Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Legislative Pay Raises

As I expect just about everyone knows, the state legislature gave themselves a nice pay increase, tied to the federal congressional pay scale, and extended this increase to selected other state officials as well. The increase is around 16%. That’s a serious raise, especially considering that committee chairs received an extra boost, and that a car lease allowance and a per diem are also included with the job.

There are a variety of rationales for this substantial pay raise. One is that they are doing a good job and deserve it. This always annoys me. It implies that those who are not getting such substantial increases (for example, everyone in my house) are do nothing slackers. I reply with a big wet raspberry noise.

Another rationale is that this will bring in a better class of people to the job. If that means we could get rid of some of the people already on the payroll, I’m all for it. Not to pick on him or anything, but I’m pretty sure Bill Rieger’s constituents could come up someone better than him. In fact, a few people tried hard to get his job but the Democratic machine came to his aid. Corporate executives also use the “we have to pay unbelievably higher salaries to get good people” routine, and look where that has gotten us. While there are no doubt some excellent CEOs out there, we have also seen more than a few clunkers lately.

If I had to pay a lot of money to get good people for a given job, state elected and appointed officials are not where I would start. The nurses caring for me and my loved ones would be at the top. Followed by the conductor that drives the train Mr. Jane takes to and from work each day. My children’s teachers are on my top 10 list; school bus drivers not far behind. The bank clerk taking my deposit and everyone in the banking industry who deals with my personal and financial information rank fairly highly. The pay scale for these jobs has, I think, stayed steady or gone down.

I also find it alarming that there is such a disconnect between daily reality for Pennsylvania residents and our state legislature. They will now be earning roughly twice the average income of state residents. Somehow this just doesn’t seem right. It reminds me of something I read in this week’s New Yorker. The article was about professional poker players and the increase in online poker games. Here is a quote from Daniel Negreanu, the 30 year old currently ranked #1 in lifetime poker tournament earnings.

“For kids that are eighteen, nineteen years old, that are going to go to college, get a dead- end job where they make fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year, I can take that same kid, teach him how to play poker and in three months show him how to make more money than he would ever make in that dead-end job.” (“The Players,” New Yorker July 11 & 18, 2005, p. 55).

Since when is $50,000 or $60,000 a dead-end job, especially if you have two wage earners in the family? I was really floored when I read this. And I was floored again when the state legislative leaders said they were worth $80,000 or more.

If they are going to earn that much I think we ought to put a few more details into their work contract. I’d be willing to okay that raise in return for:

1) No outside employment. A full time job is a full-time job, even if you do have to reapply for it every two to four years. It should take up most of your time. If you are earning, oh, say, nearly ten times that salary as a bank director while you are working for me “full-time,” I doubt I will have your full attention. Also, all assets go into a blind trust. If they want a federal salary, let’s have federal rules.

2) More accountability. Immediate access to voting records. No more of this waiting for the House Record to show up at the law library nonsense. Also, a firm, rigorous system of reporting lobbying expenses by special interests. I want the list of financial disclosure forms to be more readily available. The rule passed earlier this year saying legislators don’t have to be in the chambers to vote but just in “the greater Harrisburg area,” has got to go. For $80,000 a year they could at least show up to vote.

3) A more transparent legislative process. Bills seem to pop up out of nowhere and there doesn’t seem to any time for discussion or questions on some of them. A full-time, well-paid legislature should be able to arrange things better.

4) Change the car lease program. No more paying a flat fee towards their car leases. Let’s bid out a legislative fleet. If someone wants to drive something jazzier let them pay for it personally. Legislators from colder regions would be eligible for more substantial vehicles but everyone else gets the same sedan. They can personalize it with antenna ornaments, floormats, hanging car deodorizers, and bobbleheads in the back window. There is no real reason for this other than pettiness on my part, and the possibility that we could get a better deal this way.

These are my thoughts, for what they are worth.


albert said...

I saw Rep. Mark Cohen last night at Drinking Liberally and wanted to ask him about the pay raises and minimum wage, but my mind was just mush. Lack of sleep and tons of work are turning my brain to mush. It's likely to stay mush for a few weeks.

Thanks for telling it like it is.

AboveAvgJane said...

Ah, mush mind -- I know it well. Thanks for your note!