capitol building

The Pennsylvania Capitol Builiding in Harrisburg is shown in this Oct. 7, 2015, file photo.

The following editorial appeared in The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizen’s Voice. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.

This is the time of year when private businesses typically conduct evaluations of their staffs and executives, partly to set compensation rates for the coming year.

No such process takes place at the Pennsylvania Capitol, however, because legislators have ensured their own raises, and those for judges and the governor and some other executive branch officials, as a matter of law.

Technically, the mandatory annual increase is a cost-of-living adjustment rather than a pay raise, which would require a specific vote. So, by that law tying their compensation to an inflation index rather than performance, lawmakers will received a 1.9% raise Sunday, driving the base compensation for a legislator past $90,000 a year. 

That does not include unaccountable per diem expense payments and CEO-level compensation packages including golden parachute pensions and health benefits. Pay for legislative leaders will rise as high as $141,000.

Pennsylvania lawmakers, who recently took up a bill to increase the state minimum wage to just $9.50 an hour by July 2021, are the third-highest paid in the nation behind those in California and New York. 

But collectively they are just as expensive because there are 253 of them. California has 120 legislators; New York has 213.

Judges and executive branch officials will receive 1.9% raises beginning Jan. 1. The governor’s salary will increase by about $3,800 to more than $200,000 (current Gov. Tom Wolf donates his salary to charity), and Chief Justice Tom Saylor’s pay will increase by $4,000 to more than $221,000.

By giving themselves and top government officers automatic pay raises, legislators have lifted from themselves the burden of introducing compensation bills and making the case to the public as to why they deserve more pay.

Some legislators claim that their reelections are validation of the current system, but given that they also are the beneficiaries of self-selecting gerrymandering, that argument fails.

There are means other than the COLA end run to deal with officials’ compensation. Some states have independent commissions that set or recommend salaries, for example.

But this is Pennsylvania, where an automatic COLA is easier than accountability, and where no need to debate spares the Legislature at least one of its mere 90 session days each year.

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