December 1 marked a major financial milestone for longtime Schuylkill County politician Dave Argall. Barring an unforeseen tragedy, State Sen. Argall will reach the 35-year mark in the state legislature, which will bestow upon him the highly coveted “golden parachute.”
The dubious distinction is attained by the legislature’s career politicians when their pension grows large enough to equal their annual salary. Argall will join an elite group of three pensioners in the legislature that includes only himself and two Democrats from Reading and Easton, respectively.
Since he was first sworn-in to the General Assembly in 1985, Argall has been enrolled in the notoriously generous taxpayer-funded pension plan for lawmakers. That plan is a defined-benefit program that rewards legislators more the longer they stay in office. In Argall’s case, if he retired at the end of his current four-year term that ends in November of 2020, he would collect a pension of just over $100,000 a year, approximately matching his current salary as chairman of the Senate Policy Committee. Argall has indicated he will seek re-election in 2020 and beyond.
There is no limit to how large the legislators’ defined-benefit pension can grow, so long as they stay in office. Indeed, the sky is the limit for those with a golden parachute.
In addition to his massive (and ever-growing) pension, Argall and his wife will receive free health, dental and vision when he retires, for the rest of their lives. In today’s marketplace, that healthcare package is valued at over $30,000.
With only very rare exceptions, private-sector employees are offered a defined-contribution retirement plan, such as a 401(k). On average, they can expect to retire with a nest egg that provides them with 50-75% of their final salary.
In Schuylkill County, the average retiree collects a mere $7,000 a year from a public or private pension plan (according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).
So why do Harrisburg’s politicians remain such an expensive anomaly? Because they determine their own salary and benefits. In the infamous Pension Grab of 2001, Argall and his colleagues voted to increase their pension by an astounding 50 percent. Argall added insult to injury in 2005 when he authored the infamous Midnight Pay Raise, which boosted lawmakers’ salaries by $20,000, on average, thus providing a significant boost to legislative pensions. The raise was later struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for being unconstitutional. Argall is one of only six lawmakers who never returned the money after the high court’s ruling.
Two years ago, the legislature passed a watered-down reform bill that gave Argall and his colleagues the option to leave the gravy train by enrolling in a 401(k)-style plan for the remainder of their tenure in the General Assembly. But Argall opted to keep the gravy train rolling by remaining in the old defined-benefit plan (the golden parachute). The bill’s author, Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Pottsville) also remained in the old system even after assuaging critics of the bill with assurances that most legislators and public employees would opt for the new plan. Tobash, who campaigned for legislature in 2010 by telling voters he would be in office only a handful terms, is well on his way to being a future Golden Parachute recipient.
Last year, Argall ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor. Had his candidacy been fruitful, his pension would have skyrocketed another 50% to $150,000.
The Golden Parachute is regarded as one of the more corrupting influences on members of the General Assembly,. It makes them prioritize their re-election above everything else, even the well-being of their constituents. Over the years, Argall has bewildered his constituents time and again by voting to raise their taxes significantly. He did so at the behest of the Harrisburg powerbrokers upon whom he relies to secure his re-election.
Sources tell the Canary Argall would love nothing more than to become a congressman, which would allow to amass a second golden parachute.