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.