State legislature is among nation's most expensive
In many ways, state legislators - and their aides - remain insulated from the harsh economic realities faced by the public they represent.
As thousands upon thousands of Pennsylvanians lose their jobs or face cuts in salaries and benefits in what amounts to the worst economy since the Great Depression, legislators and their staff continue to collect above-average pay and benefits.
"The primary benefit of being a legislator or a legislative staffer is a recession-proof job," said Eric Epstein, coordinator of RockTheCapital.org and an advocate for trimming legislative branch expenses.
The state's 253 legislators all start out with the same base salary of $78,314 a year, the fourth highest legislative salary in the nation. However, additional premiums are attached to the legislature's 24 leadership positions.
The premiums can range to more than $30,000 a year. As the Senate majority leader, Sen. Robert Mellow, D-Peckville, for instance, earns $110,350 a year. The highest salaries go to the House speaker and the Senate pro tem who earn $122,254 each.
Ordinarily, the legislators' base salary goes up every year with a cost-of-living adjustment based on data from the Philadelphia metropolitan area. This year, for the first time since the COLA was enacted in the 1990s, there is no COLA increase.
Members of both houses, meanwhile, receive premium health care plans which include medical, vision, dental and prescription coverage.
Health care for members of the House of Representatives is fully paid, a benefit worth about $16,700 a year, according to state estimates. The prescription drug plan, as an example, calls for a $6 co-pay for name-brand drugs and a $3 co-pay for generic drugs.
Senators receive about $13,031 toward their health care plan. In 2007, the Senate changed its policy to require senators and retired senators to pay one percent of their salaries to health insurance.
Other state employees pay two percent of their salary towards health care. But 62 percent of the 81,000 state employees in the plan participate in a voluntary wellness program, earning a one percent discount on their contributions.
By comparison, private sector employees paid an average of $3,515 in 2009 toward employer-sponsored health insurance for their families, according to an annual study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust.
The study also found family premiums rose five percent from the previous year, even though inflation fell nearly one percent.
The House and Senate plans with their low co-pays, low deductibles and comprehensive coverage are generous compared to what's routinely offered in the private sector, said Rick Dreyfuss, a Hershey actuary who writes about public pension and health care plans for the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation.
In the private sector, a family can contribute 25 to 30 percent toward the cost of health-care premiums and a single individual can pay 15 to 18 percent, he said.
And in the case of legislators, the health care plans can follow them for life.
All legislators are vested in their pensions after five years, although they cannot collect on them until age 50. But legislators become eligible for lifetime health benefits after 10 years in the House and eight years in the Senate.
As for pensions, legislators and their aides participate in a defined benefit plan, a pension model that is rapidly disappearing in the private sector, where 401(k) plans, using a mix of employer/employee contributions are far more common.
Under a defined pension plan, a retiree collects a fixed percentage of his or her salary, usually based on a formula that considers a variety of factors like age, length of service, military experience and other criteria.
In a report issued in 1969 when the legislature was still part-time, the Commission for Legislative Modernization, which first pushed the idea of a full-time legislature, noted lawmakers pensions were already generous compared to the private sector.
Since then, it's only gotten better - or worse, depending on your perspective.
The State Employees Retirement System calculates a lawmaker's pension based on years in office and a multiplier of that number, the average of three highest years salary and other factors, like provisions for spouses, military service and other state jobs.
Legislators elected prior to 1974 qualify for a multiplier of 7.5, which can make some pensions astronomical. Mellow, for instance, who has 40 years in office, is eligible for a pension of up to three times his $110,350 salary.
For lawmakers elected after 1974, the system uses a multiplier of three percent. For other state employees, including legislative staff, it uses a multiplier of 2.5 percent.
What it means essentially is that in most cases a lawmaker elected at age 30, who serves 20 years and leaves office at 50, qualifies for a pension of 65 percent of his or her salary or $50,900 a year based on current salary, Dreyfuss explained.
