Small Group of Reps Renews Push to End COLAs

A small group of state lawmakers is renewing the push to eliminate public officials’ annual cost-of-living adjustments, commonly referred to as COLAs.  Every year lawmakers and a variety of other public officials receive a pay raise that’s tied to the consumer price index, but first-term state Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) says it’s time for the General Assembly to lead by example.

“There’s about a $1,700 dollar increase every year for a salary that is above average for the family median and it’s unnecessary,” says Kim, “and I think it would just be a great message – along with savings – to cut it out, build the trust back and save money.” 

Rank-and-file lawmakers will earn $83,800 this year. 

Kim and 2nd term state Rep. Gerald Mullery (D-Luzerne) are leading the charge this session.  So far, seven of 203 House members have signed onto their bill.  Only three members signed onto an identical bill last session, which died in the House State Government Committee. 

Some lawmaker and Corbett administration officials already donate their COLAs to charity or return them to the commonwealth, but eliminating the annual pay raises would ensure the money stays in the public treasury and prevent it from counting toward officials’ pensions.

Ranking State Lawmakers’ Greatest Achievements

Puzzled by the disconnect between the seemingly hard work that goes on at the state capitol and lawmakers’ perpetually poor approval ratings, two Temple University interns set out to study Pennsylvania’s most important laws of the past 40-years.

The results could be considered the General Assembly’s “greatest hits” album, and they’ve been published in the Temple Papers on the General Assembly

A diverse group of 148 lawmakers, former lawmakers, aides, journalists and professors responded to the survey – ultimately ranking statutes on both impact and achievement. 

There were no major statistical differences in how Democrats and Republicans responded, according to Joseph McLaughlin, director of Temple’s Institute for Public Affairs.  “I think given the political environment that we’re in, that was somewhat surprising,” he says. 

Pennsylvania’s 1971 personal income tax law received the top rank for impact, but it fell to 5th when judgments were factored into the equation.  “There were respondents who disagreed with that tax,” McLaughlin explains. 

The 1992 Children’s Health Insurance Plan ultimately topped the list of the General Assembly’s greatest achievements, because most respondents believed that its effects were positive.

The researchers also examined whether divided government has been an obstacle to passing important laws.  The answer was “no.” 

After removing two laws that involved legislative action under both divided and unified government, they found that 14 of the top 25 statutes were enacted during a time when there were different parties controlling the legislative chambers or governor’s office.  “That’s kind of a reminder that even though we get discouraged by gridlock and so forth, in the past we’ve been able to overcome that at the state level,” McLaughlin concludes.    

The Temple Papers on the General Assembly are intended to broaden our understanding of the legislature.  Two volumes have already been published; four more are on the way.

Lawmakers Debate Downsizing in Election Year

Every two years, 228 of the General Assembly’s 253 seats are up for election.  2012 is one of those years, but what makes it unique is that it’s the first time that lawmakers are giving serious consideration to the idea of legislative downsizing.   

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country.

“It will make the legislative process more efficient because members will be able to communicate better and understand the other person’s problem,” says Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson), who gave the issue immediate clout when he sponsored the constitutional amendment last year. 

But activist Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA says that – as reforms go – this is sleight of hand.  “It’s something that diverts your attention to things that are a whole lot more important,” Potts says.

Democracy Rising’s 2012 Public Integrity Poll did find 62% of Pennsylvania voters support downsizing the General Assembly.  That’s significant, but Potts says it’s fairly low on the list of improvements that Pennsylvanians would make.  He points to the 72% who want to change the system for redrawing legislative districts, the 74% who want to limit campaign contributions, and the 93% who want lobbying reforms. 

Speaker Smith’s legislation (HB 153) was originally penned to reduce the size of the 203-member House by 25%.  It was amended on the House floor to also include a similar reduction in the Senate, from 50 to 38-seats.  It passed the House earlier this month with a vote of 140 – 42.  A spokesman for the Senate Republicans says their chamber is expected to take up the measure in May or June.

