HARRISBURG - Even with above-average salaries and benefits, the state's 253 legislators actually account for only a small portion of the total cost of running the General Assembly.

The real expense comes from its support staff which numbers nearly 3,000, the largest legislative staff in the nation. Its 2,918 employees outnumber the next two largest, New York at 2,751 and Texas with 2,388, even though the latter have larger populations.

The numbers are drawn from a 2009 analysis, the latest available, by the National Conference of State Legislatures. They do not reflect recent changes, like California's much-publicized staff cutbacks caused by its fiscal problems and the poor economy.

But Pennsylvania's legislature has not seen that kind of trimming.

Drew Compton, a top aide to Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, disputes the NCSL's numbers because they include some agencies that are counted in other states as part of the executive branch.

He cited the Legislative Reference Bureau as one example. Despite its title, the agency drafts bills and does legal research for the all three branches of state government and edits agency regulations for publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

The LRB has 83 employees and a $7.5 million budget.

The dispute aside, staffers who rise through the ranks and gain seniority can actually earn far more than their bosses. At least 182 staffers, 100 in the Senate and 82 in the House, make more than the legislators' base salary of $78,314.

Edward Nolan, the Republican executive director of the House Appropriations Committee, for example, makes $188,807 a year. Anthony Aliano, chief of staff for the House minority leader, is paid $173,330 a year.

As with the senators, senate staffers contribute one percent of their salary to health insurance, which covers medical, dental, vision and prescription costs. House staffers get their medical insurance fully paid, as do their bosses.

They also participate in the state government's defined pension plan, which in their case is calculated on the number of years of employment, the average of the three highest years salary paid with a 2.5 percent multiplier and other prior qualified service. Staffers are vested in their pensions after five years, although they cannot collect on them until age 60.

While the number of lawmakers was set at 253 four decades ago, the legislative staff has consistently grown from 532 when the legislature was part-time to 1,700 in the 1980s to skirting 3,000 by 2003, according to NCSL statistics.

The build-up came as the legislature transformed itself into a full-time body, boosting its appropriations committee which analyzes budgets and standing committees which hold public hearings on issues and first debate on bills.

Lawmakers opened district offices to better serve constituents. About half of the Democratic staffers, for instance, work in district offices. House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Hazelton, has five employees in his Hazelton office to serve constituents.

"People don't come into our district office on their best day," he said, speaking to the importance of a local office and how most people come to him seeking help. "It's the loss of a home, the closing of a plant."

The legislature organizes its staff to support leaders, committees and members in the four party caucuses, all of which are run by their own rules, which helps make the General Assembly at times seem like a bureaucratic nightmare.

Several non-partisan service agencies serve both chambers, like the Legislative Reference Bureau, and the Legislative Budget and Study commission, which produces reports on programs and issues upon a chamber's request.

In the House, rank-and-file lawmakers generally have one staffer in the Capitol office and one or two in their district office. But staff increases with more leadership responsibilities, ranging from a staff of half a dozen for lower-rung posts to a dozen for the House majority leader.

Senate staffs are generally larger, since each senator also chairs a committee, either in a minority or majority role. Otherwise personal staffs range from half a dozen to lower-rung leadership positions to 10 for the Senate president pro tem.

Majority and minority leaders in both chambers also supervise many caucus employees.

The different practices between caucuses often makes it difficult to determine exactly who does what or what an employee's responsibility might be. Titles differ, the way information is handled differs and responsibilities often overlap.

The communications offices run by the four caucuses provide a good example. At least 100 employees are assigned to offices that prepare press releases, TV and radio broadcasts, web content and videos.

Employee lists provided by the House and Senate chief clerk's office make it difficult to actually count the number of public relations employees. Lisa Scullen, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, D-Peckville, for instance, has the job title of "legislative support" and a salary of $68,175.

The House Democratic Communications office has a staff of 26. The House Republican Public Relations Office employs 47. The Senate Democratic Communications Office has a staff of 13 and the Senate Republican Communications Office employs 23.

Plenty of room exists for consolidation, said Tim Potts, founder of Democracy Rising, a legislative reform group. For example, there is no reason, he argued, why each caucus needs its own legislative research office. In all, 44 employees work in the four offices, analyzing various bills and researching policy issues.