Wage-ing War | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Wage-ing War

You get what you pay for...and that's the problem

If you ask me, the biggest problem with our state legislature isn’t that these guys make too much money. It’s that they work too hard for it.

That’s not a popular sentiment nowadays: Thanks to a midnight deal bundled into the state budget early this month, rank-and-file legislators are getting a 16 percent pay hike to $81,050 a year. Those in leadership positions will earn even more.


But at least the ass-covering and hypocrisy that followed was almost worth the price. Almost.


“House Democrats Laud Budget’s Commitment to Most Needy” trumpeted a statement by House Democratic Whip Mike Veon and Minority leader Bill DeWeese. Among the “most needy,” apparently, were House Democrats themselves. But there’s no mention of the pay hike in the 851-word release … which did, however, assert that the budget “represents a shared sacrifice across state government.”


Um, yeah.


The hypocrisy in these situations is often bipartisan, of course, since the measure couldn’t have passed without Republican help. In the end, though, I’d be willing to pay all these guys a few more bucks if they’d stop trying so hard to serve me.


Look at Veon, for example. He’s so committed to public service that he’s doing the job of local officials as well, trying to prevent cities like Pittsburgh from exercising any control over where casinos will be sited. Can’t we just tip Veon an extra couple bucks to go away, like the violinist playing beside your table at the restaurant?


After all, the Pennsylvania Economy League notes, the real problem isn’t that legislators make so much money. It’s that there’s so many of ’em.


“[W]hile the increase in each legislator’s base pay irks a lot of people,” says the PEL, “the size of the legislature is an even bigger driver of cost.” With 253 members, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is the largest full-time state legislature in the country. And those 253 members have the largest combined staff in the country, the PEL says -- not to mention one of the fastest growing. The number of legislative staffers in Harrisburg has more than doubled since 1979.


Of the 12 other states PEL looked at, meanwhile, only half have year-round legislatures. So although state legislators get only average per-diem reimbursements, they have a lot of diems in which to earn them. Our legislators would be less expensive, in other words, if they didn’t work quite as much. (Note that I didn’t say “quite as hard.”)


When you factor in other factors like pension and benefits, you end up with a legislature that costs $20.5 million a year. By any reckoning, that’s the most expensive state legislature in the country. The General Assembly costs 20 percent more than the next most expensive legislature -- New York’s -- and almost twice as high as the assembly in California.


This is the point where we all agree to throw the bums out. But state legislators in Pennsylvania win re-election well over 90 percent of the time, and the conventional wisdom says that public outrage will fade before the next election.


Still, if we want to change how business gets done in Harrisburg, we’ve got two things going for us. First, these legislators can obviously be bought. Second, we want them to do less, because at least half the time they do more harm than good -- and because we end up paying for it either way. And if there’s one force that drives a political hack more than greed, it’s laziness.


So here’s my solution. Next year, legislators should be offered twice their current salaries … if they agree to cut their number in half and promise to serve us half as diligently. After they vote for the wage hike, their district numbers will be put in the state’s Lotto machine. The drawing will, of course, be supervised by a senior citizen. The first 25 Senators and 101 House reps whose numbers come up … well, their numbers will be up. Voting in favor of this bill would mean there’s an even chance of coming out with twice as much money, and of ending up jobless. Those are better odds than you’ll find in the casinos Veon wants so badly. 


And one thing we know about the state legislature: These guys love to gamble.

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