Pennsylvania Capitol dome

THE ISSUE

The General Assembly spent $252 million on payroll and a total of $313 million on its operations in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to an audit released Monday. It has $161 million in reserves, money it says it needs in case of a budget stalemate with the governor.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly needs to go on a spending diet.

Even granting the state Legislature its need for reserves to withstand pressure from the governor’s office during a budget fight, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is large, costly and wastefully partisan.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg are the second-highest-paid in the nation, behind only those in Sacramento, California. Among the nation’s 10 highest-population states, Pennsylvania is second only to Georgia in the fewest number of constituents per lawmaker.

And, finally, that $313 million budget — which grew by 2 percent from the previous year — is in obvious need of a reduction.

The partisan nature of the staffing in Harrisburg — and the redundancy that creates — is obvious when one looks at many of the staffers’ titles, departments and salaries.

Each party caucus, for example, has a chief counsel in the state Senate, both taking home more than $179,000 per year.

There is a Republican and a Democratic caucus network administrator in the Senate, with annual salaries of $64,989 and $86,387, respectively.

The 50-member state Senate also has 90 employees in constituency relations, at least one assigned to each party caucus.

And the Senate Republican caucus’ research analyst is paid $59,964. Her Democratic counterpart is paid $54,447 per year.

In the House, meanwhile, last year, there was a chief counsel to the Republican leader, a chief legal counsel to the Democratic caucus, a chief legal counsel to the Appropriations Committee, a chief counsel to the Republican caucus and a chief counsel to the speaker — each earning somewhere between $125,000 and $194,000 per year.

Why are partisan caucus positions necessary at all?

Research analysts and computer professionals in areas such as hardware support and software development are professional positions. Is there a partisan difference in delivering quality computer  and constituent services?

These positions should be hired on the basis of professional qualifications and provide services to the House and Senate’s members and leaders as needed.

Looking at the partisan nature of the positions, one suspects a systemic problem might have been behind the scandals that sent leaders of both parties and some of their top aides to prison over the misuse of their offices for campaign purposes.

When one’s job is tied to the Republican or Democratic caucus, after all, which party controls the House or Senate would tend to matter. Not everyone succumbs to this pressure, but cleaning up the caucus system would remove the temptation.

Every Pennsylvanian, whether Republican, Democrat or neither, deserves a Legislature staffed by professionals without direct ties to either party. And all of us deserve a Legislature with a staff built to get its work done, not one hired to suit major-party interests.

Lawmakers should use some of the $161 million in reserves for a study on how large their membership and staffs need to be to get the job done.

Do we need 203 members of the House and 50 senators when California gets by with 40 senators and 80 members in its Assembly?

Should we be spending $313 million on legislative services?

Are there redundancies in staff?

An honest look would likely result in answers of no, no and yes.

Given the state’s looming $2.3 billion deficit, lawmakers should be asking these questions and contributing their fair share to reducing waste in Harrisburg.