Public Dollars Pay For Pa. Lawmakers' Private New Gym The Capitol Facility Is ``more Convenient'' For Legislators. It Will Open In Late February.

Posted: January 30, 1998

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania legislators are always promising to trim the fat from state government.

Now they'll get to trim their own fat.

At taxpayers' expense.

In the east wing of the state Capitol, a short walk from two moderately priced, fully equipped downtown health clubs, the General Assembly yesterday unveiled its own private fitness center.

A private fitness center that happens to be publicly funded.

If you pay taxes in Pennsylvania, you paid for it, to the tune of $177,514 - not including the locker rooms, which were built in 1986. But unless you have been elected to - or are employed by - the General Assembly, you cannot exercise there.

It is restricted, by a special security system, to the 253 lawmakers and their 1,200 staff members. During the legislative session, only lawmakers are allowed.

Asked why taxpayers were financing a health club they cannot use, Susan Cohen, a top House staffer who showed the facility to reporters, replied:

``The public pays for PennDot trucks, too, but I don't think they're behind the wheel.''

The 4,000-square-foot gym includes two spacious locker rooms - single-stall showers, but no whirlpool or sauna - with mahogany phone booths and bookshelves.

The Ridge administration paid $128,180 for the construction, while the legislature kicked in $49,334 for equipment, officials said.

Arrayed on the carpet are five stationary bikes, four treadmills, three StairMasters, two multipurpose weight stations and a full set of free weights.

``There is nothing here that wouldn't be found at home, only it's industrial strength,'' said Cohen, who was peppered with pointed questions.

``Whose home?'' a reporter quipped.

The legislature first envisioned its own health club in 1986, when the $125 million east wing addition was completed. The locker rooms were partially built, and an empty room was reserved, but the plan was shelved for fear of public criticism.

Three years later, the idea was revived, but lawmakers were going to pay for the equipment out of their own pockets. That notion also died.

House Speaker Matthew J. Ryan (R., Delaware) said yesterday that he was instrumental in finally getting the Department of General Services to finish the place. It is scheduled to open at the end of February.

``The legislature is a major employer,'' Ryan said. ``We work some pretty wild hours, and the stress level is high. . . . The physicians I talked to told me that regular exercise is something that's good for us.

``It doesn't represent a great deal of money when you look at the expense of the entire [east wing],'' he added. ``I was annoyed that we were sitting with what became a storage room that was designed to be a health facility.''

Ryan and other legislators did not attend yesterday's media event. They left that job to their aides and to Bud Coates, work-site health promotions manager for Rodale Press of Emmaus, Pa., publisher of Men's Health and Prevention magazines.

Coates said that he was an unpaid consultant on the fitness center and that the in-house facility was simply more convenient for lawmakers and aides than walking to Work-Out Plus, a $25-per-month health club in the shopping center across from the Capitol, or the downtown YMCA, a few blocks further.

``The Y is not as efficient,'' he said. ``If they're out of the building, they're hard to get in touch with.''

Cohen described the center as a ``no-frills'' place. ``We're not even handing out towels,'' she said.

It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with access controlled by a card security system. Wall-mounted cameras allow the Capitol police to monitor the room at all hours.

Pennsylvania legislators will earn $58,341 this year, making them the second-highest paid state lawmakers in the country. They get a $10,000 annual expense account, a $600 monthly car allowance and an extra $80 each day they meet.

Members of Congress have a private gym. It is not known how many other state legislatures do.

New Jersey's assembly, where part-time lawmakers earn $35,000, does not.

``Are you kidding?'' asked Rae Hutton, spokeswoman for New Jersey Senate Republicans. ``We don't even get lunch.''

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