"What's black and white and read all over?"

Monday, May 15, 2006
Posted 11:04 PM by

Pa. victors get plenty of spoils - at taxpayer expense

TODAY'S ISSUE: THE PERKS & BENEFITS Besides the ability to vote yourself a pay raise when the public's back is turned, being a Pennsylvania legislator carries with it a lot of extra perks beyond the standard $72,187 salary.

RANTER'S NOTE: Tuesday is election day in Pennsylvania. To better prepare you for pushing the electronic buttons in a new-fangled voting booth, I've decided to look at an issue each day that you might want to factor into your decisions.

This is what $1 million looks like. Multiply it 500 times and you now know how much the 253 lawmakers in Pennsylvania spend annually - on themselves.When you go to the polls Tuesday ask yourself the same question the Towanda Daily & Sunday Review posed in an April 25 editorial, "At an annual cost of nearly a half-billion dollars, is Pennsylvania getting the top-notch Legislature it's paying for?"

That's not the cost of the entire state budget. That's just how much the state's 253 lawmakers are spending on themselves each year.

Perhaps Tim Potts, the founder of Harrisburg watchdog group Democracy Rising PA, said it best last month, "It's one of the first things legislators learn in freshman orientation: Maximize income, minimize expenses, leave rich."

Potts failed to add the words "and pretty young."

That's because Pennsylvania's lawmakers are completely vested in their pension program after only five years in office and are eligible to retire at age 50.

And although lawmakers repealed last year's pay raise after four months, the extra money they got in their base pay still counts to bolster the monthly checks they will receive for the rest of their lives once they leave office. There are no bills pending to prevent it.

On top of that, a legislator who leaves office after 10 years receives premium health insurance - valued at $15,000 - not just for himself, but his entire immediate family, for life at taxpayer expense.

While they're in office those benefits cost taxpayers $669 a month per legislator last year or $2 million a year. It also includes: dental benefits, $72 a month; vision, $17.30 a month; prescription drug coverage, $258.47 a month; a group life insurance policy with a death benefit of up to $50,000, $10.48 a month; and long-term care in a nursing home or assisted living facility, $70.17 a month.

Of course, those first 10 years would be a bit expensive, that is, if Pennsylvania legislators didn't also receive up to $650 a month for a car lease - up to $7,200 annually per member in the House and $7,800 in the Senate.

Lawmakers say they need reliable transportation to get to and from meetings at the Capitol, where they get free parking, and to conduct legislative business in their districts. But California is the only other state to pay for its legislators' cars.

In Pennsylvania, if a lawmaker just shows up at the Capitol he or she is instantly $141 richer. That's the "per diem" or daily allowance most lawmakers get - providing them $96 to cover lodging and $45 for meals, no matter if they drive home at night and brown bag it. It costs taxpayers $2.7 million a year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last month.

The House of Representatives has a rule that only members who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol can collect a $141 per diem. Those who live within 50-miles still get $47 a day.

The state Senate sets no minimum distance to collect the $141 per diem. As a result, Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill, who sets the rules for the Senate, has collected about $18,000 in per diems over the last two year session even though he lives just 26.2 miles away from his office.

Lieutenant governor candidate Gene Stilp knows the distance to a footfall, having walked it on April 12 to protest Brightbill's per diems. "He does not stay in hotels in Harrisburg, he merely pockets the money," Stilp said.

Brightbill defended his per diem, saying, "I owe it to my family to take legitimate compensation that is offered."

And Brightbill isn't even a per-diem leader. State Rep. Gaynor Cawley, D-Lackawanna County, holds the top spot. He collected $53,030 over the last two years. For a complete list of the per-diem top 10, click here.

State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, ranks third on that per-diem list. He also happens to be a bibliophile. He charged $28,200 worth of books to taxpayers over the last two years - more than what the Philadelphia School District spent to stock library shelves at ]two high schools and two middle schools in his legislative district.

For those who like the nightlife, there's always free tickets from lobbyists to shows, sporting events, museums, ski passes - even the Super Bowl.

And if a Pennsylvania legislator doesn't mind ignoring those pesky, whining and demanding constituents, there's always time to take a second job considering the Legislature averaged only 77 days in session per year over the past five years.

There's also one other perk that nobody really talks about - the ability to play kingmaker with all those leftover campaign contributions once any state politican leaves office.

Former Lt. Gov. William Scranton III, who ran unsuccesfully for the Republican nomination for governor this year, did it last week when he reportedly donated $50,000 - from the $517,675.36 he still has left in his campaign committee - to former Blair County Commissioner John Eichelberger, who is opposing Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer in the Republican primary there.

If the report is true - there have been no campaign expense reports filed since May 1 - Scranton would be the biggest contributor by far to Eichelberger's campaign.

Jubelirer championed last year's pay raise, but his change of heart eventual led to its repeal.


It's hard to wrap your mind around the annual cost of Pennsylvania's Legislature at $500 million. To read about a few things with which you can compare it, click here.



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