Give Taxpayers Same Deal Legislators Get

Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly are set to receive their annual automatic pay increase on December 1.

Now keep in mind that our state legislators are already, according to a recent newspaper article, “paid almost $67,000 a year, issued free cars, get per diems of $124 just for showing up in Harrisburg on session days, have $10,000 expense accounts to spend any way they want without producing receipts,” and “gave themselves a 50 percent pension hike three years ago.”

Putting it mildly, there is a lot to dislike about a process that allows legislators to avoid casting a vote to increase their salaries–which are nearly double the average Pennsylvanian’s paycheck–but taxpayers may have been getting off easy compared to what might be in store in Harrisburg during the next few weeks.

It seems that our newly re-elected, retiring and defeated lawmakers are considering voting themselves a pay increase during the “lame duck” legislative session that ends on November 30. The salary increase–rumored to be anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000–is likely a “sweetener” that would enable legislators to “swallow” a vote for budget-busting initiatives such as:

  • A gas tax increase to further subsidize the state’s failing public transit systems.
  • New taxing authority for the virtually bankrupt City of Pittsburgh.
  • A massive tax break for Philadelphia-based cable conglomerate Comcast.
  • Increases in license fees for Pennsylvania’s hunters and fishermen.

A pay increase of any size for Pennsylvania lawmakers is troubling, given the consistent votes this legislative session by many members of the General Assembly to raise income taxes and other fees on Pennsylvania’s already overburdened families and businesses.

But maybe the inflationary increases aren’t so bad. In fact, they might be one of the only “deals” Pennsylvanians currently get from their government. If government taxing and spending had only increased annually by the rate of inflation over the past decade and a half, Pennsylvania taxpayers would have saved billions of dollars.

So instead of criticizing legislators for their inflationary increase in pay, perhaps it’s time taxpayers got the same deal and limited all government spending increases to the previous year’s inflation rate. Doing so would also make it much harder for lawmakers to push through dubious measures similar to those purportedly under consideration for this year’s “lame duck” session.

To illustrate this point, consider the following: Total state spending grew faster than inflation in 10 of the last 13 budget years. From FY 1991-92 to FY 2004-05, total Pennsylvania state government spending grew 98.3 percent, from approximately $26.2 billion to nearly $52 billion–a rate 165 percent above the concurrent 37.1 inflation rate.

But if total state spending growth had been limited only to the previous year’s inflation rate in each of those 13 budgets, FY 2004-05 state spending would be more than $15.5 billion, or 29.9 percent, less than the amount actually spent. That’s an estimated $1,249 for every man, woman and child in the commonwealth. In other words, a family of four would have had nearly $5,000 more in their budget to spend on health care, education, or whatever else they deemed necessary.

All told, nearly $56.5 billion in taxpayer savings would have resulted over the 1991-2005 period if Pennsylvania had simply automatically increased total state spending each year by the previous year’s inflation rate.

So–setting aside the legitimate constitutional concerns about automatic legislative pay increases–maybe tying spending growth to inflation isn’t such a bad idea after all. Indeed, Pennsylvania lawmakers would be taking a step in the right direction by spending taxpayer money throughout the state budget in the same manner that they currently do on their own salaries–by limiting taxing and spending to the rate of inflation. And maybe–just maybe–the practice of raiding taxpayers’ pockets in the “lame duck” session might be stopped for good.

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Grant R. Gulibon is senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation (, a public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. Permission is hereby granted to reprint in whole or in part, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.