Groups: COLA, per diems are de facto pay increases
By Caleb Taylor | PA Independent
UPDATED – This story has been updated to include a correction. See note at bottom.
HARRISBURG — Lawmakers continue to increase their salaries and take advantage of undocumented expense accounts six years after Pennsylvania taxpayers were outraged over legislators' late-night vote to increase their pay.
Even though the state legislature repealed that pay increase, lawmakers have used annual "cost of living adjustments," or COLAs to boost their base salaries nearly $10,000.
Not only do legislators have a base salary of $79,623, they also enjoy the controversial “per diem” expenses that allow lawmakers to collect $163 for every session day without having to track how the funds are spent.
"One of the easiest reforms — one of the lowest hanging fruits — would be to say we are not doing unvouchered expenses anymore," said Eric Epstein, coordinator for Rock The Capitol, a nonpartisan voter education organization.
At a news conference Thursday, Epstein and other government reform advocates criticized increasing legislative compensation, as many residents are dealing with a tough economy and cuts in the state budget.
Pennsylvania workers average salary increased from $36,320 in 2005 to $43,050 in 2010, roughly in line with the increase in the base legislative salaries, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But legislators get perks at taxpayers’ expense, including a lifetime health-care plan, per diems to cover the cost of food and lodging, and a pension. Lawmakers who live within 50 miles of Harrisburg are not eligible for the daily per diems. In 2005, the daily per diem was $141.
“What these guys (legislators) are making is out of line with the marketplace,” said Epstein. “It is not sustainable."
When lawmakers voted at 2 a.m. July 7, 2005, to increase their salaries by between 16 percent and 54 percent —based on seniority, rank, title and leadership positions — the base salary for a member of the General Assembly was $69,648.
The COLAs bring legislative salaries in line with the consumer price index, which is based on the Philadelphia region, the highest in the state. Though it varies each year, lawmakers were eligible for a COLA of $1,600 at the end of this past year.
Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, an advocacy group that pushes for transparent, accountable government, said COLAs shield lawmakers from the negative political effects of voting for such an increase.
“They have been able to do it with an automatic pay raise that they don’t acknowledge is a pay raise basically,” Potts said. “They give themselves a COLA when nobody else gets a COLA."
But not all members of the General Assembly accept the higher pay. At least 15 members of the state Senate and 42 members of the state House returned COLAs or gave the extra money to charity, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think-tank based in Harrisburg, which tracked lawmakers who publicly announced the return of the increase.
There are 203 members of the state House and 50 members of the state Senate.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republican leadership, said lawmakers did not include an increase in their salaries in the state budget that passed this past week. He said a majority of members declined to accept the COLA this past year.
Other legislative caucuses did not return calls for comment.
CORRECTION – This story erroneously reported that the Supreme Court overturned the 2005 pay raise. The pay raise was repealed by the state legislature. We regret the error.