Speaker, Senate President Could Get 65% Pay Raises

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/01/19/speaker-senate-president-could-get-65-pay-raises/

By Matt Murphy and Colin A. Young

Beacon Hill lawmakers waded into potentially treacherous political waters Thursday as they started the ball rolling on what could become significant pay raises for legislative leaders and statewide officeholders.

Two years after a special, non-partisan commission recommended raising the salaries of the state’s most powerful public officials, leadership in the House and Senate convened a hearing on short notice to discuss the panel’s work. More than two dozen members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees chaired by Haverhill Representative Brian Dempsey and Ashland Senator Karen Spilka showed up to listen, but testimony from outsiders was scant.

Top lawmakers offered no hints as to whether they planned for forge ahead, but leadership may want to take on the issue early in the two-year session and as far removed from re-election campaigns as possible. Some lawmakers were unapologetic in their support for raising pay for public officials, while one House Democrat said some of his colleagues skipped the meeting due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“There was a hearing on Ways and Means today,” Representative Paul Donato said after the roughly one-hour meeting. “Now the question is, what’s Ways and Means going to do with the report? Are they going to send it out as a bill, or are they just going to digest it as a report and be done with it, and then we’ll go to the next step?”

Though the committee did not discuss Thursday how it may proceed whether it will accept the commission’s report in full, draft its own bill to raise pay, or advance the matter along another avenue the dean of the House, Representative Angelo Scaccia, suggested that upcoming votes on rules could be used to increase stipends for members of leadership and committee chairmen without having to convince Governor Charlie Baker to sign a bill.

The 2014 commission, chaired by UMass Boston Vice Provost Ira Jackson, recommended significant increases in salary for the governor, speaker, Senate president, and the five other constitutional officers lieutenant governor, auditor, treasurer, secretary of state, and attorney general.

Benchmarking their current wages against other public officials and comparable positions in the private sector, Jackson told lawmakers that higher pay, though “inherently controversial,” was essential to maintaining talent and integrity in government.

“Compensation of public officials should be adequate enough to attract and retain qualified individuals to a public career and ensure that there’s not a temptation to betray the public trust. We also believe strongly that personal wealth should not be a prerequisite or qualification of service,” said Jackson, who served as revenue commissioner under former Gov. Michael Dukakis.

UMass Boston Vice Provost Ira Jackson, chair of a two-year old commission which recommended raising the salaries of state public officials, testified on Thursday before House and Senate members of the Ways and Means committees. [ Photos: Antonio Caban/SHNS]

No one other than members of the two-year-old commission testified in favor of pay increases.

Chip Faulkner, who represents Citizens for Limited Taxation, was the only voice raised in opposition. He argued that the Legislature should not boost its own pay during a time of economic uncertainty for the state and while some state-funded programs are coping with level or reduced funding.

“We’re running a budget deficit and according to some reports the budget deficit coming this July could be as much as $500-600 million in the state budget. Giving these raises or publicizing these increases in pay in the face of a budget deficit is just not kosher,” Faulkner said. “Why would you do that? If people are suffering under budget cuts that the governor has had to make, then why are other people getting raises from $102,000 to $170,000?”

At the time the commission first published its report in December 2014, the political environment was arguably even more hostile to idea of raising pay for public officials. The state budget was in disarray and incoming Governor-elect Charlie Baker threatened to veto any pay raise bill that might reach his desk.

This time around, Baker appears more amenable to hearing lawmakers out on the issue. A spokesman this week said Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito would not accept a pay increase themselves, but would “carefully review” any legislation sent to them.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who is entering his ninth year as the top House Democrat, has not put a timetable on his tenure in the speaker’s office, but would stand to boost his paycheck and his pension with a $70,000 raise. The same goes for Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who is roughly the same age as the speaker, 67, but only beginning his third year as president.

In its report, the commission recommended increasing the governor’s salary from $151,000 to $185,000, with a $65,000 housing allowance. That salary, according to Jackson, would rank the governor of Massachusetts tenth in the nation.

Making up for the lack of adjustment in 34 years, Jackson said the speaker of the House and president of the Senate should both be paid $175,000, up from $102,279, and should be prohibited from earning outside income as many rank-and-file lawmakers do to supplement their public salaries.

The attorney general and the treasurer should also receive $175,000 salaries, while the secretary of state, auditor, and lieutenant governor should be paid $165,000 a year, the commission determined.

The full package recommended by the commission would cost $934,343, but commission members said it should be absorbed within existing budgets and not supported by additional appropriations.

The 200 members of the House and Senate just received a raise in January of $2,515, bringing their base pay up to $62,547. The salary adjustment certified by the Governor Baker is required every two years under the constitution, and can go up or down based on two-year trends in the median household income.

Commission member and former Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Michael Widmer told the committees that any legislation should direct the governor to make the biennial adjustments using wage data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In addition to providing the most current numbers, Widmer said that specifying a metric for the governor to use would make the process more clear and apolitical.

Legislative base pay remains below median household income in the state, which reached $70,628 in 2015. The Jackson commission recommended abolishing per diems for lawmakers to help cover travel expenses and instead increase their annual office budgets by $2,800 to $10,000 a year. Lawmakers living more than a 50-mile radius from the State House should receive $15,000, the report recommended.

Representative Alan Silvia of Fall River said he knew of some lawmakers who did not want to attend Thursday’s hearing because “this is an uncomfortable issue” to talk about. Silvia said he is not afraid to talk about legislative pay raises because he’s seen at least a dozen of his colleagues leave public service for financial reasons.

“They left because they couldn’t survive. They couldn’t survive. They went to private practice, they went to private industry where they could make a living wage,” Silvia said. “We don’t do this because we expect to make what’s in the private sector, but we need a living wage.”

Silvia also took exception with criticism that the per diem which is meant to compensate lawmakers for their travel to and from the State House amounts to little more than a bonus for lawmakers.

“I’m from Fall River, I sit in the car for two and a half hours to get here for 36 bucks. It’s a loss for me,” he said. “When people shake their heads and when you hear these comments in the [Boston] Herald and all over, I don’t go with it and I don’t buy it because I’ve seen too many good people pass on.”

Faulkner criticized the process by which legislative leaders decided to advance their pay raise deliberations.

“This was announced, if I remember, Tuesday for a public hearing less than 72 hours later. The hearing is the day before the inauguration of a president where everyone’s focus is on Washington,” Faulkner said. “So this is flying under the radar and I can’t understand why I’m even here and why we’re having this hearing.”

That the hearing flew under the radar of many citizens may have come as a relief to the lawmakers who acknowledged that pay raises are almost always controversial and elicit blowback from their constituents. Thursday’s hearing attracted testimony from just a single private citizen.

Tom O’Neil of South Deerfield said he thinks all lawmakers should be paid more, but voiced concern over the size of the increases that could be handed out to those on Beacon Hill while he and others try to get by on disability benefits.

“Folks like myself, we get X amount of dollars every year and we have to take those dollars and stretch them,” he said. “Well when you start adding all of these different things … as a taxpaying citizen that doesn’t have a lot of money, it’s a huge increase.”

Perhaps the Legislature could raise lawmaker pay over a number of years so the increase is never too great in a single year, O’Neil suggested.

“As a taxpayer, you and I know it’s going to come from our pockets anyways,” he said.

While technically considered a full-time Legislature, the Massachusetts Legislature holds sporadic formal sessions, where recorded votes are taken. State lawmakers are charged with dealing with committee and leadership responsibilities and addressing constituent services requests and attending meetings in their districts. Some lawmakers hold outside jobs and lawmakers with larger campaign finance accounts are able to use them for some of their regular expenses.