Pa. pols who don't belly up to the trough

MATT ROURKE / ASSOCIATED PRESS Philly Democratic Rep. Brian Sims is one of the state's lawmakers not enrolled to receive a pension through his work in the Legislature. "That's not why I ran," he said.
MATT ROURKE / ASSOCIATED PRESS Philly Democratic Rep. Brian Sims is one of the state's lawmakers not enrolled to receive a pension through his work in the Legislature. "That's not why I ran," he said.
Posted: August 12, 2014

IT MIGHT surprise you to know that a few - not many, but a few - Pennsylvania lawmakers are not, well, pigs.

Over the years, I've occasionally noted how members of our Legislature do pretty well, thanks to taxpayer generosity.

Actually, thanks to their own greed and taxpayer apathy.

But not all take everything they can.

Using Right to Know requests, the Daily News got data from the State Employees' Retirement System and the Legislature on lawmakers not grabbing the biggest bennies: generous health-care coverage and/or pensions.

It might not surprise you to know that only one is from Philly.

Overall, just two lawmakers, Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, and newly elected Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, don't take either.

Folmer, a tire salesman and son of a grocer, was elected in 2006, ousting a Senate GOP leader in the wake of the Legislature's 2005 pay grab.

"I'm not saying people don't deserve pensions or health care," Folmer says, "but Article II, Section 8 of the state Constitution doesn't allow me to do that."

(It states that lawmakers may receive "salary and mileage" and "no other compensation whatever." Multiple lawsuits seeking to enforce it failed. I'd note that our state judiciary is elected; its budget is provided by the Legislature.)

Wagner, a wealthy businessman with interests in waste-management, recycling, trucking and real estate, won a Senate seat earlier this year in a special election.

"I don't think it's fair to take from taxpayers," he says. "I've been successful. I have health insurance from one of my companies. I have a 401(k) pension plan."

I'd note that many lawmakers have other jobs: real estate, law, etc.

Only three others - Reps. Mindy Fee, R-Lancaster County; Greg Lucas, R-Erie County; and Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango County - opt out of health care.

Fee, elected in 2012, actually wasn't signed up for a pension, either. But after I called her office, she looked into it and found there was a snafu when she tried to enlist in the program, one she's now correcting.

Lawmakers can sign up for pensions at any time.

But 15 others, including Philly Democratic Rep. Brian Sims, are not enrolled.

Sims, a lawyer, says he has his own financial planning: "I'm not in the Legislature to collect a pension. That's not why I ran."

Others not listed in the pension system: Democratic Reps. Brian Barbin, Cambria County; and Margo Davidson, Delaware County; GOP Reps. Stephen Bloom, Cumberland County; Matt Gabler, Clearfield County; Warren Kampf, Chester County; Fred Keller, Snyder County; John Lawrence, Chester County; John McGinnis, Blair County; and Rick Saccone, Washington County.

Also, GOP Reps. Thomas Sankey, Clearfield County; Justin Simmons, Lehigh County; RoseMarie Swanger, Lebanon County; Jesse Topper, Bedford County; and Dan Truitt, Chester County.

So, 17 Republicans and three Democrats - a total of 20 of 253 lawmakers, or 8 percent - aren't partaking of at least one high-cost, taxpayer-provided perk.

But the multiple perks offered are impressive.

There's good pay ($84,000); annual automatic raises; state-paid leased vehicles; great health coverage, including dental, vision and prescription drugs, for which they pay just 1 percent of salary; tax-free daily expenses up to $163 (much more for a hearing in Philly), for which they are not required to provide receipts; and a high-end pension plan (in case you're wondering why there's no pension reform) that's better than most other state employees'.

Lawmakers elected before 2010 can retire at age 50; after 2010, age 55. For other state employees, except those in law enforcement/corrections, it's age 65.

That base salary, by the way, is second-highest only to California ($90,500), which has more than three times Pennsylvania's population and fewer than half its lawmakers (120).

And, says the National Conference of State Legislatures, only three legislatures are "full time, well-paid with large staff": California, New York and you know who.

Our "full-timers" meet, at most, 90 days a year. They're currently on a two-months-plus vacation.

Oh, and half the Senate (25) and all House seats (203) face voters in November. But don't get excited, voters: 137 of those "races," including 22 in Philly, offer just one candidate, mostly incumbents.

That's 60 percent of legislative elections with no opponents.

The good news? Maybe 8 percent won't take everything they can.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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