Pattye Benson

Community Matters

How Can PA Legislature Increase their Payroll by 22%, Cut Healthcare & Public Education Funding & Sit on $189 Million Reserve . . . Because they can!

Although much of the state’s government has fallen victim to Gov. Tom Corbett’s ax swinging proposed budget, there does appear to be one area that is seemingly ‘hands-off’ to receive any significant cuts . . . the legislature’s payroll!

On one side of his budget-cutting measures, Corbett suggests that public workers take 4% salary cuts but on the other side, we learn that since 2005 the General Assembly’s payroll has grown at almost double the rate of inflation. During this period, the legislature’s payroll has soared 22% to $119.5 million. Now, remember during the same time that Harrisburg salaries are climbing . . . the state (and the country!) is feeling the effects of the recession and that Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 8.8 percent in the first quarter of 2011.

What is wrong with this picture? Pennsylvanians are out-of-work and the payroll is ever-increasing in Harrisburg. Here is an interesting statistic . . . legislative staffers with salaries over $100,000/yr. rose from 36 in 2005 to 69 in 2011. The highest paid member of Corbett’s staff is the executive director of the House Appropriations Committee, Edward Nolan, who makes $192K/yr. Corbett’s salary is $14K less; $178,000/yr.

Where is the oversight for legislature salaries? Did you know that Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is the largest full-time legislature in the country – and comes with a $300 million annual price tag? There are 253 state legislators; each has a base salary of $79,646 and automatic cost of living increases. The General Assembly employs 2,650 staff members, which makes Pennsylvania one of the largest government employers in the nation.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, conducted an interesting 6-year comparison of legislative staff and salaries from 2005 – 2011 with surprising results. Their review found:

  • The number of House employees grew from 1,714 to 1,812, and payroll increased by $17.3 million from $59.4 million to $76.7 million.
  • The House payroll includes “lounge attendant” Lynn Bias, paid $37,300 annually for duties that include cutting members’ hair. In a “Members Only” room, Bias “takes care of members’ needs and grooming” because they are away from home for long periods and make public appearances.
  • Though the number of Senate employees declined from 905 to 835, the payroll grew $4 million to $42.7 million this year. The Senate pays staffers Robert Nagle and Chris Miller $37,384 and $45,888, respectively, to cook meals and clean the room where members dine at their own cost on Senate session days. The employees have other duties on non-session days, such as moving furniture, cleaning carpets, changing light bulbs, sweeping high ceilings and chandeliers for cobwebs, running errands and delivering ice to Senate offices.
  • Pennsylvania was the only large state with legislative staff growth — 8 percent — from 1996 through 2009. Ohio, New York, Michigan, Florida, Texas and California reduced staffs from 1 percent to 31 percent.

It appears there is a double standard in Harrisburg. The legislature salaries continue to rise; the number of staff members in Pennsylvania is one of the highest in the country, yet the proposed state budget targets health care, public education and the lowest-earning public workers. Again, I ask what is wrong with this picture. How does ‘fairness’ factor in . . . what about everyone ‘feeling the pain’? Why are some exempt from the pain; is this a case of it’s ‘who you know’ in Harrisburg?

This brings me to more questions. With the looming $4 billion deficit in the state budget, why is that the legislature is sitting on a $189 million reserve? Why can’t some of that money go towards the mega-billion dollar deficit? Why not transfer some of this money into the General Fund? This $189 million surplus is taxpayer’s money – so why not take some of this money and help the people in the state that need it. What makes this situation any different from a school district dipping into their fund balance to help with their budget deficit?

Someone will need to explain to me why the legislature needs to keep a reserve cushion of $189 million yet the proposed budget calls for state funding for higher education to be cut in half. I do not understand how this equates.

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