In his Northwest Philadelphia district office, State Rep. Dwight Evans employs 12 staffers to deal with constituents and organize community projects. Two pull in six-figure salaries, helping to tip his district staff budget just over $820,000 - the highest in the General Assembly.
Evans' Harrisburg office staffing budget is even higher, at $1.4 million, bringing the cost of his personal and committee staff to $2.2 million.
Just over nine miles away in West Philadelphia, a Democratic colleague, Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, has just four staff members in her district office - two of them part-timers earning $5,200 or less - and a staff budget of $63,000.
Beyond the obvious disparity among lawmakers, records and interviews show that legislators' personal staffs will cost taxpayers more than $100 million in 2010.
"There is no rhyme or reason to the system," said Tim Potts, a former legislative aide and cofounder of the activist group Democracy Rising. "It's all based on personal relationships. And it shows just how out of touch the legislature is with the real world."
Brown, who is in her first term, represents the third-poorest district in the state. "My people are hit the hardest, and we have to fight the hardest for them," she said.
The system encourages abuse, civic watchdogs contend, because it favors seniority and puts inordinate power in the hands of legislative leaders, who determine which members get what.
A grand jury investigating corruption in the state Capitol cited legislative staffing as an example of Harrisburg's living in a "time warp of public corruption."
The grand jury's report, made public in May, found that legislative staffing was bloated and recommended the General Assembly become a part-time body to save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
It also pointed out that some members have multiple offices in their districts, each flush with employees, while others make do with a single office staffed by a few people.
"The leadership doles out virtually all resources to members, who buck the leadership at their own peril," the report concluded. "Members who should be representing the interests of their constituents instead focus on pleasing their party leaders in order to curry favor that can be parlayed into additional resources being directed to them."
Records obtained by The Inquirer through the state's Right to Know Law show that Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have trimmed between $1.5 million and $3 million from their salary costs since 2008. But the cutbacks are only a fraction of overall spending.
With 2,918 employees, the General Assembly has the most legislative staffers in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The grand jury report concluded the legislature could function with 40 percent fewer staffers.
The Senate Democrats will spend $15.6 million on salaries in 2010, while the majority Senate Republicans will spend $21.1 million.
House Republicans will spend about $31.5 million in 2010. House Democrats say they have not calculated year-end costs, but they have spent $23 million in the first six months of the year.
Although there are inequalities from member to member in both chambers, they are most dramatic in the House.
House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) would not explain how he distributes funding.
"Our personnel office uses industrywide best practices and standards, much like any other public or private organization, for salaries, ranges, and job classifications," Eachus said in a statement. "Beyond that, we don't discuss details of our personnel decisions."
But interviews with rank-and-file members reveal a system usually based on seniority in which Republican and Democratic leaders approve all hires as well as their titles and their salaries.
Evans, who was first elected to the House 30 years ago and has for years been chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has a Harrisburg office staff larger than most. It includes a cadre of budget analysts, whose salaries range from $43,169 to $96,543. He also employs one of the highest-paid staffers in the General Assembly: Miriam Fox, his committee's executive director, who earns just shy of $163,000.
Seventy-four staffers in the House and Senate make more than $100,000, six fewer than a year ago.
But Evans' office in Philadelphia is also the largest among House Democrats, with 12 employees and an $822,140 budget. His chief of staff earns $116,197 and his administrative assistant $110,820, among the highest salaries for Democratic staffers.
He even has a "PennDot specialist," a staff member to deal with constituents who need help with driver's-license applications, motor-vehicle registration, and other driving-related issues.
Evans, like Eachus, declined a request for an interview.
His spokeswoman, Johnna Pro, said Evans' staff not only serves constituents, but also is available to other local elected officials and organizes more than 30 community events each year, including career days, senior expos, and homebuyers' workshops.
She said salaries were high because Evans believes his staffers, many of whom have been with him for years, deserve to be paid "commensurate with their level of education and their level of experience."
No other member's district office in the caucus comes close to Evans' staffing and salaries.
Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D., Phila.) has patched together a staff of three part-time employees making $10,000 or less and two full-timers making about $41,000. She said the secrecy surrounding salaries and staffing made it nearly impossible for her to argue for more staff or higher pay.
"I was floored when I learned members who just came on board had the same number of staff," she said.
In 2002, Youngblood sued then-Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese of Greene County over allegations that he had cut her staff budget by $25,000 because she did not vote the party line.
She lost her federal suit, and her district budget has since been restored (it is now $107,000), but not to a level that she said was appropriate, considering her district's needs and her 15 years in the House.
House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) said he had tried to institute more uniformity by setting up job classification and salary ranges over the last few years, but he added that individual districts' needs were as varied as the state geography despite having roughly the same number of people.
The cost of office leasing, the demands of districts that cover multiple counties, and the number of people seeking more help from legislators vary widely, he said.
"We've tried to put some order into it," Smith said. "I've tried to make it less politicized."
In the Senate, staffing and salaries in members' offices are more uniform.
Five years ago, the chamber hired a human-resources firm to help it create job classifications and salary ranges for those categories, said Drew Crompton, counsel to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson).
Leaders still have final say over whether a member can add employees or bump up their salaries.
But Crompton said leaders did not use that power to reward or punish - every member is guaranteed a basic support staff, which could include administrative and legislative aides.
"There is no quid pro quo with leadership and the members," Crompton said. "We don't cut staff or cut people's phones off, or not allow them to buy a computer if we don't like something they do."
Still, there are differences. Some of the more senior senators have combined staff budgets for their Harrisburg and district offices that top $600,000. Others make do with half as much.
As a Democratic leader in the House for more than a decade, DeWeese controlled the budgets for the Democratic caucus. Even as a rank-and-file member he still receives $346,000 to run his four district offices.
But DeWeese said facing criminal corruption charges had changed him, and he is fighting to change the system he helped perpetuate.
DeWeese, who will stand trial in the Capitol Bonusgate scandal on charges that he misused legislative staff, supports a bill that would make available online details of all government spending, from salaries to contracts, something New Jersey does.
"In the age of reform there should be alterations to the status quo that ensure transparency, accountability, and fairness," DeWeese said in an interview.
But with that bill stuck in the state government committee, the status quo remains. And that angers backbenchers.
"There is disparate treatment," Youngblood said. "But we were all elected to do the same job."