Legislative pay raises unwise, unconstitutional
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, December 4, 2014


Let’s begin the holiday season with a history lesson, some constitutional law, and a fun quiz.

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 income.

— 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.

Knowing their 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 a year.

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 allowed.

OK readers. Here’s the fun part, a quick test to see if you are as smart as the geniuses on the commission.

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 Boston Business.

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.

Legislative leaders 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 housing costs.

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 News columnist.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle-Tribune newspapers.

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