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CLT&G Update
Wednesday, November 18, 1998

The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune
Sunday, November 15, 1998

Lawmakers Head for $100,000
By John Macone
Eagle-Tribune Writer

Many voters were outraged when lawmakers gave themselves a 55 percent pay raise in 1994.

They may not realize that on Nov. 3 they themselves approved a raise that in the long run is far more generous to lawmakers -- and guaranteed in the state constitution.

"They are now the only human beings in the world, as far as I know, who have constitutionally guaranteed pay raises," said Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government. "They will eventually be the highest paid legislature in the country, and there's nothing we can do about it."

Question 1 on the November ballot, approved by a 68-32 margin, took away lawmakers' power to raise their pay from its current base of $46,410 a year.

But it put future raises on automatic pilot -- tying legislative pay to the growth in the state's median household income. Over the past 20 years, that has gone up an average of 5 percent a year, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In effect, Question 1 accomplished what lawmakers sought in 1994: raises that reflect the growing incomes of the state's workers. But it does it in a quiet way that spares them the wrath of angry constituents, said Mrs. Anderson.

Every two years, starting in 2001, lawmakers will get a raise that goes up -- or, in theory, down -- by the same percentage as the median household income over the prior two years.

In 1997, the most recent year for which there is a figure, median household income was $41,212, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Charles Tontar, associate professor of economics at Merrimack College, said projections of median income in the Merrimack Valley, which closely mirrors the statewide figures, show the median income could increase by as much as 10 percent per year through 2005, thanks to the region's booming economy.

"Good lord, I'd love to have that deal," he said of the Question 1 raises.

The pay raise plan was initiated by state lawmakers in response to the criticism they took in 1994.

"It takes the politics out of pay raises," said state Rep. Barry R. Finegold, D-Andover, echoing many lawmakers who supported the amendment.

Lawmakers raised their pay to $30,000 in 1983. Then, just weeks after the 1994 election, they raised it to $46,410, drawing howls of protest from critics who said the move was stealthily engineered to diffuse voter anger -- voters would have to wait two years to try to throw out the raise, or the legislators who voted for it.

Lawmakers argued they were raising their pay in keeping with the increase in the household median income.

Critics did try to revoke the raise with a ballot question, but it was thrown out by the state Supreme Judicial Court.

State Sen. James P. Jajuga, D-Methuen, who also supported Question 1, said it makes sense to tie legislative pay to the fortunes, or misfortunes, of the average working family. From now on, legislators will be affecting their own pocketbooks when they pass laws that affect the economy and the wealth of the average person.

"It's very distracting and time-consuming to vote for your own pay raise," he said. "This way, the Legislature gets treated like everyone else."

In 1994, he said, citizens were not upset by the raise but its size: 55 percent.

"I'm like anyone else: I have a mortgage, I have to pay for my car, I have bills to pay," he said. "The feeling was we had gone so long without a raise, certainly no one in any other business would go so long."

He makes $54,000 per year, including a $7,500 bonus as chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee on top of his $46,410 base pay.

Hard to change

To change the state's Constitution, lawmakers had to convene a constitutional convention and vote twice to adopt the amendment before sending it to voters for final approval.

Because it was passed as a constitutional amendment, citizens would have a hard time reversing it without the Legislature's support.

Mrs. Anderson doubts the Legislature would go along, given its resistance to efforts to put term limits in the state Constitution.

Leaders in the Legislature refused to even bring term limits to a vote at their constitutional conventions, which forced term limit proponents to take their case directly to voters in the form of a ballot question. Voters approved term limits, but the state Supreme Court again sided with lawmakers and threw the law out as unconstitutional.

Mrs. Anderson said she thinks voters did not know what they were approving when they passed Question 1, misled by the first sentence of the question stating lawmakers will be prohibited from raising their own pay.

"A lot of people I talked to said, 'Yeah, I'm going to vote for this and tuck it to the Legislature,'" she said. "The thing they missed was what the rest of it said."

The second sentence described how the pay increases would be determined. She thought even people who read it did not understand how large an increase lawmakers were getting.

If the state's median household income continues to grow at 5 percent per year, lawmakers will be making $74,744 a decade from now and close to $100,000 by 2015. Pensions will also rise for retired lawmakers.

Mrs. Anderson said the Constitutional amendment has loopholes that could mean even bigger increases.

For one thing, the question only addresses "base pay."

Many Democratic lawmakers also get $7,500 bonuses for chairing committees, while leaders such as the Senate president and House speaker get bonuses of $34,590.

Chairmen are appointed by legislative leaders, who also set the amount of the bonuses.

"If times get tough, everyone could be called a leader, and everyone could get bonuses," she said.

Another loophole lies in the way the median family income will be determined, said Mrs. Anderson.

"The governor decides what it is, he could use any formula. There's no requirement that he use real figures," she said.

Gov. A. Paul Cellucci said he voted against the ballot question because he did not like the automatic pay increase provision.

This report was prepared by Statehouse reporter John Macone. If you have questions, comments or material to add on this subject, please feel free to contact him by phone at 685-1000, by mail at Box 100, Lawrence, MA 01842, or by e-mail at

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