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John Baer: Who's sharing the pain? Not perk-barrel lawmakers

EVEN as a dues-paying union member, I understand frustration with unions, with their history of good pay, big pensions, protection and inflexibility.

EVEN as a dues-paying union member, I understand frustration with unions, with their history of good pay, big pensions, protection and inflexibility.

But I was taken with opening arguments of one union leader negotiating with the state - admittedly they mirror much of a message I've sounded for years.

Doesn't matter whether you think unions are the ruination of our economy or the only thing twixt working families and destitution. What Kathy Jellison, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 688, said makes sense.

Her statement's titled "Sharing the Pain." It essentially asks: Who's sharing?

It comes as the state and some 17 unions negotiate new contracts calling for pay and benefit cuts. In it, Jellison points to our oversize/"overperked" Legislature and its enormous, expensive staff. Here's a sample.

"Expense accounts, a gym, a clinic staffed by four nurses and a doctor (when Harrisburg Hospital is three blocks away), a lavish dining room and a barber paid $37,000 per year to be available to cut hair. AND, automatic pay increases!"

Hey, even if she's looking to deflect attention and anger away from unions, she's worth listening to.

SEIU represents workers in county assistance offices, and children and youth agencies, counselors in prisons and those working with the blind. In other words, tough jobs that actually require something, as opposed to whatever our 253 lawmakers and their 3,000 staffers do.

And, yeah, I know the argument that you can abolish the Legislature, end its $300 million appropriations and still not solve state fiscal woes, to which I say, maybe not, but it's sure a great start.

Here's more of Jellison.

"Our 'full-time' legislature is based on a three-day workweek from February to July with more days added as the June 30 budget deadline approaches."

She notes that summer recess is three months, then a session from September to December, but during election years, legislators break to campaign.

"And you want to take away our overtime, cut our hours of work?" she asks.

I'd add that any holiday falling on a Monday means a full week off for the Legislature. Like this week. Like at your job, right?

Her statement talks about (tax-free) daily expenses for lawmakers.

"Per diems are currently $163 . . . paid automatically without any need on the legislator's part to verify expenses . . . and you want to take away our $3.50 lunch reimbursement?"

She notes that lawmakers' base ($78,315) is among the nation's highest, that scores of staffers make $100,000-plus - "And you want to roll back our wages?"

Average SEIU members' pay is $37,500.

She points out that House members get free health care - worth $16,700 - while senators pay only 1 percent salary for coverage. House members go to 1 percent in July. State workers pay 3 percent, but are likely to pay more.

"All this while the Governor refuses to consider a severance tax on Marcellus Shale, close the Delaware loophole, tax cigars and smokeless tobacco," the statement says.

I'd note that as lawmakers prepare a budget with big cuts to education and social services, as they (depending on party) whine about a fiscal need for these cuts or bleat about the harm they'll cause, nobody stands up and pushes for legislative givebacks, and I wonder why not.

If you wonder why not, find your lawmaker at and ask.

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For recent columns, go to Read Baer's blog at