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Pennsylvania lawmakers, judges, others get pay raises — because it’s that time of the year | John Baer

Their annual salaries go up automatically. Too bad their governing skills don't do the same.

Pennsylvania House chamber in Harrisburg. AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania House chamber in Harrisburg. AP Photo/Matt RourkeRead more-- AP

Not to rile or depress any taxpayer/citizens during this season of light and joy, but I feel obligated to remind you of your generosity to your public servants.

Over the weekend, you started paying members of the second-highest salaried legislature in America a little more money.

I'm sure their thank-you notes are on the way.

You did this because back in 1995: Your legislature voted itself annual automatic raises. These raises come regardless of performance, because lawmakers know if their pay was based on, let's say, merit, session days, or connection to constituents (Pennsylvania's median household income is $55,000), well, things would be very different.

So, base pay now is $88,610. Not a king's ransom, granted. But then we're not talking royalty here. Plus, they also get great health care, fat pensions, tax-free, unvouchered expenses; and, if they hang around for 10 years (which, oh so many do), health care for life. Including spouses.

This year's pay hike is a relatively modest $1,430. But that's just for the "rank and foul." Harrisburg honchos — floor leaders, caucus whips, appropriations chairmen — get more.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), for example, jump to $138,300.

Two things: Raises kicked in Dec. 1 despite the fact lawmakers don't get sworn in to their gigs as (hah!) "full-time" legislators until January (they're not in session in December); and the raise amount is tied to the Consumer Price Index for "urban consumers," which is about the only time this legislature likes urban anything.

At this point, I should note the total number of 2018 voting days in the state Senate was 47. In the state House, it was 43. (These are not typos.) And the legislature's budget is $337 million — a $12 million increase over the prior year.

At least you know your money's being spent.

Now, you won't hear much official griping about pay raises or legislative costs because the other branches of government rely on the legislature for their own budgets.

Oh, and because when the legislature voted itself automatic raises back in '95, it voted automatic raises for the other branches of government, too.

Clever, eh?

So, as the Associated Press reports, starting Jan. 1, the judicial branch, from the state Supreme Court down to county judges, also get raises.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Saylor goes to about $217,000. County judges to $183,000 — a little more in Philadelphia and Allegheny County.

And in the executive branch, the governor's salary jumps to $198,000; lieutenant governor to $166,000; top cabinet officers' to $158,000; and the three state row officers' — attorney general, auditor general, treasurer — to $164,700.

There are a couple caveats.

Gov. Wolf annually donates his entire salary to charity. It's second-highest among governors. Like the legislature's pay, it is second-highest behind California.

And state Treasurer Joe Torsella donates his annual raise (this year it's $2,585) to a from-birth educational savings account that he created, and the legislature enacted, called the Keystone Scholars Program.

In a statement last week, Torsella said, "When Pennsylvanians hired me (he was elected in 2016) … I promised to keep my focus on helping to improve their salaries, not my own."

If only such sentiments were infectious.

Or if only there was accountable legislative leadership saying no more raises until the state gets better. Until, for example, we end our run among the 10 states with the most unfair, regressive tax systems. Or stop leading the nation in student debt. Or get off the list of states with the worst roads and bridges, despite the nation's highest gas tax. Or do something about property taxes. Or you name it.

At the very least, lawmakers could take a cue from Congress, which also has an automatic pay-hike system but, given its performance, doesn't use it.

Annual salaries of $174,000 have been in place since 2009. Congress voted to stop increases since then, including this past September.

But in Harrisburg? No shame. Pay raises — because it's that time of the year.