Cost and corruption of Pennsylvania legislature brings call for reform
HARRISBURG - With another May primary at hand, Pennsylvania's scandal-plagued General Assembly is once again under fire.
And this time, it could get serious.
Four years ago, the public reacted to the Legislature's now-infamous midnight pay raise by sweeping many incumbents from office. The pay raise was later repealed, but the Legislature's problems, it turned out, were just beginning.
Since then, 25 current and former legislators and staffers have been charged and two legislative leaders convicted of using their offices for political or personal gain, while in the background firestorms of controversy have raged over things like budget delays, pensions and per diems.
All of which has fed public cynicism about state government and prompted a host of candidates to campaign on changing the way Harrisburg does business. The discussion so far has ranged from stopping questionable practices to full blown reform.
One area of focus is the size of the legislative branch. And, critics say, rightfully so.
"We need to scale back," said Eric Epstein, coordinator of RockTheCapitol.org. "Legislators and their staff need to live in the same world as the rest of us."
According to the most recent comprehensive report from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Pennsylvania has the largest full-time and second most expensive legislative branch in the nation. The report, based on information from the 2008-09 fiscal year, does not reflect recent cutbacks by some legislatures, including Pennsylvania's, but is the latest available from NCSL.
The report shows that, despite ranking sixth in the nation in population, Pennsylvania's legislative branch of 253 lawmakers and 2,918 support staff, dwarfs those of larger, more populous states.
No other state even comes close to the size of its legislative operation.
And the cost shows.
Only California outspent Pennsylvania on its legislature in 2008-09, said the NCSL, which used 2008 U.S. Census data for its report. Even then, it wasn't by much.
With 120 lawmakers and 2,067 legislative staffers, California spent $336 million on its legislative branch, compared to Pennsylvania's $319 million. But California, the most populous state in the nation, has 36.5 million people. Pennsylvania has 12.5 million.
And the drop-off in cost after Pennsylvania is dramatic.
The nation's third most expensive full-time legislature, New York, has 212 lawmakers, a support staff of 2,676 and a population of 19.4 million. It spent $216 million in 2008-09, more than $100 million less than Pennsylvania, the NCSL reports.
The fourth, Florida, has only 160 lawmakers with a support staff of 1,457, the NCSL reports. It spent $175 million in 2008-09. Florida's population was 18.4 million in 2008, the NCSL noted.
States with populations closer to Pennsylvania, like Ohio at 11.5 million and Illinois at 12.8 million, spent far less. Illinois spent $71 million; Ohio, $48 million. Illinois has 177 lawmakers and 980 staffers. Ohio has 132 legislators and 465 staffers.
The difference between full-time and part-time legislatures is even more stark.
Texas, for instance, with a 2008 population of 24.3 million, has the largest of all part-time legislatures in the country with 181 lawmakers and a legislative staff of 2,090. It spent $126 million in 2008-09, according to the NCSL.
Officially, New Hampshire has the largest state assembly in the country with a delegation of 424 lawmakers. But it, too, is part-time. With a support staff of only 147 people, it spent only $14 million on its legislature in 2008-09.
Only 10 of the country's 50 legislatures are considered full time.
The NCSL defines a part-time legislature as one in which delegates spend 50 percent or less of a work week on their legislative duties. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers spend an average of 80 percent of their work week in Harrisburg or their home offices, it says.
It wasn't always that way.
Four decades ago, Pennsylvania was a part-time legislature and, although no formal decision was ever made or approved, the General Assembly decided to turn itself into a full-time body in order to maintain status with the executive branch.
The legislature created a Commission for Legislative Modernization which recommended adding session days, hiring more staff, providing lawmakers with offices in the capital and in their districts, as well as other perks.
Legislative leaders took the recommendation and, beginning in the 1970s, the public began electing candidates who promised to be full-time legislators. Part of the consequences is that the legislative bureaucracy swelled from 532 staffers in 1969, to 1,700 in 1984 and close to 3,000 in 2003 while the number of lawmakers remains fixed at 203 House members and 50 senators.
Being full-time hasn't helped lawmakers solve some major problems such as overhauling school property taxes (notwithstanding the slots-funded relief averaging $200 this year for each Pennsylvania household), providing electric rate relief after utility caps were removed and consolidating the huge number of local governments.
However, during the past three years lawmakers successfully tackled a number of second-tier issues that are important to large segments of the population. These include tighter state regulation of home mortgage lenders, home contractors and kennel operators as well as an indoor smoking ban, requiring insurers to provide autism coverage and coverage for single young adults under family health insurance policies and creating an alternate energy program.
