Government Clock Keeps on Tickin

We’re #1. That’s what the Pennsylvania Economy League discovered this month after comparing the overall cost of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to its counterparts in other states.

The report on, The Cost of Pennsylvania’s Legislature: Assessing the Dollars and ‘Sense,’ revealed that although Pennsylvania legislators are now the second highest paid in the nation, legislative salaries are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cost of Pennsylvania’s half billion dollar state legislature.

On the heels of the early July pay raise, the League tallied the number of Pennsylvania legislators along with their salaries, health care benefits, per diems, pensions, and staff to find Pennsylvania at the top of all fifty states in size and cost.

The study highlighted New Hampshire’s true “citizen legislature” with its bare bones compensation package of $200 per two-year term for its 424 members. While the sheer number of Granite State legislators makes it the second largest parliamentary body in the U.S. after Congress, its compensation and operational costs are amongst the lowest.

In addition to costing taxpayers less, New Hampshire’s General Court, unlike Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, is a more accessible and transparent legislative body with, among other things, a single internet source containing members’ voting records and online statutes.

But despite the obvious benefits of a less-expensive, part-time lawmaking body, some members of Pennsylvania’s legislature argue bigger is better. State government’s size and expense, they claim, reflects the public’s demand for a robust, active government with well-paid, full-time public servants.

One of its leading defenders, Lancaster Republican Senator Noah Wenger, even says the legislative pay increase is our own fault. “People are expecting a lot more from government than they used to,” he said in justification of his vote to raise his own salary by more than 36 percent. According to Mr. Wenger, his high-priced assistance is necessary because he and his colleagues “provide services on a year-round basis, and people are accustomed to that.”

Maybe Pennsylvanians have indeed become accustomed to stopping by their local legislator’s office for the trout stocking schedule or the newest state roadmaps. Perhaps the call volume has dramatically increased for things like a driver’s license renewal form or brochures about proper flag display.

Senator Wenger argues that he is simply delivering compensation commensurate with the increased services he provides at your request. And apparently more than $115,000 per year is the market rate for his work as your 24-7, on-call link to the state bureaucracy.

But what does that say about the role of government and the expectations we hold of those who are supposed to be serving us, the public? And what message is the senior Republican sending to his constituents who think he is carrying the Ronald Reagan banner of lower taxes and smaller government?

It was, in fact, Reagan who challenged the notion that a bigger government means a better result by quipping cynically, “What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.”

But something has obviously changed since Reagan’s limited government views led to the Republican rise to political power in the last decade. For Republican legislators from places like rock-ribbed conservative Lancaster County to become front-page advocates for increased government spending, higher taxes, and lavish taxpayer-funded rewards for public servants is troubling to say the least. Yet support of the pay raise vote by many leading Republicans like Senator Wenger is just the latest example of an apparent abandonment of the core principles of the Gipper’s Grand Old Party.

Indeed, Republican leaders in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate have voted near unanimously to increase state spending beyond Democratic Governor Ed Rendell’s requests over the last three years by nearly 18 percent, as well as boost their own salaries by as much as $36,000. In addition, their support of the largest tax increases in Pennsylvania history (1991 and 2003) are likely giving further pause to many Pennsylvanians who still believe in the Reagan agenda for prosperity.

Although Senator Wenger says, “I don’t think you can turn back the clock” when it comes to the amount of government Pennsylvania taxpayers are forced to buy today, that decision still belongs to the citizens of this commonwealth. Indeed, it is ultimately up to Pennsylvanians—not Mr. Wenger and his colleagues—to decide at the ballot box if they want the nation’s most expensive legislature to keep on tickin’.

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Jeff Coleman, a former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, is vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.