CITIZENS   FOR  LIMITED  TAXATION
and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

 

Barbara's Column
April 2003 #3

Time for House members to decide
who it is they really represent

by Barbara Anderson


The Salem News
Friday, April 18, 2003

It looked like a common, sneaky legislative pay raise -- but this time the real point was not higher pay for legislators, but increased power for the Speaker of the House.

Unlike most other states, Massachusetts gives committee chairmen, several vice chairmen, and various other friends of the Speaker, bonus pay. This has two effects: It raises these favored legislators' base pay by thousand of dollars, and it makes other legislators hope to someday become one of his favorites.

Of the 160 members of the House, roughly a third get "leadership pay." This group owes its standard of living to the Speaker.

Right now, at least, any bill creating new positions or adding legislators to the list of the privileged has to pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor.

The bill that just passed the House, if it passes the Senate and is signed by Governor Romney, allows the Speaker to create more loyalists in his own branch without getting anyone's permission. If it becomes law, at least another third of the membership will consider itself in line for extra largess. Add them together, and Speaker Finneran controls the two-thirds majority needed to override a governor's veto.

The pay raises are bad enough. When voters passed the 1998 constitutional amendment that automatically adjusts legislators' pay relative to state income, they were told that this would prevent their representatives from voting to raise their own pay, as they had in the past. Now these reps get the automatic raise, vote themselves higher expense payments, and wait on one knee for the Speaker to make them a "bonus pay" leader.

When they achieve that status, they lower the other knee. Not a pretty sight.

This bill had a quick hearing on April 11; Common Cause testified against it.

"The current statutory system is a check and balance on burgeoning stipends by giving additional opportunities for review and discussion. Any proposal, such as this one, that intends to increase the number of stipends, will increase the disparities in the House, violate the contract made with voters in 1998, and will very soon lead to the farcical outcome of having more than half of the body being technically 'leadership.'" said Colin Durrant, who was testifying on behalf of Common Cause Executive Director Pam Wilmot, who was at a nearby hearing with me and other members of the Coalition to Protect Citizen Initiatives.

Yes, as Speaker Finneran was making his power grab in State House Room B-2, activist groups from across the political spectrum were in Room A-1 trying to hold on to what little power the people still have in this state.

Senator Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has filed a constitutional amendment to increase the number of signatures required to get on the statewide ballot and make it easier to trick the voters with incomprehensible ballot language.

Though it was somewhat discouraging when three members of the Election Laws Committee sent letters of support for the bill BEFORE the hearing, and didn't bother showing up to hear our side, we do have a chance to defeat this amendment. Our broad coalition of Common Cause, Citizens for Limited Taxation, MassPIRG, and Grey2KUSA was joined by Secretary of State William Galvin and Peter Saks from the Attorney General's office, both of whom used the word "absurd" to describe the amendment's provisions.

Ultimately, it will have to go on the ballot for the voters' decision.

There's a chance to defeat the Finneran power grab too. Legislative opponents put up a valiant fight.

Marblehead Rep. Doug Petersen argued that "our forefathers and foremothers thought we needed a system of check and balances. We are doing an historic thing. We are removing that pair of eyes (the governor's) without the slightest justification for making that fundamental, I'd call it a constitutional change." He also pointed out the unfairness of setting up pay raises for legislators while "cutting jobs, raising the health care costs of working people and doing all sorts of other things" in the upcoming House budget.

A few North Shore legislators including Brad Hill of Ipswich voted with Petersen. But the rest supported Finneran's power-grab.

In the end the vote was an unexpectedly close 100-50, so a switch of a few votes would sustain the governor's veto.

The trick is to get Romney to see that he must veto, that his ability to sustain a veto on tax hikes or other anti-reform moves by the House depends on this bill being defeated. If he acts, legislators who voted with Finneran should put their responsibility to represent the people ahead of their loyalty to the Speaker, and change their votes to a "nay."


Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.


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