It is beyond obscene that a former Pennsylvania state senator can even receive an annual pension of $245,000, plus free healthcare for life. But it is unconscionable when the former state senator, Robert Mellow, pleads guilty to corruption, goes to prison, and then gets his nearly quarter-million-dollar-a-year pension restored.
The 6-5 decision by the State Employees’ Retirement System last week to restore Mellow’s pension sets a dangerous precedent that will open the door for other convicts to request to get their pensions restored. Mellow, a Democrat from Scranton, successfully argued his federal conviction wasn’t comparable to the state crimes listed in the pension forfeiture law.
A simple fix to this ridiculous loophole is to broaden the definition to all state or federal convictions. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it difficult enough to convict lawmakers for corruption. It is an added affront for taxpayers to shoulder the pension costs for lawmakers who break the law.
The same goes for other state employees convicted of crimes, such as Gary Schultz, the former Penn State vice president who pleaded guilty in the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal, yet still receive his $330,699 annual pension.
Entitlement knows no bounds in Harrisburg, home to one of the country’s most bloated, corrupt and ineffective state legislatures.
Bloated: Pennsylvania has the largest full-time Legislature in the country and is second only to California in terms of the more than $86,000 annual pay, plus a per diem of $179 a day. By comparison, New Hampshire’s legislators earn $200 per two-year term.
Corrupt: A 2014 Harvard study ranked Pennsylvania among the most corrupt state governments in terms both “legal” and “illegal” graft. A 2015 study ranked Pennsylvania the fifth most corrupt state. The list of state lawmakers turned convicts is long and undistinguished, not to mention the dirty judges, treasurers, attorney general and other elected officials convicted in recent years.
Ineffective: For years, the state Legislature and governor have failed to complete their main task of producing a balanced budget on time. ’Nuff said.
House lawmakers could save taxpayers millions of dollars by moving forward with a worthy bill they have been sitting on all year that would allow voters to shrink the size of their chamber by 26 percent. Passage of campaign finance limits and enhanced disclosure requirements would help reduce the flood of money that often corrupts officials.
State lawmakers should go one step further and reform their own gold-plated benefits that allow them to retire at age 55 with just 10 years of service.
To its credit, the Legislature did approve a pension-overhaul bill in June, but it only applies to government employees hired after 2019 and will do little to reduce the state’s $70 billion unfunded pension liability.
Of course, the pension millstone stems in large part to a 2001 deal backed by the Ridge administration that increased the pension formula for state and school district employees by 25 percent. Not to be outdone, the Legislators hiked their pensions by 50 percent then.
Bloated, corrupt and ineffective indeed.