HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Legislature paid 258 of its employees more than $4.2 million to retire or quit in the past two years in buyouts that in many cases gave people with decades of service an extra incentive to leave and begin collecting substantial pensions.
The voluntary programs began in the Senate and were designed to cut personnel costs into the future.
The average recipient collected more than $16,000, and nine people received $40,000 apiece. The Senate clerk’s office said its total number of employees fell from 902 in November 2011, when buyouts were offered, to 819 as of August. That chamber’s payroll shrank more than $4 million.
Issues of legislative compensation and payouts are a politically sensitive issue in Pennsylvania, where the legislative workforce is among the nation’s largest. Lawmakers generated a strong backlash from the public for voting to raise their own pay in 2005, followed by the so-called Bonusgate scandal involving payments of state money to staffers who worked on campaigns.
Information about the programs was obtained by the Associated Press through the state’s Right-to-Know Law, including previously undisclosed details about the House buyouts late last year.
In the House, 78 Democratic employees, 99 Republican employees and 34 people who work for the bipartisan management arm took advantage of the program, and their ranks included lawyers, researchers, messengers and custodians.
The House permitted anyone with at least one year of service to participate, and 25 people with three years or less took the offer.
The Senate limited participants to those who were at or near retirement age or pension eligibility, and 47 took advantage.
Both chambers credited employees for their work in other branches of state government, giving them $1,000 or a week’s pay for each year of service. The Senate capped payouts at $40,000; the House, $25,000.
In the House Republican caucus alone, 67 employees who participated in the program also cashed out leave, at an additional cost of about $800,000. The 34 bipartisan workers in the House who took the buyout all cashed out leave, collecting $206,000.
“There are lots of ways they can save money over there without having to spend more money,” said Tim Potts, a former House Democratic aide who has campaigned to improve the Legislature’s ethics and operations. “They should be reducing the staff in the first place.”
That was the main goal of the program, said Drew Crompton, a high-ranking Senate aide who helped develop and administer the program. He said it was designed after studying other buyouts and approved in a vote by a committee of senior senators.
“This was not some sort of wild giveaway,” Crompton said. “This was a calculated effort in order to shrink the size of the Senate which, quite frankly, has worked out tremendously well. We are incredibly leaner than we were seven years ago. If it takes investment for that to happen, so be it.”
The Senate offered the buyouts about six months after a series on the Legislature’s staff by the AP and the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors showed Pennsylvania employed about one of every 11 state legislative employees in the nation, in a state that has about 4 percent of the country’s population.
One former legislative worker, Dawn Gob, said the $25,000 payment was not a reason why she retired after 29 years as a House district office manager, most recently for Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny. She said her job was filled after she left.
“I did not know that anything like this was going on,” said Gob, 73, of Pittsburgh. “It was just that it was time for me to go.”
The money helped Tom Hause decide last year to retire a few months earlier than he had planned. Hause, 56, also cashed in 45 days of vacation time and was paid for 10 percent of his unused sick time, he said.
“It was just put out there for us, and whoever’s willing to do it did it,” said Hause, a House Democratic messenger supervisor with 34 years of experience. He said others took over his duties after he left.
The buyouts may have increased the cost of the state pension system by encouraging people to start collecting before they otherwise may have, said Eric Epstein, a frequent critic of legislative operations. The cost of the state pension plan is a growing concern for state policymakers, and Gov. Tom Corbett has been pushing for changes in the face of increasing obligations to taxpayers.
“I don’t think anybody in their right mind would argue that the efficiency of the Legislature has increased since these folks were separated from their employment,” Epstein said. “You don’t need to be trimming a couple of branches – you need to reduce the size of the forest.”
Bill Patton, a spokesman for the House Democrats, said the decision to offer buyouts was made by Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, after consulting with senior caucus leaders as part of a longer-term plan to reduce employee costs. He said the House Democrats have shed more than 20 percent of their workforce since 2009.
“We understand that the Legislature is going to continue to exist and will always need staff people, but through this planning we’re able to control the future cost increases,” Patton said.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the buyouts were approved by senior leaders after consulting with members. Through a spokesman, the Senate Democratic leadership declined to comment.
In April, a legislative study said the total cost to run the General Assembly in the previous fiscal year had increased from the previous year by about $8 million to $307 million, though it is down from $327 million in 2008-09.
Crompton said many of the Senate jobs have not been filled by others. One notable exception was Senate Secretary Mark Corrigan, who retired a couple of years early from his $165,000-a-year job. He was later recalled – under a provision that permits retirees to return for up to 95 days a year without compromising their public pensions – to help his successor. She makes $150,000.
The buyout “had something to do” with his retirement decision, Corrigan said. “But I had 37 ½ years of service in, I was turning 60 years old. I thought it was time for some fresh blood.”