Are Lavish Pensions Fostering Corruption and Ineptness in the Legislature?

As the reports of Bill Deweese’s sentencing were being written, it became obligatory for those penning the stories to mention that the convicted Representative would be forfeiting $2.8 million in pension benefits. Those benefits would have continued to increase if he had not been convicted of the felonies he was charged with. The legislative pension formula provides legislators 3 percent of their highest salary for every year served. If Deweese had kept his seat for several more years his pension would have gone up commensurately. Note that state employees get only 2.5 percent for each year employed. Money contributed to pensions by legislators is not forfeited but can be held for restitution.

Nor is Deweese the only high profile forfeiter of pension benefits. John Perzel, Vincent Fumo and Mike Veon among many others have done so earlier. Presumably Jane Orie is about to join the group. And Robert Mellow who left office in 2010 is under investigation and is at risk as well. Mr. Mellow would lose an annual pension of $138,958 after taking a lump sum of $331,025.

Needless to say, for those who stick around, legislative service can be quite lucrative. Thus the question: does the promise of a lucrative retirement lead members of the Legislature to engage in questionable behavior that attempts to insure their perpetual re-election? The numbers of Pennsylvania legislators that have been convicted of election related crimes and money related malfeasance in office aimed at securing reelection suggest that the lure of power and lucrative pensions are certainly at work.

But just as important, does the desire to stay in office lead to a lack of intensity in pushing needed reforms because it is better for reelection not to rock any boats? How else explain the failure of the Legislature to fix the grotesque assessment problems, reform the state’s labor laws that are so inimical to economic growth and cost efficient government, or even to do the simple job of putting liquor sales in the private sector? Obviously, fear of voter rejection plays a major part. If there were no lucrative pension or generous health benefits, would legislators be so enamored of keeping their seats?

And given the extravagant pension package the Legislature adopted for itself, is there any wonder that it keeps kicking the state employee and teacher pension problem down the road? To deal with that impending financial debacle, they would have to act in a way that might cut their own pension benefits-a very unlikely development.

All the talk of reducing the size of the Legislature is a smoke screen to keep the public’s view away from the real problems. The Legislature is hamstrung by member desires to remain in office and the need to protect the largesse these offices provide.

We will know the legislators are serious about pension reform when they vote to adopt a 401k type plan for themselves.