By 2008, the legislative expense involved translated into a cost of $25.40 a year for every man, woman and child in the state. It was the third highest per capita cost in the nation, behind Alaska at $57.72 and Rhode Island at $26.79.
New York's per capita cost, meanwhile, came to $11.11 in 2008 while California, by virtue of its large population, came to $9.19.
The base salary for legislators in both houses of Pennsylvania's General Assembly is $78,314 a year, fourth highest in the nation, behind California at $95,291, Michigan at $79,650 and New York at $79,500.
Salaries, however, are only a part of the actual costs. Factoring in health and pension benefits and other expenses, the real cost of the average legislator climbs to $125,000 to $150,000, depending on how much a legislator claims in reimbursements.
In response to the state's ongoing fiscal crisis, the state this year for the first time in memory actually cut what it spends on the legislature and related agencies, trimming about $31 million for a 2010 budget of $288 million.
The budget includes $184 million for the House of Representatives and $92 million for the Senate. However, about 70 percent of the legislative budget is eaten up by salaries and benefits, most of it for legislative staff.
Despite the large numbers, legislative spending is only a sliver of the state's annual $27.8 billion budget, major portions of which goes to medical assistance and public education.
The legislature also controls a $113 million surplus, even after drawing down about $87 million to pay for legislative salaries during a 101-day budget stalemate. Both lawmakers and state workers faced payless paydays for five weeks last summer until a stopgap budget was enacted. Gov. Ed Rendell removed legislative funding from the stopgap budget, but lawmakers drew on their surplus to pay themselves salaries until a new budget was enacted on Oct. 9.
The budget delay isn't the only hit the legislature has taken since 2005.
In 2007, Attorney General Thomas Corbett launched "Bonusgate", an investigation into whether or not legislative staffers were used - and paid - illegally for campaign-related work done on state time.
So far, 25 people with ties to the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House have been charged. Ten have pleaded guilty or been convicted, including former Rep. Mike Veon, D-14, Beaver, who was convicted on 14 counts and two acquitted.
Two former House speakers, Reps. John Perzel, R-172, Philadelphia and Bill DeWeese, D-50, Waynesburg, also face charges. It remains to be seen if what Corbett has described as an ongoing investigation will now move into the Senate.
Last year, long-time Senate power broker Vince Fumo, D-1, Philadelphia, was tried and convicted of 137 counts of corruption and related charges. He is now serving a 55-month sentence at a federal penitentiary in Ashland, Ky.
And just recently state Sen. Jane Orie, R-40, Pittsburgh, and a sister were charged with using her senate office staff to help with political campaigns for her and a third sister, State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
Closer to home, another veteran lawmaker, Sen. Robert Mellow, D-22, Peckville, has run into ethical questions of his own, after it was announced that he was appointed to a paid position on the board of Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Later, it was disclosed that for years he paid the rent on his district office in Peckville, which is financed by taxpayer money, first to a company made up of his then-wife and the wife of a former aide and later, after his divorce, to himself.
After 40 years in office, Mellow has decided not to seek re-election, as has another long-time Harrisburg fixture, State Sen. Raphael Musto, D-14, Pittston, whose home was recently searched as part of an as-yet unexplained investigation.
Meanwhile, two veteran House members, state Reps. Jim Wansacz, D-114, Old Forge, and John Yudichak, D-119, Nanticoke, have opted to forgo reelection and run instead for the vacant Senate seats of Mellow and Musto respectively.
Wansacz and Yudichak also had brushes with controversy when it was reported that both own homes in Harrisburg but still collect per diems. Yudichak says he plans to sell his house and has started submitting receipts for expenses. Wansacz says he will stop collecting per diems.
The pending vacancies, however, have set off a scramble for seats in the Northeast. Whether or not the races will lead to any meaningful reform remains to be seen. But already some candidates are pledging to put a stop to business as usual in Harrisburg.
Not all the state seems caught up in reform after an initial wave swept through in 2006. One-third of the 189 House members seeking re-election are unopposed. In the Senate, where even-numbered seats are on the ballot, nine senators have no opposition.
But even those facts might be misleading.
In a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month, 49 percent of the respondents in Northeastern Pennsylvania said they disapprove of the way the legislature is doing its job. Thirty-nine percent said they approve and 12 percent say they have no opinion.
Statewide, 54 percent of respondents say they disapprove; 31 percent say they approve and 14 percent said they have no opinion. The poll surveyed 1,412 voters and contained a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.