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.”
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 Facing widespread anger, lawmakers repealed their pay bump months later.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.’”