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State legislators pass up cost-of-living hike for themselves, others

I have been a harsh critic of the decision that state legislators made more than 15 years ago to give themselves and other state officials an automatic annual cost-of-living (COLA) bump. This way, they don’t have to go through the messy and sometimes uncomfortable process of voting themselves the salary increase.

To their credit, legislators were smart enough to realize that eliminating the cost-of-living increase in 2021 would be an important symbolic message to us constituents that would show that they understood the financial pain that many Pennsylvanians have been enduring during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

How would it have looked for rank-and-file legislators to have gotten an $1,175 increase while millions of Pennsylvanians who lost their jobs because of the pandemic either are on unemployment or scrimping to come up with every dollar to provide for themselves and their families?

The interesting thing is that the legislation that enabled striking the COLA for this year was approved unanimously by both houses of the General Assembly - 48-0 in the Senate and 202-0 in the House. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the measure.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, who said he was introducing it in recognition of the economic hardships that the novel coronavirus has had on Pennsylvanians.

“When Pennsylvania residents are making sacrifices and struggling just to put food on their table, it is no time for public officials to be taking a raise,” Ryan said.

Although the legislation will save the state about $3.2 million, according to state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $5 billion deficit the state faces in 2021-22. Still, it is a significant symbolic acknowledgment that legislators feel their constituents’ pain.

The annual COLA also affects the salaries of judges, executive branch officials, including the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet members, and the three elected “row offices” - attorney general, auditor general and treasurer.

The COLA has been suspended two other times since legislators passed the 1995 Public Officials Compensation Law in 1995 - in 2010 during the height of the Great Recession and again in 2016, but in those cases it was mandatory that they get nothing since the government cost-of-living increase showed no change.

Rank-and-file legislators’ salaries will remain at $90,335, although legislative leaders and committee chairs make more. Pennsylvania legislators are the third-highest paid in the nation, behind California and New York.

In addition to their compensation, Pennsylvania legislators get $183 each day they are in Harrisburg.

A sampling of other salaries of key officeholders includes: Gov. Wolf, who donates his salary to charity, $201,729; Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, $167,838; Attorney General Josh Shapiro, $167,838; Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and Education Secretary Noe Ortega, both $161,382; Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw state elections, $145,244; State Police Commissioner Robert Evanchick, $153,313; Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Saylor, $221,000, and Associate Supreme Court Justice Christine Donahue, a native of Lansford, $215,000.

By comparison, mayors in the three largest cities in the Times News’ five-county area make, on average, a little more than $90,000 a year, with Allentown Mayor Ray O’Connell being the highest paid at $95,000.

Superintendents of schools across the state average $163,605, but some of our local districts pay considerably less. David McAndrew Jr., who was named superintendent of Panther Valley starting last July 1, for example, is earning $98,000 a year.

The highest paid area superintendent is Dr. Elizabeth Robison of the Pocono Mountain district, which is adjacent to Pleasant Valley. The board renewed a three-year contract at $225,100 in 2019-20, with performance-based increases of 3% each year, meaning that she could be earning $253,352 in the 2023-24 school year.

The highest paid superintendent in the state is Philadelphia’s William R. Hite at nearly $320,000 annually.

Our state legislators have paved the way for fiscal restraint when it comes to their salaries. My hope is that other public officials will consider doing the same this year when it is their turn to make these important decisions.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com