Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
January 2001 #3

Where's my constitutionally-guaranteed payraise?
by Barbara Anderson

At last, it's January 2001: time for your and my constitutionally-guaranteed payraise.

What do you mean, the constitution doesn't guarantee us a payraise?

It says right here: As of the first Wednesday of January of the year 2001 and every second year thereof, 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.

This is so neat because as we get our payraises, the median household income will increase even more, and in two years we'll get a much bigger payraise, and so on til retirement!

What do you mean, it only applies to the Legislature? Not fair!

Yes, it's all theirs. Legislators put a question on the 1998 ballot, and their argument for its passage in the red voter information booklet began: "A Yes vote would change the state constitution to prohibit legislators from voting to increase their own pay." Most voters thought this was a nifty idea and approved the constitutional amendment.

I'm sure that I too would have thought it a nifty idea, before I spent twenty years on Beacon Hill learning how the political mind works.

The trick phrase in the amendment is the two words "base compensation." Legislators get not only their base pay, but unaudited office expense budgets that they can use for whatever they want. They also get a "per diem" that reflects the distance they live from the State House.

Therefore, when voters approved the ballot question, the base pay of $46,410.00 was already enhanced by the expense budget, the per diem, and of course varied bonuses for various leadership positions. Last summer, during the all-night "Animal House" session, with no roll call, the House members voted to double their expense budget and their per diem; the Senate went along. This gave a non-leadership legislator a total pay, before benefits, of between $54,000 and $63,000.00.

Then this month, the constitutional amendment requires that base pay hike be computed from the rate increase in median family income in 1999 and, as estimated by the Governor, in 2000. This calculated percentage must be adjusted when the final 2000 number is available. But the hike will probably be at least $3000.00, and in two years, there will be another raise - unless the median family income rate drops, in which case legislative base pay will be cut as well.

If that happens, however, they can just vote themselves increases in their expense budgets and per diems again, or create some new leadership positions with bonus pay.

It's not about the money, which is a small part of the total state budget. The problem is that legislators don't have to improve their performance in order to get a payraise. They don't have to resolve issues, or even debate them. They don't have to spend all their expense budget on constituent service. They can drive to the State House, make a few phone calls before returning home, and collect their per diem. Or, they can stay to vote just as the legislative leadership tells them to vote, and call themselves representatives.

Governor Cellucci's Administration and Finance Secretary wants to see important legislation debated on its own merits, separate from the annual budget document. It has become a sorry tradition to group disparate subjects, having nothing to do with the budget, in "outside sections" of that document so that debate on almost everything is crowded into a few leadership-controlled days and nights.

Even though most Beacon Hill players and observers agree that this is a bad way to make major policy, they usually don't object because the correct system of public hearings followed by leisurely, informed floor debate is hard to get on a bill that the leadership doesn't support. As part of the budget, votes can be traded off, or controversial things passed without awareness by sleepy legislators in the general confusion.

A coalition of political activists from around the political spectrum is working on a package of legislative reform proposals that are intended to democratize the legislature and make it more accountable to the public. Their proposal would empower individual legislators and committees, encourage debate, keep the public better informed.

A legislative commission has recommended fewer reforms, but included a prohibition on all-night session unless there is a unanimous vote to stay beyond midnight.

It's January 2001, time for the Legislature's constitutionally guaranteed payraise. Let's check in one year from now to see if our representatives have earned it.

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

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