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Pennsylvania pay raises raise questions

Automatic pay raises for elected public officials should be a thing of the past.

Yet, that’s just what happens in Pennsylvania.

As of this week and on Jan. 1, state lawmakers, judges and top executive branch officials will collect an annual salary increase.

Most lawmakers, the nation’s third-highest paid, will see increases of $1,725 to about $90,300 in base pay.

They also receive per diems, lifetime pensions and health benefits, while lawmakers in leadership posts will top out at $141,000.

Increases for 2020 will be 1.9%, a figure tied by state law — passed by state lawmakers — to the year-over-year regional change in consumer inflation.

Since a law passed attaching these state officials’ salaries to the CPI in 1995, the annual adjustments have risen above 3 percent five times.

Twice over that 23-year period, no raise was given because the CPI showed no change or a negative change. The most recent year that occurred was in 2016.

Several lawmakers in past years have said they would only accept a pay raise in a year they stood for re-election.

In the non-election years, they have chosen to return the salary difference to the state Treasury or given it to charitable organizations, often ones in their districts.

But where’s the evaluation process?

Why aren’t quantifiable benchmarks tied to pay raises?

Why are they automatic “by law?”

Where is the accountability?

Why do lawmakers decide their own pay rates?

That’s what we know taxpayers are asking amid these pay raises.

Of note: In July most Pennsylvania state workers saw their pay rise by more than 16 percent over the life a new four-year contract ratified by members of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The contract contained a raise of 3 percent for this year, to be followed by increases of 2 percent effective Oct. 1, 2020; 2.5 percent on Oct. 1, 2021; and 2.5 percent again on Oct. 1, 2022. Plus most union employees saw additional “step” increases that average about 2.25 percent for their movement up the state’s seniority stepladder.

We want to remind everyone that a very credible report recently released by the Brookings Institution found that almost half of U.S. workers between ages 18 to 64 are employed in low-wage jobs.

Low-wage jobs are pervasive, representing between one-third to two-thirds of all jobs in the country’s almost 400 metropolitan areas.

Most of the 53 million Americans working in low-wage jobs are adults in their prime working years, or between about 25 to 54, they noted.

Their median hourly wage is $10.22 per hour — that’s above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour but well below what’s considered the living wage for many regions.

Pennsylvania has a very expensive Legislature.

We don’t begrudge reasonable merit-based pay raises — the kind many private sector employers use. They’re based on improved performance.

Many people may have reason to believe the Legislature underperforms but there are particular lawmakers who do his or her job as effectively as they can. Others may have reason to believe the Legislature performs adequately but their own lawmakers are not serving their interests.

All of us have our own checklist on which we evaluate the performance of our own elected lawmakers, the entire Legislature and the governor.

Is our state government worthy of its standing as third highest paid in the nation?

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