IssuesPA

July 1 2005

Pennsylvania legislators are among the highest paid in the nation - but that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cost of Pennsylvania's state legislature.

(July 2005) Earlier this month, the legislature and Governor Rendell raised the pay for legislators, judges, the Governor, and certain appointed officials who work directly for the Governor. Not surprisingly, it’s been a hot topic in the news and on the editorial pages statewide, where the focus has been on the pay raise for legislators - totaling at least $11,403 per member or a 16% increase - and the perks that go along with the job.

How does pay for Pennsylvania’s legislature compare to pay in other states? Pennsylvania’s legislators now rank second in terms of base pay, trailing only the $99,000 salary for California legislators. New York is slightly behind Pennsylvania at $79,500. The only other state that’s close is Michigan ($77,400).

IssuesPA looked beyond just salaries to the cost implications for taxpayers using data supplied by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and other published sources. It becomes readily apparent that while the increase in each legislator’s base pay irks a lot of people, the size of the legislature is an even bigger driver of cost.

How much does the legislature cost taxpayers?

Adding up the salary and benefits for each member only goes so far in calculating the full cost of Pennsylvania’s legislature. First, the sheer number of legislators is important. Other factors? Non-salary items such as pensions and reimbursement for expenses.

Size of the legislature. Pennsylvania has the largest number of legislators - 253 - in the nation except for New Hampshire’s 424. But that’s a bad comparison. New Hampshire’s legislature is a true "citizen legislature." Each individual legislator gets paid only $200 per two-year term, without a per diem. Among Pennsylvania’s peers (the 11 biggest states plus Maryland), Pennsylvania has the highest number of legislators per 100,000 residents. The bottom line? The sheer volume of legislators makes the cost of a pay raise bigger in Pennsylvania than elsewhere. In fact, Pennsylvania is first in total amount of salaries paid to legislators - 22% higher than the second-place state, New York.

Per Diems. Pennsylvania’s legislators are in the main stream when it comes to reimbursement for expenses, at least when figured on a per-day basis. (Federal tax standards probably have something to do with this.) However, the number of days members are in session as well as the number of legislators are important multipliers. Only 6 of the 13 big states in the IssuesPA comparison meet year-round. That means Pennsylvania’s legislators are likely to cost taxpayers more than at least seven of the other 12, simply because they’re in session or attending committee hearings more often. Also Of course, you also have to add in other expenses such as car rental and health care, for which Pennsylvania is as least as generous as our counterpart states.

Pensions. Salary is the driving force behind pensions. Any employer is aware of the high costs of pensions, especially the defined-benefit pensions the state’s legislators enjoy. (The defined-benefit pension is what many private sector employers are phasing out because of the long-term costs.) A major salary increase translates into larger future pension obligations. These costs are significant, since pensions for legislators are particularly rich in Pennsylvania compared to "regular" state employees, and especially when compared to the private sector. Again, more legislators mean more pensions and therefore even higher costs.

Staffing up for effectiveness?

While legislative salaries draw the most attention, another major factor in calculating the cost of the state’s legislature is staffing and other operational support. The 2005-2006 state budget contains $462 million for Pennsylvania’s legislative branch. Legislator’s salaries and expenses represent only a small part of that total.

Here’s the  breakdown:

 2005-06 Budget for the State Legislature 

 Function

 Total Appropriations
($000)

Senate

$106,334 

House 

$325,919 

Legislative Reference Bureau 

$8,413 

Legislative Budget and Finance Committee 

$2,250 

Miscellaneous Legislative 

$19,096 

Total 

$462,012 

While specific data on staff costs aren’t available for all states, comparing the number of staff provides a general cost indicator. According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, Pennsylvania’s legislative support staff - 2,947 - was the second largest in the nation in 2003 (latest 50-state figures available), trailing only New York.

One might argue that Pennsylvania’s a big state with a big population to support. And Pennsylvania has lots of legislators, so it follows that the legislature would have lots of staff, too. However, Pennsylvania ranks high on staff-to-population and staff-to-legislator ratios. When compared to the state’s population, Pennsylvania has the highest ratio of the 13 big states. And when measured on a staff per legislator basis, Pennsylvania comes in third behind only California and New York (which also have much smaller legislatures by population).

Not only does Pennsylvania hire lots of staff to serve its legislators, the numbers of staff have increased at a fairly high rate. Pennsylvania’s 106% increase from 1979 to 2003 was among the highest. Though Maryland, North Carolina, and Georgia had higher rates, their total staff complement remains far below Pennsylvania’s.

Do we get what we pay for?

At an annual cost of nearly a half-billion dollars, is Pennsylvania getting the top-notch legislature it’s paying for? By several measures, Pennsylvania has one of the most, if not the most, expensive legislatures. Measuring a fair return on investment in the legislative process is very difficult.  Reasonable people - with different philosophies and policy expectations - can disagree on what a successful legislature looks like.

In the end, it’s the voters who must decide if their individual legislators are worth it - and worth re-electing. But only the legislature as a whole can evaluate and decide the cost-effectiveness of itself as an institution, and there are few incentives for this to occur.