THERE'S THIS little wave of something - guilt, reform or, more likely, fear - sweeping the state as elected officials fall over themselves to give back annual automatic pay raises because, you know, they feel your pain.
Don't be fooled.
It is, of course, good any time that greed-head pols forgo undeserved salary hikes (as I suggested here Nov. 25) that they built into law to avoid actually voting on raises (such profiles in courage!).
But if they're serious about showing leadership or solidarity with economically suffering constituents, there's more they can and ought to do.
First though, if you missed it, Gov. Ed and legislative leaders say that they won't take 2.8 percent pay raises that went into effect Dec. 1.
They rushed, one after the other, to blurt out the news: House Democrats issued a news release about 11 p.m. Dec. 2; Senate Republicans followed on Dec. 3; Democratic Senate Leader Bob Mellow (who wants to run for governor) on Dec. 4; the Black Caucus on Dec. 5.
The state's 1,048 judges also get the hike starting Jan. 1, but a state Supreme Court spokesman tells me that judicial costs, including salaries, are under review.
And state Auditor General Jack Wagner (who wants to run for governor) calls for a two-year moratorium on raises for state officials.
All this is well and good, and judges should join lawmakers and others in refusing raises.
Pennsylvania (no surprise) is one of only four states - along with Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts - with automatic pay increases.
This year's raise boosts lawmakers' base by $2,152 to $78,315 (much more for leaders), but perks and benefits push their compensation into six figures.
And here's the thing: Just because the Guv or leaders call for something doesn't mean it happens, and House Republicans duck the issue, saying everyone has the option to take a raise or not.
So go to www.legis.state.pa.us and find your lawmaker. E-mail him or her and ask for a response on the raise. That way you'll have it in writing when we start tracking whom did what with your money.
Also, there are two proposals out there worth pressing.
One comes from Rep. Barb McIlvaine Smith, D-Chester County. She's preparing legislation to repeal the section of a 1995 law providing automatic annual raises for lawmakers, judges and the executive branch.
This could lead to better alternatives, such as a compensation commission, or actual votes on raises, or no raises at all.
The other comes from Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair County, who unseated former Senate GOP leader Bob Jubelirer in '06 following the '05 pay-grab fiasco.
He says lawmakers should stop spending on themselves.
"I don't think anybody understands the amount of money we have access to," he tells me.
He advocates no mileage for out-of-district travel and the end to per diems and meal reimbursements, taxpayer-financed cars, public-service announcements, mailed calendars and newsletters to constituents and similar perks of incumbency.
He has done this since taking office and says that if every lawmaker did the same, we'd save $32 million a year. He says that stopping lawmakers' raises saves less than $2 million a year.
I'm all for forgoing raises. Just the symbolism is worth it, and the extra money (tons more than $2 million, if you count judicial and executive branches) can't hurt.
But the real test of elected officials is whether they're willing, a la Eichelberger, to do with less, like most of their constituents, in ways that have lasting impact.
America's largest, most expensive full-time legislature, with annual costs of $332 million, with $240 million in reserve funds, could save real money and do the state a service by greatly trimming its size and price for the coming year and beyond.
Who knows, it might even inspire Congress, which gets its annual raise next month, to consider doing the same.
A little wave of change is fine; a tsunami would be better. *
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