Lancaster County state lawmakers returning to Harrisburg in January are getting raises.
Members of the General Assembly, the governor, judges and a select group of executive branch employees get an annual cost-of-living adjustment to their paychecks.
Legislators will see their yearly base pay jump by $1,334 — bringing the salary for rank-and-file lawmakers to $85,356.
But at a time when the median household income in Pennsylvania is about $52,000, most local lawmakers say the cash won’t wind up in their pockets.
They will donate the extra cash to charity. Just like the year before and the year before that.
Sen. Lloyd Smucker and Reps. Ryan Aument, Bryan Cutler, Mindy Fee, Keith Greiner, Dave Hickernell and Steve Mentzer said they will give the money to nonprofit organizations in their communities.
Rep. Mike Sturla did not respond to requests for comment.
While the charitable donations are legal, watchdog groups have criticized such gifts as a loophole that allows lawmakers to win favor with the organizations that receive their contribution.
Good government activist Eric Epstein, founder of a group called Rock the Capitol, points out that legislators can receive tax deductions for their donations. And no matter what they choose to do with the cash, they will see the increase reflected in their future pension payouts.
The cost-of-living adjustment provision was put into place in 1995 so lawmakers would not have to deal with the controversy of voting for pay raises every few years. The increases are based on the Consumer Price Index in the Philadelphia region.
This year’s pay raise comes at a time when the Legislature is receiving the lowest approval ratings in recent years. A Muhlenberg College survey found last month that about 21 percent of voters approved of the Legislature. And a Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that 61 percent of voters believe the state is on the wrong track.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Pennsylvania state legislators have the second-highest average salary in the nation.
Epstein said it’s time for legislators to repeal the automatic increases.
“Nobody seems to support COLAs but nobody has the courage to sponsor legislation to abolish them,” he said.
Epstein said compensation should be tied to performance milestones and accountability — just like at any other corporate entity with approval from their shareholders.
He suggests adopting a method that California, the state that pays their lawmakers the highest salary in the nation, has had in place for nearly 25 years.
Voters created the California Citizens Compensation Commission to set rates for the state’s 120 full-time lawmakers in 1990. The commission is allowed to raise salaries only when there is no budget deficit.
Pennsylvania has an anticipated $1.85 billion budget deficit. If all of the state’s lawmakers would reject the pay raise, it would save taxpayers more than $334,502 next year.