postheadericon Beacon Hill Blotter: Got a Pay Raise?

One of my expectations as an elected official is that I am held accountable by the voters every two years for my actions on their behalf. It is my job to vote on tough, politically uncomfortable issues in a public manner. And when I was first elected, one of those tough votes I expected to take occasionally was on legislative pay raises.

That changed in 1998 due to a state Constitutional amendment; legislators now get near-automatic pay hikes. And, when questioned by angry voters, they are able to simply absolve themselves of responsibility by pointing to this sham of a Constitutional requirement.

The amendment was the Legislature’s attempt to make taxpayers and voters think they were being progressive and responsible. 

Back in December 1994, after the voters had already cast their ballots, the lame-duck Legislature voted to hike their pay by 54.7%, from $30,000 to $46,410. The argument was that the Legislature hadn’t had a pay raise since 1983 (a previous attempt to hike legislative pay had been repealed by the voters in 1988). However, in 1994, this vote was taken without a public hearing, with rules suspended, and without so much as a roll call vote. (I was not a member of the Legislature at this time, having lost my re-election bid two years earlier.)

The public, rightfully so, was outraged at such a brazen act by the Legislature, and were also angry with then-Gov. William Weld, who had agreed to sign-off on the pay hikes as part of some horse-trading (a cut in the capital gains tax). Barbara Anderson and Chip Ford, of Citizens for Limited Taxation tried to organize a ballot question to cut the hikes in half, but the courts nixed the effort after finding some technicalities in the question’s language.

The Constitutional amendment was the brain-child of then-House Speaker Thomas Finneran. However, it was opposed by both Barbara Anderson and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer, who rarely agreed on much, as well as the state chapter of Common Cause. Their argument was that a constitutional amendment was overkill and would make it near-impossible to amend in the future.

I agreed with former Rep. Frank Hynes (D-Marshfield) who said at the time that pay hikes for legislators should be dealt with through the traditional legislative process, and be subject to public hearings, public debate, and a public vote. I thought former Rep. Ed Teague had a much better plan to handle the issue, which was to have legislators vote on salary hikes months prior to the deadline for potential opposition candidates to take out nomination papers; that way legislators could be held accountable for their decisions.

However, the Constitutional amendment passed two legislative sessions and was approved by the voters at the ballot box. Since then, legislators have seen their base pay balloon from $46,410 to $61,133 in little more than a decade. And the hikes are still subject to politics as the amendment did not specify how the state’s median income would be calculated. As a result, we have a situation where a governor can include or exclude factors depending on how he or she feels about the Legislature at the moment.

These hikes also reflect the reality of living in Massachusetts, where the median income is buoyed by the number of well-paying university, high-tech, and financial jobs located in the state.

In addition, this year’s symbolic pay cut will actually result in a $2,800 pay hike for many legislators who deferred the last hike, but now feel politically comfortable taking the full check.

As legislators, it is our job to take tough votes. One of those tough votes should be on our compensation. We should be willing to publicly state whether we think we deserve more, less or the same amount of money. We shouldn’t have to hide behind a lame-duck session, or phony constitutional amendment.  

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