A constitutional amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before it can be put to the voters in the form of a ballot referendum.  HB 153 is designed to take effect following the 2020 census.

Hearing to Kick-Start Legislative Downsizing Debate


State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler)

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe chairs the House State Government Committee.

There are seven bills before the House State Government Committee, each with a different approach to reducing the size of the General Assembly.  “There’ve been many stories written about this issue; there’ve been citizens across the state – at various times – talking about this issue,” says committee chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), who will convene a public hearing, Tuesday afternoon, in the House Majority Caucus Room.

Efforts to reduce the 253-member General Assembly have not gotten far in years past, but this year one of the bills is sponsored by Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson).  Smith’s bill (HB 153) would amend the state constitution to reduce House membership from 203 to 153, following the 2020 Census.  The Smith bill would only affect House districts, but others would trim the size of both chambers.  For instance, HB 183 would result in 121 House seats and 30 Senate seats. 

Pennsylvania’s cast of 253 lawmakers is the second only to New Hampshire’s 424.  However, when population is factored in, Pennsylvania has the 7th most constituents per Senator and the 18th most constituents per State Rep. 

Beverley Cigler, professor of public policy and administration at Penn State Harrisburg, says there’s no research showing that a smaller legislature is more efficient.  She points to California.  “It is an extremely large state.  It has a House of 80-members and a Senate of 40, so it is a very small legislature, and I think by anybody’s measure they’re a mess.”  Cigler is scheduled to testify before Metcalfe’s committee on Tuesday, and will suggest that other reforms are more promising for improving the legislature than downsizing. 

For chairman Metcalfe, finances are top of mind.  “I think it’s a prime opportunity to take a look at the plusses and minuses of reducing the size of the legislature, especially as it relates to the cost of our legislature, and ultimately the cost of our state government,” Metcalfe says.  Most state spending falls under the executive branch and Metcalfe says that’s where the fat needs to be cut.  “But the legislature needs to lead by example, and I think that’s what these proposals are trying to do.” 


Transportation Funding Report Released

Transportation Funding Advisory Commission Final Report

The TFAC report includes funding recommendations, a litany of modernization ideas and a 10-year vision of strategic investment.

The five year funding plan, outlined in the final report, could generate an additional $2.5-billion dollars in annual transportation funding.   The report indicates that the governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission (TFAC) was directed not to consider hiking the gas tax, leasing the turnpike, or assumed federal aid. 

With those ideas off-the-table, the ultimate funding recommendations focused on adjusting driver and vehicle fees for inflation, uncapping the wholesale tax that oil companies pay and increasing fines that get funneled into the Motor License Fund. 

“It’s a very fair plan because it doesn’t focus all of the costs on one segment of the motoring public,” said Bob Latham, Executive Vice President of Associated PA Constructors, and one of 40-members on the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.  “What it does seek to do is to start down that path, and increase funding gradually over a period of five years.  So you won’t see a major impact to highway users, whether they’re commercial users or personal motorists.” 

The impact on the typical driver – assuming no speeding tickets or other infractions – would be about $36-additional dollars in year one.  By year five, it could be up to $132 dollars.  But, PennDOT has said those are conservative estimates, based on all of the additional oil company tax revenue being passed onto consumers.  The report does point out that TFAC is “deeply aware” of the need to minimize the burden on taxpayers.  A few pages later it reads, “TFAC believes it is Pennsylvania’s best combination of options for aligning revenue with funding needs.” 

Nearly all of the major recommendations would require some sort of legislative action.  “Who knows, after the governor looks at it, what it’s going to look like when it goes to the legislature.  Then, who knows what it’s going to look like after they have a chance to look at it,” said Jim Runk, President of the PA Motor Truck Association, and another member of the 40-member panel. 

Runk was a bit leery when he was first appointed to the commission, but the feeling quickly faded.  “I think after the first hour or so I was pleasantly surprised that a group that large, and with so many different backgrounds, was able to come together and talk about the issues that are important to Pennsylvania.”