HARRISBURG – Lawmakers have begun to debate how much they should be tightening their belts at a time when more than 1.4 million Pennsylvania are out-of-work and the state is facing a $5 billion shortfall.
“We’re going to have to look at making cuts, that goes without saying,” said state Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Cambria County. “That’s being responsible.”
The General Assembly has taken steps to adopt social-distancing rules that allow for remote voting. But lawmakers have thus far taken few steps to reduce their own costs in serving the public.
The state House Republicans have adopted a hiring freeze and on Friday, House leaders announced a salary freeze, meaning no pay increases for staff, said Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County.
“We are very aware that we are not immune to the financial impact that all sectors and industries will be feeling in the Commonwealth as a result of the pandemic,” Straub said. “But we are making decisions week to week to ensure all tax dollars entrusted to us are utilized responsibly.”
State Rep. David Rowe, R-Union County, said that lawmakers should be looking to make more sacrifices themselves.
Rowe said that he’s been involved in informal conversations about whether lawmakers ought to refuse to take their cost-of-living raises this year, or return last year’s cost-of-living raise, or take some other form of pay cut.
“It’s going to be difficult to make meaningful progress until people making the decisions feel the effect,” Rowe said.
“Changes to the legislators pay has to happen with legislation,” Straub said.
No legislation to change lawmaker compensation has been introduced, but he agreed that there has been discussion about possible legislation that would cut lawmaker pay.
Rigby said he had not been involved in any conversations about cutting pay for lawmakers. He wouldn’t oppose such legislation, Rigby said.
State Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland County, on Friday, declined to comment about what kind of cost-cutting measures are planned but said that there will likely be more announced.
“Stay tuned,” he said.
The pay freeze only impacts staff of House Republicans and not staff employed by Democrats or in the state Senate.
Neither the Senate nor the House Democrats have announced any comparable cost-cutting measures.
While the House’s special operating rules during the coronavirus pandemic allow lawmakers to vote without coming to the Capitol, dozens of lawmakers have been traveling to Harrisburg on session day.
According to a legislative roster provided to CNHI, 81 House members – 54 Republicans and 27 Democrats – traveled to the Capitol to vote in person on April 6. Lawmakers who travel to the Capitol for business can collect a per diem payment of $177 per day on top of their normal salary – base pay for lawmakers is $90,335.
Among those making the trip to Harrisburg to vote were State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, and state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-9, Union Township, Lawrence County. Both representatives are from districts that border Ohio and have among the longest trips to reach Harrisburg.
Longietti said he continues to travel to the Capitol so that he can speak on the House floor. Under the House rules, those not in the Capitol can vote, but there’s no mechanism for them to participate in debate. The state Senate has been using videoconferencing that allows lawmakers to speak even if they are voting remotely.
Sainato, who’s been in office since 1995, said he’s never missed a vote and he has no intention of voting by proxy to avoid traveling to the Capitol.
“When you are on the floor, you listen to the debate,” he said. “We’re elected to be there. It’s our job.”