Reducing legislative expense shouldn't come with golden parachute

Taxpayers and government reform activists have been asking the Pennsylvania Legislature for years to do something about its bloated staffing levels.

With nearly 3,000 full-time staffers employed by the 253 members of the General Assembly, few would argue that the Legislature could not trim its workforce without hurting constituent services or lawmakers’ ability to do their jobs.

The private sector has been making do with reduced staffing levels for years.

So what happens when members of the Pennsylvania Legislature attempt to tighten their belts? They end up spending more tax dollars to do it, of course.

The Legislature paid 258 of its employees more than $4.2 million to retire or quit in the past two years, according to The Associated Press.

In many cases, the buyouts gave government workers with decades of service an extra incentive to leave and begin collecting generous pensions before they otherwise may have — further increasing the burden on Pennsylvania taxpayers.

So instead of making tough choices — which is something you expect of lawmakers earning a base salary of $83,802 a year — the legislators essentially handed out golden parachutes to 258 state workers.

The average recipient collected more than $16,000, and nine people received $40,000 apiece, the AP reported.

Information about the programs was obtained by the AP through the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

The Senate clerk’s office told the wire service its total number of employees fell from 902 in November 2011, when buyouts were offered, to 819 as of August. The Senate’s payroll shrank more than $4 million. In the House, 78 Democratic employees, 99 Republican employees and 34 people who work for the bipartisan management arm took advantage of the buyout program, according to the AP.

The House permitted anyone with at least one year of service to participate, and 25 people with three years or less took the offer, the AP reported.

Can you imagine the private sector offering employees with such little time in the workplace such generous incentives to leave?

The Senate limited participants to those who were at or near retirement age or pension eligibility, and 47 took advantage, according to the AP.

Eric Epstein, a government-reform activist, pointed out a major flaw with the Legislature’s attempt to trim its staffing levels by offering bonuses. The buyouts increase the cost of the state pension system by encouraging people to start collecting before they otherwise may have, Epstein told the AP.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind would argue that the efficiency of the Legislature has increased since these folks were separated from their employment,” Epstein said. “You don’t need to be trimming a couple of branches — you need to reduce the size of the forest.”

The Senate offered the buyouts about six months after an investigative series by the AP and the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors revealed Pennsylvania employed about one of every 11 state legislative employees in the nation, in a state that has about 4 percent of the country’s population.

“There are lots of ways they can save money over there without having to spend more money,” said Tim Potts, a former House Democratic aide who became an activist for government reform. “They should be reducing the staff in the first place.”

The disconnect between the political class in Harrisburg and the real world is the primary reason the Pennsylvania Legislature is one of the most expensive in the nation, costing Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $300 million each year.

So the Legislature’s attempt to do something to benefit the state’s beleaguered taxpayers comes at a price. So it comes as no surprise that the very same tone-deaf lawmakers found a way to stick it again to taxpayers.

— 21st Century Media:

The Pottstown Mercury

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