State legislators undervalued, not underpaid

There aren’t many who wouldn’t give themselves a raise if offered the opportunity. But there has been an uproar of disapproval since Pennsylvania’s state legislature did just that nearly three months ago.

At 2 a.m. on July 7, before members left for a 12-week recess, legislators passed a proposal to increase their base salaries to $81,050, a 16 percent or $11,402 raise. Leaders received as much as 54 percent more. The average Pennsylvania resident’s income is $44,286.

Last Monday, the General Assembly reconvened and was greeted by voters looking for explanations. State Rep. Curtis Thomas, who leads the house district that includes Temple’s Main Campus, voted to pass the legislation. He was quick to defend his decision.

“April, May and June brought in a lot of revenue allowing us to put $143 million back into health care. We also added funding for a small business revitalization center. Only then did we listen to proposals to increase our compensation,” Thomas said.

Critics suggest that the vote was held early in the morning before a long recess in order to avoid condemnation. Thomas saw it differently.

“It was voted on so late because of an unwillingness to consider the proposal any earlier,” he said.

Thomas further defended the pay raise.

“I’m sensitive to concerns, but people don’t realize that this job is seven days a week. The Pennsylvania General Assembly is not out of line for our wage increase.”

There is little question that most don’t appreciate how much work local politicians do. These positions extend well beyond the office and most state assembly-people are surprisingly accessible. I called Thomas expecting to set an appointment for an interview, but I found myself speaking with him just moments later.

Undervalued? Maybe. Underpaid? That’s a bit more complicated. There aren’t many occupations that I believe pay as well as they should, so comparisons might be the fairest method for coming to a decision. The base salaries of Pennsylvania’s state legislators are the second highest in the nation. I am confident that many state legislators in Nevada, where only voters can decide if a raise is warranted, feel they deserve more than their annual salary of $7,800.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that along with their raises, the Pennsylvania state assembly members will continue to receive other economic benefits. A monthly allowance of $650 for auto leases and $128 per diem meal and lodging expenses in Harrisburg are a part of $13,000 the state adds to each legislator’s compensation, along with generous pension programs.

Pennsylvania’s Constitution precludes voting for and accepting a pay raise in the same term. Yet more than 30 legislators will be taking the pay raises immediately in the form of expense accounts. Some view this as sidestepping the state constitution. Thomas, who will be taking his pay increase immediately, said he sees no wrong in doing so because, “both federal and state courts have deemed unvouchered expenses legal.”

Never mind that the pay raise legislation gave judges increases in compensation as well.

W. Curtis Thomas had the right idea, helping the people first, but, as the representative of one of Pennsylvania’s poorest districts, it seems he acted too quickly.

Whether the increase is deserved and its immediacy is legal or not, for once the passions of the people have it right. Pennsylvania has it wrong. Twenty states, including proud New Jersey, have commissions that recommend the levels at which legislators are paid. Perhaps the Garden State may have some advice for Pennsylvania. In the end, changes are for the future.

Alan Jennings, the head of a Lehigh Valley community action group, was quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer as judging the situation far more effectively than I ever could. “It’s too bad that minimum-wage workers can’t vote themselves a raise.”

Christopher George Wink can be reached at

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