Pa. lawmakers are set to get huge raises next year. They can return them, but almost nobody does

The Capitol building is pictured in Harrisburg

The Capitol building is pictured in Harrisburg. (Tom Gralish/The Inquirer)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Fiscal responsibility is an axiom in Harrisburg, but nearly none of Pennsylvania’s 253 state lawmakers seem to mind when their own salaries swell spending.

State House and Senate lawmakers receive an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their salaries under a 1995 law meant to shield them from political blowback for voting for their own pay increases.

The automatic raises vary each year, but typically represent a 1% to 3% bump in pay. The salary hike was temporarily suspended in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but raises resumed the following year — boosted by high inflation.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

At the moment, the base pay for state legislators in both chambers is $95,432. That number could push past $100,000 next year, according to an analysis by The Caucus/LNP, adding to the price tag for Pennsylvania’s already expensive, full-time legislature.

Lawmakers can return the increase to the state treasurer, but records obtained by Spotlight PA show very few do.

Since 2008 — the first year for which records are available — 176 lawmakers have paid back almost $578,000, according to the State Treasurer’s office. Of that, 93% was given back before 2018.

(Other lawmakers may donate their pay bump to charity, The Caucus/LNP reported, but it is difficult to independently verify who does and does not without access to private financial documents.)

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I can’t in good faith accept COLAs when I am fighting for a minimum wage,” Kim said. “In addition to my promise, I’m still fighting to make sure that minimum-wage increases with the [consumer price index] just like lawmakers get.”

State Rep. Brad Roae (R., Crawford) paid $3,200 back to the state between 2011 and 2016 but hasn’t returned any payments since then. He called returning the money a “complicated and time-consuming” process.

“Taxes must still be paid on the money and it still counts as income as far as SERS pensions, your kids qualifying for student grants, student loans, and scholarships, as well as the hassle involved of writing a check each month to Treasury,” he wrote in a November 2021 memo to his fellow legislators.

He offered a compromise bill that would allow lawmakers to opt out of the pay raise each year through a form. The proposal has not been considered by the state House.

Similar bills have met the same fate.

Legislation that would suspend the COLA in 2022 received unanimous, bipartisan support in a state House committee last year but was never considered by the full chamber. In the state Senate, a bill that would completely eliminate the annual pay raise — introduced by State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), the Republican gubernatorial nominee — has been stuck in committee since January.

Spotlight PA’s Kate Huangpu assisted with data analysis.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal