Pa. lawmaker faces uphill battle to limit state pols’ outside income

Whenever voters are especially frustrated with the state Legislature, there are suggestions to switch lawmakers to part-time status and trim or eliminate the generous fringe benefits such as pensions and free health care for life. After all, only nine states have full-time legislatures. Why can’t Pennsylvania operate with a smaller, less costly General Assembly? 

It’s worth noting that Pennsylvania ranks at the top of the lists for pay, benefits and cost, including staff costs. Overall, Pennsylvania has the largest and most expensive state legislature. 

The National Conference of State Legislatures grouped different types of state legislaturesto include:

  • Green — meaning full-time, well paid, with large staffs 
  • Gray — a hybrid structure 
  • Gold — meaning part-time, with lower pay, smaller staffs 

In that survey, Pennsylvania is one of just three states in the Green category, the others being California and New York. Yet, when it comes to population, Pennsylvania is more in line with “Green lite” or Hybrid states. California and Texas have more than twice the 12.7 million population of Pennsylvania. 
Yet, state lawmakers in Pennsylvania have created a structure with one of the top pay scales and the largest legislative staff in the nation. 
As troubled as voters might be by this, only lawmakers themselves can change it. Unlike the rules in many other states, voters here do not have direct influence, through referendums. 

Defending their pay, perks and large staffs, state lawmakers say that the job demands full-time status and that high pay and generous benefits are necessary to attract competent people. Maybe so, but how do other large states manage with either part-time or hybrid legislatures that cost much less? 
It’s not an easy job, as some critics suggest, but Pennsylvania lawmakers have set themselves apart — and above — lawmakers in most other states when it comes to pay, perks and power. 

A recent report in a Pittsburgh newspaper pointed to another feature of the state Legislature that deserves attention — loose rules over outside income. The newspaper’s report found that 36 of the 50 state senators have income from sources other than their job in the General Assembly. In the House of Representatives, more than the half of the 203 elected officials have outside income, not including money from a spouse’s job, some of the outside income seems innocuous, such as income from a rental property. But in other cases, the outside income raises questions. Some lawmakers receive hefty salaries as partners in law firms, as consultants or as owners of a small business. 

The salaries alone raise questions. If state lawmakers argue that their jobs are demanding enough for full-time status and generous benefits, then how can so many manage to earn substantial incomes from second jobs? 

The newspaper report also found potential for conflicts of interest, such as a lawmaker who has natural gas income from leasing land voting on Marcellus Shale legislation. There are also cases of partners in law firms voting on legislation related to tort reform. 

To address this issue, state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, wants to limit lawmakers’ outside income to 35 percent of their state salaries. Not surprisingly, DeLuca’s effort is not attracing much support and he has found few co-signers for his legislation. Still, he makes a good point when he says, “This is a full-time job. We make full-time wages. We have good benefits.” 

A political science professor quoted in the story points out an obvious issue, “The people who make the rules are not often excited to make rules that limit themselves.” 
Whatever happens to DeLuca’s legislation, it’s important for voters and taxpayers to understand the ranking of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly as the largest and most expensive in the country. Once that’s understood, it’s worth asking why the Keystone State needs to hold that distinction when its population ranks sixth. And, it’s also worth asking if taxpayers are getting good value for the tax dollars spent running the Legislature. 

— J.L.W.III


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