Politics

Perks That Kill

When voters think legislators are living too well at public expense, they pounce.
by | July 2007
 

Most Pennsylvania legislators felt pretty confident heading into their primaries in May. History suggested they had every reason to feel that way. Over the years, the reelection rate for the Pennsylvania House and Senate has mirrored that of Congress, with very few incumbents beaten either in the primaries or in the fall. This year, however, history was no help. Seventeen of the 56 incumbents seeking new terms failed to win renomination, including the Senate majority leader and president pro tem. It was the biggest one-day legislative turnover the state had seen since 1980 and marked the first time since 1964 that a top leader had lost.

What caused the sudden upheaval? There's one simple answer: the pay raise that legislators pushed through without any public scrutiny in a late-night session last summer. Anger over the increase not only led to its rescission but also to the formation of new political groups dedicated to a "throw the bums out" platform. State media kept up the anti-incumbent drumbeat, running for months with every story reporters could find that touched on the legislative lifestyle, including pensions, parties, caucus accounts, lobbyist wining and dining, and free tickets to the Pocono 500. The stories had a powerful effect.

The widescale upheaval came just a few days after a primary election shock in Indiana: the defeat of Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Garton, a nationally respected 36-year legislative veteran, who had refused to surrender a generous health insurance program for retired legislators, even after Indiana's House leadership had dropped it. The program provided lifetime health care at a deep discount not just for retired senators but also for their families--including ex-spouses. After the House abolished its plan this year, the Senate dropped coverage for those who retired before age 50, but overall it was still a much more generous package than most workers who are employed in the public sector could hope to see.

The Pennsylvania and Indiana surprises together make it abundantly clear just how volatile the issue of excessive perquisites is in state legislative politics right now. Complex public policy differences don't cost a lot of members their seats, but the idea that politicians are living high off the hog is simple and clear, and the chain of accountability is direct. Testing the public tolerance for perks may be the single riskiest move a legislator can make--even a legislator who has previously been invincible. "Voters are fairly cynical today," says Alan Rosenthal, an expert on legislatures at Rutgers University. "They don't like being taken advantage of."

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