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Inquirer Editorial: Overpaid legislators should raise the minimum wage

The Philadelphia Inquirer

March 22, 2016

A scene from a pay-raise protest at the Capitol in Harrisburg in 2005.
A scene from a pay-raise protest at the Capitol in Harrisburg in 2005. (File)

 

The public outcry 11 years ago after Pennsylvania legislators met to give themselves a pay raise in the dead of night included complaints that the state's minimum wage had not been raised since 1995.

Ironically, 1995 was also when legislators voted to give themselves annual cost-of-living increases, which have helped boost their current salaries to $85,340 annually. That's about $32,000 above the median income in the state and more than five times what minimum-wage workers are paid.

Legislators also get full health and pension benefits, a car allowance, and up to $185 in expense money for every day they show up for work - even when they don't do their jobs and pass a budget.

Protests by angry citizens led the legislature to repeal the 2005 pay raise. Members weren't required to pay back what they had already received, but many who didn't were voted out of office.

You would think that such a strong message about fair pay might motivate lawmakers to improve the minimum wage of Pennsylvania's poorest workers. But that still hasn't happened. Perhaps the chief reason is that a minimum-wage increase would anger legislators' big-dollar political donors.

Democrats, whose ineffectiveness has become legendary, support raising the minimum wage but have failed to make it happen. Meanwhile, Republicans, who control both legislative houses, seem to do everything they can to avoid voting on the issue. That's unconscionable but understandable: They know public opinion, even in strongly Republican states like Arkansas and Nebraska, favors a wage hike.

Every state surrounding Pennsylvania has raised its minimum wage above the federal floor of $7.25 an hour. In fact, in the Northeast, only minimum-wage workers in New Hampshire are paid as little as Pennsylvania's.

That disgrace becomes worse when you consider that the average wages of all workers have steadily lost buying power over the past 40 years. The Pew Research Center says the average hourly wage in January 1973 was $4.03, which had the same buying power, adjusted for inflation, as $22.41 an hour today.

The situation is dire for the workers who earn the least. They make so little that many need government assistance to survive. That taxpayer-provided aid is like a backdoor subsidy for businesses that pay low wages and don't offer benefits.

Gov. Wolf recently raised the minimum wage to $10.15 an hour for some state workers, but that largely symbolic gesture only applied to a few hundred employees. The time for symbolism is past. The legislature not only should increase the state's minimum wage, but it should also tie future raises to increases in the Consumer Price Index. If legislators get annual cost-of-living raises, so should the working poor.

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