By Jared Sichel | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania taxpayers, who are struggling with tough economic decisions, will be paying House and Senate lawmakers more for their prescription and dental benefits this year.
And those same lawmakers also are expecting a salary increase in December just in time for the holidays.
The recently approved $27.656 billion budget includes $1.7 million, mostly for prescription and dental benefits with $1.4 million going to the House’s 203 members and $300,000 to the state Senate’s 50 members.
If lawmakers receive the cost-of-living increase, House and Senate members’ annual compensation, including salary and benefits, could increase by at least $6,000 per member, according to Senate Chief Clerk’s Office.
Last year, total compensation for all lawmakers’ salaries and medical benefits was about $32.3 million.
Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital, a Harrisburg-based political watchdog group, said legislators are out of touch with voters.
“The average Pennsylvania family does not get subsidized ‘Cadillac’ health care,” Epstein said. “Until these guys that govern us understand how hard it is to get by day to day, to pay health care, they’re not going to be able to pass legislation that improves the quality of life for Pennsylvanians.”
Lawmakers pay 1 percent of their salaries toward health benefits as opposed to their constituents who contribute 2 percent, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislators, a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation’s 50 states, and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Base pay for legislators this year is more than $80,000, and lawmakers in leadership positions make more than $100,000.
Meanwhile, the median income for a Pennsylvania household is about $50,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said Senate Republicans do “understand fully the difficult economic situation that Pennsylvania is in.”
“Much of our work this session has been targeted to improving the economic condition of our state,” Arneson said. “Increased health-care costs are an issue for every employer, whether in the private sector or the public sector.”
While some costs of the state’s full-time Legislature are going up, the money allocated to fund the state House and Senate was cut by about $800,000 in the recently approved budget. Last year, nearly $273 million helped pay for the Legislature’s operations.
The reduction is due to ongoing streamlining of other costs, primarily printing costs.
Even though salaries comprise the bulk of lawmaker compensation, benefits — ranging from health and dental plans to per diems of $163 — increase how much House and Senate members make.
Preferred provider organization health insurance plans for each of the 203 House members and their families cost taxpayers between $4,543 and $20,420 in fiscal 2011-12, according to the Bucks County Courier Times.
Most full-time House employees are enrolled in plans worth at least $6,855. Plans for each of the 50 state senators and their families range from $6,969 to $19,311.
While most lawmakers have health insurance plans worth at least $6,800, the average private-sector employee in Pennsylvania is enrolled in a plan worth about $5,000, according to 2010 data collected by NCSL.
Lawmakers have not once voted to increase their salaries since they repealed their own controversial pay raise in 2005, in which state lawmakers voted to increase their salaries from less than $70,000 to more than $81,000.
But benefit increases and COLAs have allowed House and Senate members to increase their compensation without facing a repeat of the voter anger politicians faced seven years ago.
Solely due to COLA increases, state lawmakers now make about $82,000 per year in salary.
COLAs adjust legislative salaries based on the Philadelphia region’s consumer price index. Any compensation increase in the upcoming budget would come on top of a 3 percent, or $2,500 salary increase that General Assembly members received in December 2011 as part of their annual COLAs.
State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, returns his COLA increases to the state Treasury and does not participate in the state’s pension system or the Legislature’s medical, prescription drug, or dental programs.
Folmer’s Chief of Staff Fred Sembach in an e-mail said that Folmer’s position is based on Article II, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution: “Health care for legislators is not provided for.”Medical and dental insurance contracts for this fiscal year will be available on the Treasury’s website in August.