A legislator elected at 30 who leaves office at 60 would qualify for a 90 percent pension or $70,483 a year, based on current salary, he added.
A lawmaker in the House who is elected at 30 and leaves after 10 years would qualify for a pension of 30 percent or $23,494 a year but would have to wait until age 50 to collect it, Dreyfuss explained.
While lawmakers elected after 1974 contribute up to 7.5 percent of their salary to the pension plan, the amount contributed by the state more than compensates for what they pay, said Dreyfuss.
For many, retirement at age 50 is attractive enough, according to Dreyfuss. "The value is the enhanced early retirement benefit," he noted.
Legislators also get other perks.
In the House, lawmakers get a $20,000 a year expense account to maintain district offices, $4,000 for postage and up to $7,800 for vehicle expenses. House lawmakers can use a car from the state fleet or claim mileage, currently set at 50 cents a mile.
In the Senate, where the 50 legislators represent a larger constituency, legislators get a $25,000 expense account for district offices and $26,500 a year for postage. They, too, can use a state car or claim mileage at 50 cents a mile.
One of their most controversial perks is per diems.
Per diems are intended to cover the cost of lodging and meals for legislators, most of whom must travel to Harrisburg. The per diem rate is set each October based on federal Internal Revenue Service guidelines. It is currently $163 a day.
The problem with the per diems is not necessarily what they are for but how they are handled, critics say. The per diems are paid automatically without any need on the legislators' part to verify expenses.
In the House, per diems are paid for all days the legislature is in session, the day after a session, overnight stays and committee meetings. In the Senate, per diems are permitted for all legislative business.
House rules allow members to collect full per diems, even if they obtain free meals elsewhere or own their own homes in the Harrisburg area.
During the recent Bonusgate trial that led to a corruption conviction of former House speaker Michael Veon, state prosecutors highlighted the fact that Veon billed taxpayers $22,000 for meals after routine Tuesday night basketball games with other legislators, and still collected his full per diem.
During the trial, Reps. James Wansacz, D-Old Forge, and Marc Gergely, D-McKeesport, testified as defense witnesses and acknowledged they participated in the games and the dinners and also collected per diems. Despite his conviction, Veon was acquitted by a Dauphin County jury on a specific charge of per diem abuse.
A Times-Tribune investigation, meanwhile, found that at least five members of the Northeast delegation, including Wansacz and Rep. John Yudichak, D-Nanticoke, owned homes in Harrisburg while collecting per diems for lodging.
Both Wansacz and Yudichak are running for seats in the Senate. Wansacz has vowed to stop taking per diems and instead submit verification of expenses; Yudichak has promised to sell his interest in his Harrisburg home.
In 2009, 180 House lawmakers collected a total of $3 million in per diems, according to a study done by Democracy Rising, a legislative reform group. On the Senate side, 41 legislators collected $774,000 from January 2008 to October 2009, it found.
Some critics think per diems and other benefits are extra-legal.
"The Constitution says legislators get salary, mileage and no other compensation whatsoever," said Tim Potts, director of Democracy Rising.
As far back as 1969, the modernization commission, which first pushed the legislature's move to become a full-time body, warned against continuing to pay non-accountable flat fees for reimbursement.
It recommended reimbursement for expenses "actually incurred, reported and certified." The recommendation was ignored but the push for a full-time legislature was not, although some might question whether the legislature really is full time.
When it was still a part-time legislature, Pennsylvania worked on a two-year budget cycle, adopting a state budget every other year. In a budget year, the General Assembly would meet for three months to work out a budget and in the following year for six months to work on legislative affairs.
Its sessions now are highly flexible but generally run, based on a three-day work week, from February to July with more days added as the state's June 30 budget deadline nears. It then goes into a three-month summer recess, resuming in September and, unless it's an election year, running through December. During an election year, legislators take a break over the election to return to their districts.
The legislature averages 60 to 70 session days a year. Session days involve committee meetings, closed-door party caucuses, floor debates and votes. However, committee meetings and hearings which require legislators' attendance can take place outside the session calendar.
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