Questions Remain About Covering Costs of Judicial Pay Raises

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STATE HOUSE – Whether the judicial branch can fund the salary increases awarded by lawmakers last week appears to be a somewhat open question.

The judiciary accounts for the bulk of the cost of the nearly $18 million package, which doles out raises to top members of the House and Senate, statewide elected officials and judges. The raises for judges are phased in under the new law, and Sen. Karen Spilka, who served as Ways and Means chairwoman last session, said a midyear spending bill is unnecessary to fund the pay bumps.

“There will be no supplemental budget for the pay increases,” Spilka told the News Service last week. On the House floor, Rep. Brian Dempsey, the longtime chairman of Ways and Means, said the raises would cost $4.1 million for fiscal 2017 with $2.5 million of that needed for judiciary raises.

When the raises are fully in effect, the annualized cost will be $17.8 million with the judiciary making up $12.4 million, according to Dempsey.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who said he would not accept the raise or housing allowance offered him, was asked about the judiciary’s ability to afford the raise at a press conference Wednesday where he announced his nomination of Appeals Court Justice Elspeth Cypher to the Supreme Judicial Court.

After saying the judiciary has not informed his office of any need for a midyear spending bill or a hypothetical delay in filling open judgeships, Baker turned his attention to Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who was in the audience, on hand for the ceremony.

“Is this a conversation we need to have later?” the governor asked.

“Not right now, yeah,” Gants said, demurring. “This is Justice Cypher’s day. So we’ll focus on other matters.”

After the ceremony the chief justice told the News Service he did not wish to discuss the matter. On Sunday, the governor said he expects to file a midyear spending bill soon to pay for snow cleanup, but it’s not clear what other spending requests will be included.

The pay raise bill, which was passed into law earlier this month with veto override votes in the House and Senate, was the first order of business of 2017 for House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who have also expressed interest in restoring funding Baker unilaterally cut in December to bring the budget into alignment.

On Friday, the governor told reporters the cuts he made in December were difficult but necessary.

“Our view was we were constitutionally required to balance the budget, and we believe those reductions were required to make sure the Commonwealth lived within its means,” Baker said after touring the MBTA’s operations center to thank dispatchers for their work during last week’s snowstorm. “Tax revenue since then has tracked pretty closely to the revised projections that we made and we believe at this point in time that the budget’s balanced.”

Baker said he waited to announce his intention to veto the bill until he had a firm understanding of it. After the bill cleared the House and Senate, the governor said he would veto it.

“We made our point of view pretty clear on that. We are not in the position of speaking to legislation before we’re pretty sure it’s going to get to our desk,” Baker said. He said, “Because you never know, as something moves through the process what the devil in the details might turn out to be. But we made our point pretty clear at the time and I think it was pretty well understood by the public.”

Rep. Natalie Higgins, a Leominster Democrat first elected in November, supported the pay raise package but said she looks forward to taking action to restore funding that was cut.

“When I found out that my first vote was going to be on compensation, I was not happy,” Higgins told WPKZ-AM/FM last week. She said judicial pay raises would make the pay rate fairer and encourage qualified applicants, saying, “They did it in a really smart way, phasing the $25,000 increase in four steps over three fiscal years so it really could be absorbed by the budget.”

Since Baker took office, the Judicial Nominating Commission has reviewed more than 1,000 judicial applications and there are now approximately 40 open judgeships, according to the administration.

Opinions about the judicial pay raises vary on the eight-member Governor’s Council, which vets and votes on judicial nominations.

“We need to have a respectable wage if we want to attract great candidates to the office,” said Councilor Joe Ferreira, a Somerset Democrat who said the state is attracting great candidates for judgeships. Asked if the raises were needed, he said, “I guess it’s how you define needed. It’s certainly appreciated by them, I’m sure. Maybe that will make a difference in attracting more qualified candidates. I know right now we have 46 openings statewide. We have 10 openings on the Superior Court… I know a lot of people that would love to do the job but can’t afford to do it.”

In 2013, lawmakers passed a bill hiking the pay in the judiciary. Associate justices saw their pay increase from about $129,700 to about $159,700. The pay raise law passed over the governor’s veto increases pay by $25,000 for judges.

“It’s been my position for a very long time that judges in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have been underpaid. There’s no question,” said Councilor Terrence Kennedy, a Lynnfield Democrat. He said, “Judges’ salaries have been too low for a very long time even with the previous raise they got that only almost caught them up from where they were before.”

“I cynically say that if every judge had to resign tomorrow in the Commonwealth and then they opened up all the applications again but said we’re only going to give you $70,000, I think there’d be a line from Beacon Hill through the park,” said Councilor Robert Jubinville, a Milton Democrat. He said, “I don’t know how it got in there. The judges tell me they didn’t petition it, so I don’t know how it got in there.”

Spilka declined to say whether the judges had lobbied for the pay raise included in the bill, and the Massachusetts Judicial Conference, which regularly supports bills increasing judicial pay, declined to answer on the record whether it had lobbied for inclusion in the pay raise package.

Before lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto of the pay raise bill, Councilor Jennie Caissie, an Oxford Republican, said she thought the current pay rate was appropriate.

“They’re probably around where they should be now. There is a lot of talent out there and lawyers do walk away from very successful practices to put on the robe. But it’s an incredible honor. It’s a great compensation package, and I think we take pretty good care of our judges here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Caissie said.

— Written by Andy Metzger