Tuesday, November 17, 2009

With a 3 percent increase on December 1, 2009, Pennsylvania legislators' annual salary may go above $80,000 . . .

Historical sites will be shuttered, the wait for government services will be longer, swimming and camping seasons at state parks will be shorter, and hundreds of state employees will be looking for new jobs.

The governor's office announced yesterday that Friday will be the last day of work for 319 employees who are being laid off. They will be put on administrative leave until Dec. 4, allowing them to collect two additional weeks of pay.

Nonetheless, in 2006, Pennsylvania legislators raised a statewide uproar when they voted themselves raises of 16 to 33 percent. The Legislature later canceled its raised, but under a 1995 law, state officials continue to get cost-of-living adjustments every December. The salary increases are based on the rise in the Consumer Price Index (the inflation rate) during the pervious 12 months in the Philadelphia area, and that usually works out to 3 or 4 percent.

Because of this COLA law, a rank-and-file lawmaker's annual salary has risen from $69,647 in 2005 to $72,187 in 2006, to $73,614 in 2007, to $76,163 in 2008, to $78,300 in 2009. With a 3 percent increase on December 1, 2009 their annual salary may go above $80,000.

It is common sense to suspend the COLA for legislators during the current tough economic times. How can a lawmaker accept a pay increase during a year when so so much have been cut from the state budget and so so many others must now do with less or with nothing at all.

The national economic conditions are so dismal that for the first time in more than three decades the federal government will not make cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security payments.

In short, if Pennsylvania's elderly citizens are expected to go without a Social Security COLA this year, than Pennsylvania lawmakers should be expected to do the same.

Some citizen protesters, including Eric Epstein (Rock the Capital) and Gene Stilp (Taxpayers and Ratepayers United) want the Legislature to cancel the December 1 cost-of-living adjustment, but that seems unlikely.

No one should be rewarded for creating a large budget deficit and holding state citizens hostage for 101 days before finally adopting the 2009-20010 budget. Repealing the COLA law is an opportunity for legislators to do the right thing and put the interests of the state ahead of their wallet.

Please note: None of the staff cuts will come in the department's oil and gas program, where the state recently raised fees to pay for 37 new hires to do permitting and inspection work on hundreds of new wells tapping into the Marcellus shale, a deep rock formation underlying three-fourths of the state and attracting widespread drilling interest. Layoffs could have been avoided had the Rendell administration backed a severance tax on Marcellus drilling as part of the state budget. The revenue the state could have raised with a severance tax or fee -- which ever other major natural-gas drilling state already has -- could have gone a long way. Twelve of the 319 being furloughed work in state offices in Allegheny County and another 28 work in surrounding areas. The layoffs will save the state $16.7 million over the next 12 months.

In closing, what Pennsylvania really needs is a constitutional convention (the first since 1968) with a goal or reducing the size of the Legislature and giving voters greater control over state government.

Ties Between Western Pennsylvania Legislators and Their Office Landlords

The following was reported by WTAE Channel 4 on November 17, 2009.

The so-called Bonusgate indictments in Harrisburg have put a spotlight on state lawmakers and their district offices.

Now, a Team 4 investigation has uncovered troubling ties between legislators and their landlords and asks the question, "With our ability now to e-mail and get things done on the Internet, why do lawmakers still have so many district offices?"

Team 4 investigator Jim Parsons found Pennsylvania's 254 legislators have more than 720 offices, an average of three offices for every lawmaker.

What follows is a transcript of Parsons' report:

Freshman state legislator Mike Reese of Westmoreland County got elected to the House last year on a platform of fiscal responsibility.

Mike Reese: "I believe that we have to reduce spending in Harrisburg. Each individual Rep has to do their part."

So, you might think Reese would close some of the district offices he inherited from predecessor Jess Stairs. Five district offices in all, tops in western Pennsylvania. Two of the offices are part-time and rent-free, but leases on the other three cost taxpayers more than $20,000 a year. In September, Reese said just 28 constituents visited this office in DryRidge. That's about one person a day. So he cut the office hours here.

Mike Reese: "So we moved it from 5 days a week down to three days a week."

Jim Parsons: "And does it even need three days a week, Mike?"

Mike Reese: "It's a great question."

Team 4 created an interactive map of 115 legislative district offices in western Pennsylvania. Take a look at the orange dots around Brownsville on the Fayette-Washington County line. Four district offices are clumped together, all within eight miles of each other. Two of them belong to Representative Peter Daley and two are offices for House Majority Whip Bill DeWeese. Both Daley and DeWeese have two other district offices apiece, besides the ones around Brownsville.

And on Brownsville Road in Pittsburgh, Representative Harry Readshaw's office is less than half a mile from Senator Jay Costa's office, where the rent is more than two dollars a square foot, the 3rd highest rent rate we found among lawmakers in our area. Costa also has other offices in West Mifflin, Homestead and Forest Hills.

Some lawmakers have four and five district offices, while others have one. And we couldn't find any who share office space with each other. So what's the policy? In the Senate, the Clerk's office allots square footage for offices based on square miles of the district. But in the House?

Jim Parsons: "Is there any formula from leadership that tells you how much office space you can have?"

Mike Reese: "Not that I know of."

Brett Marcy, Majority Leader's Spokesman: "What we found was there really wasn't a strict policy." There still isn't. First, the House Clerk told us there's no policy at all. Then, Majority Leader Todd Eachus' office claimed there's a $2,300 a month cap on leases for each lawmaker. But Representative DeWeese told Team 4 that's the first HE'S heard of such a policy.

Because legislators are allowed to make their own deals with landlords, Team 4 checked for relationships. And we found that 15 lawmakers in Western Pennsylvania have accepted campaign contributions from their district office landlords.

Barry Stout: "What a great day to be in Fayette County."

Senator Barry Stout's relationship with his district office landlord is even cozier.

It's his brother who signed the lease, as a principal of 519 Partners, owner of this building in Eighty-Four, Washington County. And when we checked to see who owns 519 Partners, we found that it's a company called TPS Partners. In his most recent annual ethics statement, Senator Stout reveals a personal financial interest in TPS, though he tells Team 4 he recently severed that financial tie.

Matt Brouillette, Commonwealth Foundation: "The fact that you have taxpayer money going to lawmakers themselves or family members, that's when you run into real problems."

State Senator Wayne Fontana handles things a bit differently. Fontana owns the building where his Beechview office is located. He charges taxpayers no rent here.

Wayne Fontana: "Yeah, they would have paid for 200 square feet. But I felt that would be a conflict if I did that so, you know, I didn't do it."

And State Representative Mark Mustio recently closed his Sewickley office, leaving only one office in Moon. Why don't more lawmakers do the same?

Mark Mustio: "We've done it a certain way for a long time. And if we change will we still be elected. Having four offices, elected official 'A' may say, 'Why do I want to mess that up?' But I think we have a responsibility to challenge ourselves."

The legislature vowed last year to post all of their contracts on the internet. The senate still hasn't put district office leases online. And the house has posted only a handful.