Greed turns lawmakers into pigs in a polka

November 08, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND


Hats off to members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, who in just four short months were able to noodle it through that voting themselves a lavish, double-digit pay raise at 2 in the morning last July just might not have been the bold act of statesmanship that it at first appeared to be.

Yes, obviously, when your state is suffering from a stagnant economy, inequitable taxation and soaring medical costs, there is always the temptation to solve the crises by going out and raising your own salary. You can think deeper thoughts when you're rich, it stands to reason.

So clearly, the solution to all of the state's problems - which lawmakers helped create, by the way - was to raise base lawmaker pay from $69,647 to $81,050 and senior lawmaker pay from $108,722 to $145,533.


Unfortunately, the uninformed public and liberal media didn't see it that way. They branded lawmakers the "Harrisburg Hogs" and held "Pink Pig" rallies in protest.

Lawmakers finally yielded to public pressure, and last week, both Houses voted to repeal the raises, although there is some talk that there might be a loophole through which the Harrisburg Hogs still can wriggle their hams through.

Let's hope so. The little people never know what's good for them, although I must say the lawmakers deserve a sliver of the blame here, as well. They peddled it as a "pay raise" instead of an "economic stimulus package." Had the public stopped to think of all of the new money the higher lawmakers' salaries would have pumped into the economy through cigar sales, gourmet restaurants and luxury automobiles, it might have seen the wisdom of the assembly's ways.

The mob mentality in Pennsylvania over the past four months clouded the public's ability to see that a mere $70,000 salary for a part-time job will only attract substandard lawmakers who are unable to pull the trigger on key decisions, like - as I write this, they are actually prepared to do - making polka the official state music of Pennsylvania.

Providence be praised that lawmakers don't earn $40,000, or Pennsylvanians might have ended up with rap.

As a matter of fact, I shudder to think what the state music might be in New Hampshire, where lawmakers earn $200 a year. Probably the best state music they can scrape together is some general-store checker player tootin' on an earthen jug. But polka? Man, that's living. And in their rush to judgment, I don't think it's something Pennsylvanians ought to forget.

And, as at least one lawmaker correctly pointed out, the people's perspective was all wrong. Instead to viewing this as, say, a $12,000-a-year raise, it was more accurate to view it with an eye to history. If you backward-prorate the raise over the past 10 years, it comes out to a mere $1,200 a year.

Hmm. That still seems a bit high. OK, let's do this. If we prorate it over the last century, it comes out to a piddling $120 raise a year. And if you prorate it back over the last millennium, we are only talking about giving lawmakers an annual raise of $12 a year. And we balked at giving our loyal public servants a mere $12 raise? What kind of monstrous cheapskates have we become?

Sadly, not all lawmakers were so analytical. Rep. Pat Fleagle simply said his initial vote for the pay raise was wrong. I think we can all agree we don't want that kind of honesty in government. Worse, Rep. Rob Kauffman voted against the raise to begin with. These self-serving actions do nothing to further the cause of getting state elected officials some much-needed jack.

Because when you force a lawmaker to barely squeak by at $70,000 to $108,000 a year, he will be in desperate need of money and will be more open to becoming corrupt. More so, I mean. When a dude shows up with a briefcase full of cash, can we expect a lawmaker to resist if he is only pulling down 70 grand? They're not completely made of stone, you know. Only their heads.

Then there's decorum to think about. What's the median family income in the state, about $60,000? So if a lawmaker is only making $70,000, that means pretty soon, his or her spouse is going to have to start earning a second income just to keep up. Come on now, we can't have the wife of a General Assemblyman taking a job at Sheetz just to pay the bills.

Although it might be a good campaign tool: "Pump number three is on for the blue minivan. Vote Quimby."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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