Pennsylvania voters threw a state supreme court justice out of office and nearly dismissed another in November, the result of outrage over what one state legislator called “backroom deals” to boost pay for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
Justices allegedly approached lawmakers to encourage them to approve the raises and helped them work out the proposal, although many critics said the deal was illegal and the justices likely would have to address legal challenges.
Citizen Outrage Carried Day
Outraged citizens had flooded lawmakers with complaints about the pay raises, and on November 16, barely one week after Justice Russell Nigro was turned out of office and Justice Sandra Schultz Newman was barely retained, the legislature repealed the pay raises.
“This is the worst corruption I’ve seen in my seven years in the legislature,” state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) said of the pay raise scandal. Metcalfe led the effort to repeal the raises and had opposed the original pay raise bill and the budget that funded it.
“Once we saw we had an historic election result, with a supreme court judge refused retention, that was the final straw that broke resistance to moving the repeal through,” Metcalfe said. “It was a perfect political storm. We passed a policy change and four months later totally reversed that policy.”
Nigro, a Democrat, became the first justice denied retention in the history of Pennsylvania. Newman, a Republican, barely won retention. Former Gov. Tom Ridge and other Republican heavyweights in Pennsylvania came out with endorsements and advertisements to save her job.
Raises Considered Unconstitutional
Lawmakers approved the raises on July 7, 2005 in the dead of night, on the final day of the legislative session, without the required three readings. Many observers said the pay raises were illegal because they occurred in the middle of the recipients’ terms of office. The state constitution prohibits elected officials from receiving midterm pay raises.
Annual salaries for supreme court justices went from $150,369 to $171,800.
The pay raises for legislators were especially egregious in the eyes of many critics. The hikes consisted of “unvouchered” expense accounts that allowed lawmakers to take pay raises ranging from 16 to 34 percent by submitting “expenses” that required no receipts for reimbursement. Their base pay effectively rose to $81,050 from $69,647. Top legislative leaders saw their pay go to $145,000, up from $110,000 a year.
The repeal puts their pay back to where it was before July 7, but lawmakers continue to receive perks that were already in place, including $650 a month for use of an automobile, and health insurance and pension benefits that exceed what most citizens receive.
“All three branches were complicit,” Metcalfe said. “It was especially outrageous for the judiciary to be involved in this. We shouldn’t have the judiciary making backroom deals with the executive branch and legislators to raise their own pay.”
Tax Hikes Funded Raises
Metcalfe said Pennsylvania citizens were also justifiably outraged that their taxes had been hiked to pay for the questionable raises.
“Taxes here were raised in December 2003 by about $1 billion,” Metcalfe said. “We raised the personal income tax, created a new cell phone tax, increased more than 100 fees, … did all kinds of things. This year we had a surplus of $450 million, and rather than use some of that surplus to cut taxes or fees, we raised pay for all three branches of government and found other ways to spend it.”
Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, said Pennsylvania has “a brazen legislature. I call them the imperial legislature. There is no right of recall, no initiative, no referendum. We can’t change the constitution unless the legislature approves the identical amendment two consecutive sessions [before sending it to the voters]. They are a law unto themselves.”
‘No Confidence in Anybody’
Haulk said the “unvouchered expense” for lawmakers to boost their pay showed they were “willing to totally trample on the constitution. That’s what got people so upset. And the supreme court had urged them to pass the pay raise. One of the wrinkles in this is that Justice Nigro worked with the legislature to get the deal done, boosting his pay more than $20,000 and giving raises to more than 1,000 other judges.
“There is something unseemly about a supreme court justice lobbying the legislature for something that personally benefits him and that he would likely have to rule on,” Haulk pointed out. “People saw him justify what was happening. There was no confidence in anybody.”
In a post-election interview with Tom Barnes of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nigro said, “There’s been a lot about this election in the papers, but there’s not been one single article that’s said I’m incompetent, lazy, intemperate, crooked, or biased. Nobody’s said any of those things because it wouldn’t be true. I’m fair, I’m honest, and I have a good temperament.”
Retention Campaigns Well-Financed
Barnes reported Nigro raised $400,000 for his retention campaign. Newman raised $240,000 in the week before the election.
Only one lawmaker, state Rep. Mike Veon (D-Beaver Falls), voted against repealing the pay raises.
“This pay raise revolt is the closest we’ve come to a real rebellion here in many, many years,” Metcalfe said. “It was good to see so many people become involved. We are seeing a lot of apologies out of some legislators who have challengers in the upcoming primary election.”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.