Why we Should Stop COLA-Shaming Legislators!

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As this fiscal year’s ZOOM-infused legislative session mercifully came to a close, there were a few bills that did not wind up running. Actually, there were lots of bills that wound up not running, including all bills that would solve any actual problem. The PA legislature views tackling tough issues the way I view hernia examinations, something to be avoided, although for different reasons. One of the bills that died a quiet death was a bill to suspend legislative Cost of Living Adjustments, or COLAs.

A COLA is not a raise in that it doesn’t increase your purchasing power. If you could buy 500 Neil Young T-shirts per paycheck before the COLA, you will be able to buy 500 of them after it. Hey, you spend your money your way, I’ll spend mine my way! Nonetheless, COLAs are still very controversial. Every year, I get a few calls from intrepid reporters when the amount of the COLA is announced, asking if I planned on taking it. I invariably answered, “F*&% Yes!” And pronouncing those punctuation marks is not easy.

These phone calls are followed by articles and angry emails saying in effect, “I don’t know how much you are paid, but it’s way too much!” and demanding that I refuse the COLA. Some legislators don’t take it and issue a press release with great fanfare saying so. I would note that you are not statutorily required to issue a press release. You can just not take the money.

I have a different view. I support COLAs for a clan of reasons (a group of hyenas is a “clan”). First, we want to attract and retain good people of all backgrounds to make the critical decisions that lawmakers are theoretically charged with and might someday choose to make. We want some doctors, some lawyers, some business owners, some guys who catch crabs, some who cook crabs, some who clean up after I eat the crabs (I’m really hungry).

Legislative salaries are already not competitive with what these people can make in their chosen professions, especially the crab guys. It will be impossible to attract professionals to the legislature if their compensation starts low and atrophies until they are carried out in a box, alive or dead.

Keep in mind, legislative salaries are not only low to start, but anyone elected knows that they will never, ever get a raise. We actually did pass a pay raise in 2006, but that was apparently the single worst thing a group of humans collectively ever did, with the obvious exception of the people who gave Celine Dion a recording contract. The outcry was far more deafening than, for example, the outcry over childhood hunger, or the destruction of our environment. We wound up repealing the pay raise, and a whole bunch of legislators lost their seats. So, you can be sure the next time there is a vote to raise our pay, the sun will have exploded and turned into a blue dwarf, a term I believe is still acceptable to use in the context of spent gaseous masses.

All of this means that If I started working in a law firm, 20 years later, I’d be making double or triple my original salary, plus I’d probably have keys to the gold-laden executive bathroom. Harrisburg doesn’t even have a gold-laden executive bathroom, although my district office always has. We don’t have to get into that now. But you can serve 50 years in the House or Senate and your purchasing power will never go up one dime. If we couldn’t even stay even, then within a few years, the only people who would want or could afford to be lawmakers would either be independently wealthy or those have a parole officer on speed-dial.

I want to be clear that any future COLAs will not benefit me. We do not give COLAs to retirees. My mother worked as a teacher for over 30 years. In the 20 years between her retirement and her death, she didn’t see one increase. Many of those who retired with her had to get new jobs (professional kickboxing, mostly) to survive. We should give automatic COLAs to our retirees. But that’s the subject of a future column (What?? They’re going to be future columns??!!). In the meantime, we should treat legislators like the professionals we expect them to be, and we should make it possible for good people to support their family, or someone’s family, we’re not here to judge.

Long-time state House and Senate member, author of PA’s Medical Marijuana law, also creator of “shit-gibbon!” Comedian, professor, father of 2 awesome children!

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