Pa. lawmakers’ base salary now tops $106K. Here’s what you need to know about their automatic pay raises

What you need to know about Pennsylvania lawmakers’ salaries, the history of the increase, and why changes are unlikely.

The Pennsylvania Capitol

The Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvania lawmakers’ base salary recently rose to more than $106,000, prompting a fresh round of criticism about the annual automatic pay bump.

Here’s what you need to know about state lawmakers’ salaries, the history of the increase, and why changes are unlikely:

Why do Pennsylvania lawmakers get an annual raise?

The state constitution says that legislators “shall receive such salary and mileage for regular and special sessions as shall be fixed by law.”

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Since 1995, state law has given all 253 legislators — plus the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet heads, the row officers, and all judges — an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) based on the rate of inflation in the greater Philadelphia region.

After passing into six digits last year, rank-and-file legislators’ salaries rose to more than $106,000 on Dec. 1 for the next 12 months, according to a notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. That’s a 3% pay bump.

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

Why do critics oppose automatic pay bumps?

While political scientists and some good-government advocates agree that lawmakers deserve compensation for their duties, the yearly pay bumps still elicit anger from longtime Capitol watchers.

Some of that anger is rooted in history.

Tim Potts, an education activist and former Democratic legislative staffer, was on a flight to London in July 2005 when he learned the General Assembly had suspended its rules to hold a series of late-night votes on a bill increasing members’ pay, as well as the pay of judges, by between 16% and 34%.

“Even somebody like me, who was assiduously paying attention, could not find out what was going on,” Potts said.

Taking advantage of the nascent internet, Potts and others helped organize a protest movement to show their discontent. Facing widespread anger, lawmakers repealed their pay bump months later. But grassroots anger led to the defeat of two dozen legislative incumbents, including some top leaders and a state Supreme Court justice at the ballot box.

The 2005 pay raise galvanized public attention, Potts said, because lawmakers bent their own rules to give themselves a raise on top of their automatic increase in a late-night vote.

He argued that the automatic raises are unconstitutional and allow for legislators to rake in more and more pay with no accountability.

“Legislators do important work. And it’s often difficult work. And it requires them to be away from their families a lot,” Potts told Spotlight PA. “I wouldn’t say they shouldn’t be paid at all or they should be paid minimum wage or anything like that.”

“But,” he continued, “sooner or later, an automatic increase gets you over $100,000 a year. And then as you know, most Pennsylvanians would say, ‘That’s too much.’”

How does Pennsylvania lawmakers’ pay compare to legislators from other states?

Compensation for lawmakers varies widely across the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New Mexico does not provide a salary; rather it reimburses lawmakers for mileage and provides per diems. Other states provide per-day or per-week pay. Annual salaries are common, but in 2022 their amounts ran the gamut from $100 (New Hampshire) to more than $119,000 (California).

Pennsylvania had the third-highest legislator salary in 2022, behind California and New York. State law also allows legislators who serve in the commonwealth’s full-time General Assembly to hold outside employment.

Do higher salaries translate to a more representative legislature?

Legislators privately argue that higher pay encourages working-class individuals to become lawmakers.

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However, research hasn’t borne that out, said Duke University political science professor Nick Carnes.

In a 2016 journal article, Carnes and his co-author found that states with higher pay had the same or lower rates of working-class representation — such as individuals in manual labor, service, or clerical work — within their legislatures.

The barrier, Carnes argued, has more to do with modern political campaigns, which require candidates to essentially volunteer their time to run for office. Unless a candidate has the means to live for months without collecting a paycheck, no amount of pay will allow them to run.

“For folks who can’t just skip out on your lives for a whole work week or more, you are out of running,” Carnes told Spotlight PA. “That is built into the process of campaigning.”

Once legislators are elected, Carnes said that good pay has been linked to increased attendance for roll call votes.

“No one wants a politician who is phoning it in,” he said.

Will Pennsylvania change the way it pays lawmakers?

Potts, the former legislative staffer, said that the deck is stacked against change because critics have to convince lawmakers to alter their own rules.

“Pennsylvania citizens don’t have the ability to put initiatives on the ballot that would say, ‘We want no gifts, period, for public officials from lobbyists.’ We can’t do that,” Potts said. “And the legislature’s not going to do it. All they have to do is nothing and they win. And you can say the same thing about any other good-government issue.”

At least one lawmaker, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), has introduced a bill this session that would end the automatic pay hikes. It has not been considered by the upper chamber’s State Government Committee.

Potts said lawmakers’ pay should be tied to their district’s median income to reflect different costs of living. While $100,000 might make sense for Philadelphia, in rural Warren County such a salary “looks like royalty,” he said.

Do any Pennsylvania lawmakers turn down their raises?

Pennsylvania lawmakers can return their annual cost-of-living adjustment, but very few do.

Between 2008 — the first year for which records are available — and 2023, 176 lawmakers paid back about $590,000, according to the state Treasury. Of that, 93% was given back before 2018.

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