and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation


Barbara's Column
January 2003 #2

Come hell or high water,
legislators still get their pay raise

by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Monday, January 13, 2003

There was the Halloween pay raise. The Midnight pay raise. The Post-Election pay raise.

And now we have the Great Depression pay raise.

Yes, as the commonwealth faces a fiscal crisis, the Legislature that brought us to this sorry state gets a pay hike. How like Massachusetts.

Other states have budget deficits. But they don't have provisions in their constitutions giving their legislators automatic, guaranteed pay adjustments every other year, no matter what.

There may be a recession, a depression, a major earthquake, space aliens landing on the Mass. Pike; but the governor will still be required to take a moment to determine the growth in median family income so a pay adjustment for legislators can be made.

How did this happen?

Before 1998 if legislators wanted a pay hike, they had to vote one for themselves -- a controversial move which they'd make unpopular by choosing a large percentage increase and doing it at Halloween, in the middle of an all-night session, or right after they were safely re-elected.

I always thought they should do what the rest of us do -- ask their employers. They could put the request on the statewide ballot at each election and ask the voters to approve it based on their recent legislative accomplishments.

Instead, they created a constitutional amendment that would automatically adjust their base pay by the increase or decrease in median family income over the previous two years.

Any amendment to the state constitution must go on the ballot for voter approval. Proponents talked about "freezing salaries until 2001" and focused on the phrase "prohibit legislators from voting themselves across-the-board pay raises."

There were other issues on the 1998 ballot -- public campaign financing (Clean Elections), a tax cut on interest and dividend income, and electric utility industry restructuring. No one paid much attention to Question 1.

If you were listening to the radio, however, you might have heard my voice in this late October political ad.

Background: Spooky Halloween sounds -- tolling bell, howling wind.

Barbara: "Remember when state legislators voted themselves a Halloween pay raise?

They're playing trick-or-treat again. They've put a constitutional amendment just for themselves on the ballot -- Question 1.

The trick is, they make it sound good.

But if Question 1 passes, it will guarantee high salaries and automatic pay raises for legislators -- forever.

A treat for legislators only -- right there in the Constitution with our freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to trial by jury. The permanent right of politicians to high salaries and automatic pay hikes.

If Question One passes, our legislators will be the only human beings in the history of the world to have constitutionally-guaranteed pay raises.

A no vote on Question 1 will prevent this. A no vote on Question 1 will preserve our constitution.

Question 1: Special rights just for politicians?

No, no, noooo way!"

Well, maybe it was the tolling bell and howling wind. Or not enough people heard the ad, or read all of the information in the Secretary of State's voter information book.

Question 1 passed with 60 percent of the vote, and now many of these same voters are wondering how many legislators will dare take a 6.5 percent pay raise in the middle of a state fiscal crisis.

The constitutional amendment cannot be repealed by citizens. Even if we got enough signatures, the process would require at least 50 legislative votes in two consecutive constitutional conventions, and activists who have tried this route with tax limitation, term limits and the recent "defense of marriage" amendments, were denied even a chance to get those 50 votes by legislative leaders.

The courts say this is wrong, but have no remedy.

Legislators could put the issue back on the ballot themselves, as they did Clean Elections, to see if voters want to change their minds now that they understand it better. In our dreams.

So the raises will stand, and it will be up to individual legislators to make their decision on the morality of accepting them, and it will be up to their constituents to take note.

In fairness, they could set aside enough to pay the taxes on the additional amount of pay. Then those legislators who voted against last year's tax increase, who believe that taxpayers can make better choices than the state about spending surplus cash, could give the rest of their raise to charity.

The legislators who voted for the tax hike, who believe that the state can always spend our money better than we can, should turn it back to the General Fund to help offset the budget deficits.

If these events occur, we can refer to the pay hike of 2003 as the New Year's Resolution to be a Better Public Servant pay raise; and perhaps come to appreciate the gesture as the first sign that this year, legislators may actually earn the pay they are already getting.

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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