Turkey Day | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Turkey Day

The legislature up to its old tricks

You might expect Timothy Potts, the head of government-reform group Democracy Rising, to be grateful this Thanksgiving. After all, thanks to the efforts of people like him in Harrisburg, the state legislature rescinded its highly unpopular pay hike before adjourning for the holiday.


But as Potts says, "I've been around long enough to know you can't get too depressed by your losses or too excited about your victories."


Especially in this case. Because here's the worst thing about the pay raise: By Harrisburg standards, it was a model of good government.


Compared to a lot of shenanigans the legislature pulls, at least this one was fairly cheap: The pay raise would have cost the average Pennsylvanian about one postage stamp a year. And the legislature passed the raise in July, when there was plenty of time for people to express outrage over it at the polls. Usually when state lawmakers do something this wrong, they wait until the "lame duck" session immediately after the November election.


So if you want to see the state legislature at its worst, don't look at the pay raise. Look at the legislature's attempts to apologize for it.


For starters, the measure rescinding the pay raise actually ensures lawmakers will earn more money. How? By taking away with one hand and giving with the other.


While Act 72 reverses the 16 percent pay hike, it also includes a "cost of living" provision which becomes effective in 2007. Under that provision, salaries "shall be increased [by] the percentage increase in the consumer price index for all urban consumers for the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland area."


In other words, unlike you and I, state officials are guaranteed of having their salaries indexed to inflation. And not the rate of inflation in Pittsburgh, but in the most expensive part of the state: the metropolitan area surrounding Philadelphia.


According to Potts, inflation in the Philly area was 5.2 percent between 2003 and 2004, more than double the inflation rate for the rest of the state. Even legislators in the sleepiest backwater town can count on getting a big-city raise. How many of their constituents can say the same?


There's nothing new about such cost-of-living provisions. But that's precisely the problem. Apparently, this legislature hasn't learned its lesson after all.


Even now, the GOP is trumpeting what it calls the "Taxpayer Bill of Rights." House Republicans say TABOR proves they are "leading the way in the fight to control state spending," because the measure requires that growth in state spending be limited to growth in inflation. (There are exceptions for emergencies, and for statewide referendums should voters want to increase spending.)


Amusingly, for purposes of this bill, inflation is defined by the statewide average, not the increase in Philadelphia. So if you're impoverished and living in Philly, state assistance to you will grow about as fast as inflation in Meadville. Meanwhile, legislators in Meadville will get salary hikes as if they were living in Philly.


That's patently unfair: As Potts has pointed out in a public statement, "Why shouldn't increases for the salaries of public officials be limited to the increases in programs that serve citizens?" It's also unnecessary. The state already has a cap on spending: Its budget must be balanced, so spending can't grow any faster than revenues do.


Democrats suspect that TABOR is a ruse, a bill the Republican-controlled legislature will pass just to force a veto from Democratic governor Ed Rendell, who faces a difficult re-election battle next year. Democrats point out that if Republicans were serious about this bill, they could have passed it a couple years ago, when the governor, Tom Ridge, was a Republican too. Instead, under Ridge the state's spending grew by more than 20 percent in the five years between 1996 and 2000.


Does it sound like maybe the Republicans aren't really the party of fiscal restraint after all?


Indeed, Potts suspects the real motive behind TABOR "is to say, 'Hey taxpayers, we're on your side! Forget about what we did in July!'"


 If Potts is right, Republicans want to limit services to you and I -- just to atone for the generosity they've shown themselves. They want us to pay for their sins. Haven't we been doing that for long enough already?