HARRISBURG - Despite a growing budget deficit, the very real prospect of tax increases, and unemployment rates not seen in years, Pennsylvania lawmakers are about to get a raise.
Come Dec. 1, base salaries of state House and Senate members will increase 2.8 percent, or $2,152, to $78,315. Legislative leaders will see even more of a pay bump.
The extra cash comes courtesy of a law that legislators passed in 1995, setting in motion annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, for themselves and other elected state officials, including the governor and judges.
The legislature replaced the COLAs in 2005 with raises of 16 to 54 percent but, after widespread public outcry, rescinded them later that year and returned to the COLAs.
Gene Stilp, a longtime Harrisburg activist who challenged the 2005 raises in court, scolded lawmakers for continuing the COLAs, especially in such tough economic times.
"The legislature is continuing with its let-them-eat-cake syndrome," he said. "Maybe the citizens need a guillotine."
Through the first four months of the fiscal year, Pennsylvania is digging a deep budget hole, with revenue trailing projections by 7 percent, or $565 million. The state is expected to end the fiscal year between $1 billion and $2 billion in the red.
Gov. Rendell said Wednesday that he was seeking new spending cuts on top of the $300 million already made, and that he could not rule out a tax hike next year. Rendell, whose salary is set to increase $4,806 in January, to $174,956, added yesterday that he was considering forgoing his raise and having his cabinet do the same.
Asked whether the legislature should also consider the option, Rendell told reporters that he needed to work with lawmakers in the final two years of his administration, "so I am not sure I want to necessarily beat them over the head, especially when you guys are all too willing to do it for us."
Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph B. Scarnati III (R., Jefferson) said yesterday that the notion of axing the automatic yearly raises should become part of the budget discussion between leaders of both parties in both chambers and the administration in coming weeks.
He declined to say whether he supported such an idea, but stressed that "nothing is off the table."
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow (D., Lackawanna) defended the raise as reasonable.
"Our members have the same family responsibilities as others," he said yesterday. "It's a modest increase and the right thing to do."
Legislative officials have said legislators cannot simply reject the COLAs without changing the law. That has prompted some to donate the extra money to charities in their communities.
A few lawmakers who no longer will be in leadership come January will take a major pay cut, notably Rep. Dennis O'Brien.
The Philadelphia Republican, who was the compromise pick for speaker over the two-year session ending this month, will return to rank-and-file status. It will mean a 34 percent, or $40,581, pay reduction.
In the 13 years since the legislature crafted the annual inflation increases, base legislative salaries have risen about 38 percent. Last year, lawmakers got a 3.5 percent bump. The rate is based on the Consumer Price Index for the previous 12 months in the Philadelphia region.
With this year's raises, Pennsylvania's legislature will remain the fourth best paid, behind those in California, Michigan and New York.