minority leaders, to $83,940 for caucus secretaries, administrators and policy committee chairs, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

And the salary is just the beginning.

Lawmakers receive a lifetime pension (an average of $50,000 a year), full medical, dental and vision plans for themselves and family members, taxpayer-funded life insurance, long-term care insurance, free use of a state car or $650 a month to lease a car of their choice, gasoline reimbursement and $141 per diem for showing up for work in Harrisburg.

The per diem system is ripe with abuse. One legislator who lost re-election this year was known to drive to Harrisburg daily, sign in to collect his $141 per diem and then take the rest of the day off to play golf. Legislators can collect tens of thousands of dollars each year in per diems on top of their salary.

Taxpayers end up paying about $2.7 million a year in per diem reimbursements to legislators. The average legislator who was eligible claimed about $24,000 in per diems last year, according to The Associated Press. And some did a lot better. Rep. Gaynor Cawley, D-Scranton, collected a total of $39,998 in per diems from Jan. 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006, according to The Citizens Voice newspaper in Wilkes-Barre.

And this is just the perks taxpayers pay for.

Legislators also receive free meals, free trips, free lodging, free tickets to sporting events and concerts and all sorts of other gifts from lobbyists trying to influence legislation.

Pennsylvania voters sent a message in 2006. They want reform. Instead, the legislators who went back to Harrisburg this week betrayed the voters and returned the same self-serving leaders who gave us the July 2005 pay raise and repeatedly blocked efforts to eliminate property taxes. Putting Republicans John Perzel and Sam Smith and Democrat Bill DeWeese back into power is a travesty.

The ouster of 55 legislators was a start, but it's painfully obvious that hundreds more, both Democrats and Republicans, must be removed from office.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at