Many current Pennsylvania lawmakers were not in office in July 2005, but that's not stopping one good government activist from calling for a "political enema" for a decision made a decade ago today.
Tuesday marked the 10th anniversary of the Capitol's infamous payraise, when lawmakers voted in the middle of the night to boost their own salaries. It was a galvanizing moment for elected officials - some would say for Pennsylvania politics - as public support for the legislature plummeted and voters subsequently took their anger to the polls to kick many legislators out of office.
Eric Epstein, co-founder of the reform group Rock the Capitol, was one of the key organizers of the public campaign that eventually led the legislature to rescind the raise. He has compiled an annual report on the payraise's effect every year since then, and on Tuesday noted that many of the payraise's recipients remain in office.
"People still slither around in the same ways they did 10 years ago," said Epstein during a press conference in the Capitol rotunda. "They're just a little more anonymous, a little more tactful."
With the 2005 payraise, lawmakers' base pay went from $69,648 to $81,050 - and that figure excluded per diems, perks, pensions and health care.
To the electorate, the payraise seemed "outrageous," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, ignited public outrage more than any time since the 1970s, when corruption and budget crises hit the Capitol.
The negative reaction led to one of the largest turnovers in the legislature: 54 new lawmakers were introduced after the next election, Madonna said.
"They all got the raise and the blowback was the sharpest, most virulent I've seen in 40 years," Madonna said. "It was historic, the blowback."
Some legislators, including party leaders, lost at the polls while others decided not to seek re-election, he said.
Though the payraise was rescinded a mere four months after being approved, lawmakers have fared just fine since then, Epstein said Tuesday.
Rank-and-file members now earn $85,338.65 annually, with leadership in both chambers making between $12,000 and $48,000 more. Those salaries automatically increase each year based on cost-of-living factors.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, that's the second-highest lawmaker salary in the country behind only California, which Epstein said is high because California legislators represent many more constituents than Pennsylvania legislators.
"Over the last 10 years, legislators have done very well for themselves," Epstein said.
The median household income for Pennsylvanians in that time dropped from $53,143 to $52,007.
In the months after the payraise was approved, Epstein said 131 House members and 27 Senators accepted the boost. They were not required to return the payments when it was repealed. Some decided not to repay it or donated the money to charity, but Epstein noted that even then, legislators benefited because it helped boost the calculation on which their pensions are based.
Of those who decided to keep the raise, Epstein said 16 remain in the legislature today: 11 in the House and five in the Senate.
In all, 67 of the the current 198 House members and 24 of the 49 Senators were in office at the time of the pay raise, said Bill Patton, the spokesman for House Democrats.
While a decade has passed and many lawmakers have come and gone, Epstein remains critical of the state government's spending habits.
"I don't really think a lot has changed. I think there's a great deal of disappointment," said Epstein. "And I think it's also troublesome that we just look at the legislature. I think the executive branch and the judiciary are rife with corruption and in my mind all three branches of government are broken."
*Sam Janesch is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association
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