A group of Pa. lawmakers didn’t take pay during the budget impasse. A bill would force all to abstain

A bill would make it mandatory for Pennsylvania lawmakers to forego pay during a budget impasse. At least one member says it could force votes for the wrong reason.

Capitol building

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on July 26, 2023. (Amanda Berg for Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Twelve state House lawmakers didn’t cash at least one of their paychecks during Pennsylvania’s six-month budget impasse last year, as the legislature struggled to agree on the last pieces of the state’s $45.4 billion spending plan.

The group represents a tiny fraction of the 253-member legislature. However, under a bill floated by one of the check-rejecters, all lawmakers as well as the governor and lieutenant governor would be forced to forgo their pay during future budget impasses.

Not taking pay, lawmakers told Spotlight PA, followed up on campaign promises or showed they understood the pain of groups, such as community colleges or libraries, that struggled to make ends meet amid the impasse.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

State Rep. Jamie Flick (R., Lycoming), a first-term lawmaker and business owner, didn’t take a paycheck from July to December. He said that he campaigned for office on a promise to abstain from pay if there was no budget, and “had already promised my constituents I would have my check withheld until the budget, that being 100% of the budget, passed.”

But even among lawmakers who declined to take a check, there is disagreement on whether forgoing pay during an impasse should be an official policy or a personal choice.

“My inclination is financial pressure that may force a member to vote one way or another is probably not a good thing,” state Rep. Perry Warren (D., Bucks) told Spotlight PA.

State House lawmakers passed a spending plan a few days after the June 30 deadline, though it wasn’t signed until August. Additional budget-enabling bills to fund libraries, community colleges, and some nonprofits didn’t become law until December.

The number of checks lawmakers delayed cashing varied.

Six delayed only their July check, according to state treasury records acquired by Spotlight PA:

  • State Rep. Joe Hogan (R., Bucks)
  • State Rep. Tom Jones (R., Lancaster)
  • State Rep. Leslie Rossi (R., Westmoreland)
  • State Rep. Abigail Salisbury (D., Allegheny)
  • State Rep. Christina Sappey (D., Chester)
  • State Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D., Chester)

Three lawmakers — state Reps. Tim Brennan (D., Bucks), Frank Burns (D., Cambria), and Warren — accepted just one check from July to December.

State Rep. Jill Cooper (R., Westmoreland) — who is the main sponsor of the “no budget, no pay” bill — waited until October to cash her paychecks, while state Rep. Brett Miller (R., Lancaster) waited until November.

All 12 have since received all the pay they were due during the nearly six-month impasse.

Burns, Jones, Miller, Rossi, and Sappey did not reply to requests for comment. Those who did respond to Spotlight PA had different definitions of when the impasse ended which influenced how many checks they declined.

Hogan worked for former U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), who believed in not taking pay during periods of budget impasse. He declined only his July paycheck after speaking with leadership, who he said told him he could consider the budget finished after that month.

“I thought I had done what I was supposed to do with it,” Hogan told Spotlight PA.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Shusterman, a small business owner, said she and her colleagues went back and forth over how to define the relatively unusual impasse. For instance, she noted that one last budget item, funding for the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary School, is still in limbo.

Her bar for defining an impasse was a lack of any measure that would “prevent the commonwealth from running,” she said.

Cooper said she declined pay under the terms of her proposed bill. Under her proposal, pay would be suspended if the legislature fails to pass a main appropriations bill by the June 30 deadline. Lawmakers would be retroactively paid when that bill passes; Cooper’s legislation does not require the passage of accompanying code bills to resume pay.

In October, with the appropriations bill passed but code bills still in limbo, Cooper said she decided to take her pay “to show other legislators that I was following my bill” and rally support for her proposal.

Warren told Spotlight PA that he initially considered the impasse to be over after the state House passed the main budget bill in early July, which was why he deposited that paycheck a few weeks later.

However, on second thought, Warren, an attorney, decided to withhold his pay due to the lack of code bills.

“If service organizations and entities that are supported by state funds are in a position that they have to wait for funding, I can too,” he told Spotlight PA.

In an email, Brennan, also an attorney, told Spotlight PA he picked up his checks but did not deposit them until the day after Shapiro signed the last code bill in December.

“In the Brennan house, there was much rejoicing,” he said. “It’s not the same as what the community colleges, nonprofits, and so many others felt, but there is a cost to having things grind to a halt for that long — interest, carrying costs, opportunity costs, frustration, stress, etc.”

“It definitely put things in perspective and gave a greater sense of urgency,” he added.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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