It pays to be on the payroll of Pennsylvania state government.
An automatic 1.6 percent cost-of-living increase will boost salaries of lawmakers, judges, the governor and his Cabinet. That means the base salary in one of the nation’s largest state legislatures will eclipse $85,000 next year, a more than $5,000 increase from what they earned five years ago.
“Pretty good gig,” said Manuel Maiti, 30, of Allison Park. “I might think about running for office soon.”
About one in five voters approve of the Legislature’s job performance in a state where the median household wage is $52,000 a year. In recent years, Pennsylvania officials have either resigned or been forced from office because of criminal charges related to misuse of public resources.
The salary increase is tied, by law, to the Consumer Price Index for the mid-Atlantic region announced Thursday by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, it was 0.25 percent.
To longtime good government advocates like Eric Epstein, the increase is an annual slap in the face, a reminder of Pennsylvania’s “organized kleptocracy.” He calls for a repeal of the pay increase.
“The disparity between those who govern and the governed increases every year,” said Epstein, founder of Rock the Capitol. “That’s unhealthy for democracy.”
California’s lawmakers are technically the highest paid individual legislators in the country, earning a base salary of $90,526 in 2014.
But Sacramento has fewer than half the legislators as Harrisburg — 80 in the Assembly, and 40 in the Senate — meaning Pennsylvania’s 253-member legislature spends more on salaries.
This year, the base salary for lawmakers was $84,012, up from a base pay of $78,314 in 2009. Leadership positions earn more, including the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore, who earned $131,148.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Roland Anderson, 52, of the North Side.
The governor’s salary will increase to about $191,000. Gov.-elect Tom Wolf has said he will return it to the state, or donate it to charity.
The pay bump coincides with some of the Legislature’s most dismal approval ratings in recent years. The Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College found in October about 21 percent of voters approved of the Legislature, which is less than that of outgoing Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and President Obama. Nearly half of Pennsylvanians, 47 percent, disapproved, up from 39 percent a month before. Thirty-one percent had no opinion.
Chris Borick, a professor of political science and pollster at Muhlenberg, said dissatisfaction with the Legislature peaked in 2005 with the infamous “pay raise” vote, a late-night vote by legislators to approve their own salary increase. The raise resulted in public outrage, incumbent losses and leadership turnover.
“I don’t know how much it’s ever completely recovered from that,” Borick said.
But Borick said the salary lawmakers receive isn’t as outlandish as some critics make it seem. An $85,000 salary is “comfortable but not extravagant,” compared to private sector work, he said, and may mean more in different parts of the state.
“It would be really hard to attract decent people to this service if you made it so limited in terms of financial compensation,” Borick said.
Some lawmakers donate the increase to charity. Others return it to the state, including Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair County. He was one of at least a dozen lawmakers who returned portions of his salary to the Pennsylvania Treasury in 2014. When he won office in 2006, he ousted Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, who supported the late-night pay raise that was later repealed.
Since then, Eichelberger has remained vocal on legislative reforms. He questions the frequency of continued corruption.
“There’s just new iterations of misbehavior that continue to happen,” he said.
In October, Democratic Philadelphia Sen. Leanna Washington pleaded guilty to corruption charges in connection with using her staff for setting up a fundraiser. In the judiciary, former Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned amid an email scandal that involved inappropriate email exchanges with prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office. Former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was found guilty of using her office and staff for campaign purposes last year.
Eichelberger said hope is on the horizon for reform or repeals. Newly elected members come in “reform-minded,” he said, and are more likely to deny perks or special treatment.
“More people are coming in swearing off per diems, state cars, pensions,” he said. “That’s largely in response to the public’s displeasure, with the perception they have.”
Door-knocking in Luzerne County during the 2010 legislative election persuaded Rep. Jerry Mullery to make a promise to his constituents: He would return all his salary increases.
“There were a lot of folks who hadn’t received a salary increase, or hadn’t received a COLA from their state or federal benefits,” he said.
Mullery has introduced legislation to repeal the COLA and supports switching to a part-time legislature.
Like Eichelberger, he said he sees a shift toward compensation and perk reforms next session.
“Every session that passes and every session that occurs, you’re seeing more folks who are like-minded winning seats,” Mullery said. “So we’ll see where it takes us.”
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or email@example.com.