Sen. Rob Teplitz (inset) and the state capitol in Harrisburg
By Andrew Staub
for The Pennsylvania Independent
HARRISBURG PA – Dauphin County Democrat and state Sen. Rob Teplitz hasn’t taken a paycheck since June, and he thinks it’s time other lawmakers and state officials do the same.
Teplitz has authored a bill that would cut off compensation for the General Assembly, the governor, lieutenant governor and cabinet members when a state budget isn’t passed by the June 30 deadline.
“It’s not to be punitive, but the idea is to get everyone focused on the fact that there’s a deadline and not to waste time,” Teplitz said.
Republicans who control both chambers of the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf have been mired in a budget showdown for more than two months. Wolf vetoed an on-time GOP budget that held the line on taxes but offered next to none of the governor’s priorities.
The stalemate has left non-profits that serve vulnerable populations scrambling for loans and cash-strapped schools waiting for an influx of state money.
Teplitz, who has put a hold on his paychecks and has taken out a loan to cover expenses, thinks state officials should share the pain when the state budget runs late. Others disagree.
Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democratic caucus, said cutting off pay when budgets run late doesn’t make sense for lawmakers. It would shift the balance of power to the governor and give the 253 members of the General Assembly an “unnatural incentive” to cave on budgetary demands.
“The governor already has a lot of good cards to play in any budget battle,” Patton said. “This would really be stacking the deck against the Legislature.”
Teplitz responded that withholding pay for the governor, too, would put both branches of government on a level playing field. Wolf, though, would have a big advantage over lawmakers if the bill became law; he is personally wealthy and doesn’t accept his annual state salary.
Teplitz introduced the bill in an earlier session with no luck. This time, though, he has a Republican, state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, joining him as a prime sponsor.
Even Teplitz admits his bill is a long-shot idea. That’s often the case with reforms that put the public’s interest ahead of personal self-interests. “This would fall into that category,” he said.
Still, there’s some outside support for the idea. As the budget stalemate lurched through August with no end in sight The Pittsburgh Foundation, a philanthropic organization, said legislators should decline dipping into reserves to pay themselves and that Wolf and his staff should also forgo paychecks until a deal was forged.
“In addition, we believe this would be the perfect time for an executive order immediately closing all state-run wine and liquor stores until a budget is passed, so we all can focus on the concept of giving up things we believe we can’t live without,” Maxwell King, foundation president and CEO, said in a written statement.
In the absence of a state budget, lawmakers have been paying themselves and their staff through their ample reserves. Those funds won’t last forever, and the House Democratic caucus has already approached the state treasury about the possibility of an advance. The caucus will exhaust its reserves sometime this week, Patton said.
Centre County Republican and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman hasn’t taken a position on Teplitz’s bill, said his spokeswoman, Jennifer Kocher. The caucus believes it did its job by passing a budget by the June 30 deadline, she said. “With that said, members should continue to get paid,” she added.
Senate Republicans will run out of reserves at the end of September, Kocher said. The Senate Democratic caucus has enough to get through this month.
In the meantime, Wolf is still meeting privately with lawmakers to try to hammer out a compromise. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return to Harrisburg until Sept. 14, with the House scheduled to come back Sept. 21.
Teplitz thinks lawmakers should have never left the Capitol after Wolf immediately vetoed the GOP budget, and perhaps that they should have never reached that point anyway. The General Assembly and the governor have part of winter and all spring to get the job done, but much of that time is wasted each year, he said.
Maybe it would be different if the checks stopped coming — and not voluntarily. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to hit the deadline or get it done even earlier in the year,” Teplitz said. “If we had an incentive to do that, I think it might help.”
- Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government. It reports on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Teplitz photo from The Pennsylvania Independent