Let’s begin the holiday
season with a history lesson, some constitutional law, and a fun
In 1998, there was a
statewide ballot question about legislative pay.
Question 1: Proposed
Amendment to the Constitution
A YES vote would
prohibit state legislators from changing their base pay and instead
would adjust that pay according to changes in median household
— From the Official
Massachusetts Information for Voters booklet, published by William
Francis Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth
In 1994, the
Massachusetts Legislature had voted itself a 55 percent pay hike.
Chip Ford created the Coalition for Payraise Repeal (CPR) to repeal
it. House leaders attached it to a state supplemental budget, which
the court ruled was not subject to a repeal referendum.
constituents were upset, legislators promised this would never
happen again and created a proposed constitutional amendment that
would prohibit rank-and-file state legislators from voting
themselves another across-the-board pay raise.
Instead, their pay
would be adjusted according to changes in median household income.
The argument used during the 1998 ballot campaign by House Speaker
Tom Finneran, which appeared in the red voter information booklet,
was: “the salaries of legislators — just like the salaries of
everyone else — will be tied to the economy.” An objective source —
the federal Census Bureau, which couldn’t be influenced by state
politicians — would provide the data.
This seemed fair. Some
of us still opposed it, arguing that the Legislature could not be
trusted and if the median household income ever dropped, they’d find
another way to get their raises: create new committee chairmanships,
give themselves higher office expenses or other benefits.
Despite the warnings,
voters approved Question 1. Legislators started getting small pay
raises as median household income increased in the 2000s — until the
recession hit, and median household income dropped. Then, to my
surprise, legislators seemed to accept their small pay cuts.
Until, perhaps, now. A
commission was created in this year’s state budget to deal with the
alleged problem of allegedly inadequate pay for politicians in
general. Appointed to this commission were academics from UMass
(which gets state subsidies), lobbyists from business groups, and
the token League of Women Voters representative. Some of them make
the kind of money that keeps the median household income from
dropping even lower; hard for them to imagine living on only $60,000
So they argued we’d get
better leadership from better pay, and recommended making the
governor’s salary the second-highest in the nation. I’d argue that
we just elected a fine new governor who is apparently willing to
work for the current pay, as are the other constitutional officers
and legislative leadership.
Buried in the
commission report was a way, its members thought, to give the other
members of the Legislature a bigger pay raise than currently
OK readers. Here’s the
fun part, a quick test to see if you are as smart as the geniuses on
Here is the actual
language now residing in our state constitution.
Art. CXVIII [Art. 118].
The base compensation as of January first, nineteen hundred and
ninety-six, of members of the general court shall not be changed
except as provided in this article. As of the first Wednesday in
January of the year two thousand and one and every second year
thereafter, such base compensation shall be increased or decreased
at the same rate as increases or decreases in the median household
income for the commonwealth for the preceding two year period, as
ascertained by the governor.
Quiz question: What
determines the level of pay increases for the Legislature?
If you said the median
household income, you would be right.
The governor’s job is
to get (ascertain) the latest numbers from the Census Bureau. I was
told during the campaign he could estimate the full year, and
correct those numbers later if necessary.
I passed the little
quiz too, even though I didn’t go to Harvard, run the Boston Federal
Reserve, or just retire from a “taxpayer association” supporting Big
The members of the
commission flunk the test. They decided that instead of “median
household income,” which is determined by the Census Bureau, the
legislative pay would be raised by another determinant: median
family income, or personal income, used by the Bureau of Economic
Analysis (BEA). The difference between BEA numbers and the Census
Bureau’s median household income is roughly a $4,000 raise for our
representatives next year.
will get much more; though at least their raises don’t violate the
state constitution or the promise voters were made in 1998, they
would become the highest paid in the nation.
Raises in general,
including “pension increase” raises for retiring public servants,
are a bad idea considering the budget is unbalanced in the middle of
this fiscal year. Hard to imagine most legislators voting to raise
their own pay while cutting local aid for the communities that just
elected them. Substituting more office expense money for travel per
diems makes no sense at all.
The commission also
deplored the fact that Massachusetts doesn’t have a governor’s
mansion. All the candidates had homes in which they can continue to
reside; it’s not as if we hired some outsider from Kentucky who’s
been living in a log cabin and will be horrified by Massachusetts
This may seem a small
issue in a nation of giant issues, yet the ongoing theme of
government deception runs through most of them. The Christmas season
begins for me on Friday — Belsnickel in my Bavarian immigrant-family
tradition, when St. Nicholas gives goodies to good children and a
lump of coal to naughty constitution-violating commission members.
Let’s hope the Legislature has a better experience, getting popcorn
balls and chocolate for ignoring the commission report.
Barbara Anderson of
Marblehead is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem