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Preaching fiscal responsibility, Corbett gives aides $10,000 raises

HARRISBURG - Even as he continues to grapple with tight finances and cuts to state departments and agencies, Gov. Corbett has quietly granted five-figure raises to a handful of his top staffers.

HARRISBURG - Even as he continues to grapple with tight finances and cuts to state departments and agencies, Gov. Corbett has quietly granted five-figure raises to a handful of his top staffers.

At the end of September, Corbett approved $10,000 raises for four aides on his 15-person executive and high-level staff, according to payroll records. The increases come just over 20 months into his first term, and as other departments have struggled with layoffs and unfilled positions to accommodate Corbett's policy of reined-in spending in tough economic times.

To be sure, the governor's executive staff positions are often high-stress, involve grueling hours, and come with a burn-out factor. Often, those who fill them have been recruited from the private sector and took pay cuts to join government. And Corbett is not the first governor to give his executives raises.

Still, since taking office in January 2011, the Republican governor has made fiscal responsibility a central theme in nearly every speech and every policy, advocating for steep budget cuts to bring state spending in line with revenue. In his first budget address, he asked public school teachers and administrators to take a one-year pay freeze.

Kevin Harley, Corbett's spokesman, said the pay hikes were an effort by Steve Aichele, the governor's chief of staff, to level the playing field and bring senior staff into the same pay grade.

Before the raises, for instance, deputy chiefs of staffs were bringing home different paychecks. "There was great disparity in how they were paid," Harley said. "There was no rhyme or reason to it. This makes management sense."

He added: "These are not people who are punching the clock. They work nights, they work weekends, they are basically on call 24/7. They are not 9-to-5 jobs."

Critics counter that a governor should lead by example when asking others to tighten their belts.

"Gov. Corbett preaches sacrifice but practices plunder," said Eric Epstein, founder of the self-styled reform group Rock the Capital. "This shows how disconnected government is from reality."

As governor, Corbett is empowered to set salaries for his executive staff, as well as most aides, from administrative assistants to schedulers to top deputies. Salaries of cabinet members are set by statute.

According to payroll documents, those receiving $10,000 raises were two deputy chiefs of staff, E. Christopher Abruzzo and Luke Bernstein, who were bumped to $145,018 from $135,003, a roughly 7.5 percent increase; and policy and planning secretary Jennifer Branstetter, who will also be paid $145,018, up from $135,003.

Corbett also added $10,000 to the salary of the secretary of legislative affairs. The post was vacated last month by Annemarie Kaiser, who was making $135,003 when she left the administration for a seat on the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Her replacement, Christopher Carusone, is being paid $145,018.

One other Corbett executive - his new chief of staff, Aichele - received a raise with a promotion. Aichele had been general counsel before Corbett named him chief of staff in May in a personnel shake-up intended to improve the governor's public image. As general counsel, Aichele was paid $148,812. When he became chief of staff, he began making $154,133 - the same salary as the person he replaced, William Ward.

Compared with his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, Corbett came into office with a smaller inner circle of executive and high-level aides. But with a few exceptions - like Branstetter, who made less than her predecessor - Corbett paid his top staffers more, according to an Inquirer/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of salaries when he took office in January.

At that time, the average salary for an executive staffer under Corbett was $129,303, as opposed to $116,440 for top aides to Rendell when he was leaving office.

The $6 million budget for the Governor's Office is but a fraction of the overall $27.65 billion spending plan enacted over the summer for the 2012-13 fiscal year. But this budget, as well as last year's, contained painful cuts that departments across the state have dealt with through a mix of spending reductions, layoffs, and leaving positions unfilled.

Since Corbett took office, for instance, there are 2,000 fewer positions in the executive branch. Just under 300 of those were achieved through layoffs, the majority of which came from the Departments of Labor and Industry and Public Welfare, according to records from the state Office of Administration.

Staffing aside, the governor has also made steep cuts to public school aid and public welfare programs during his tenure that have been unpopular in some quarters.

Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said raises in government, though necessary, were frequently viewed with suspicion.

He said some people would look at the $10,000 raises and think they are a pittance. But the vast majority of Pennsylvanians, he noted, will never receive such a pay hike, or tough economic times or their lifetimes.

"At a time when you are cutting salaries and programs, it's hard to make the case that your people deserve a raise," Borick said. "The juxtaposition of one with the other really does raise eyebrows, and will not sit well with the public. But as a governor, it's a hit you have to be willing to take."

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