Columns » Max Brantley

Easy on the pay raises

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An independent commission appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and the chief justice began work last week to fulfill part of Issue 3, the constitutional amendment that eased term limits, banned lobbyist gifts to legislators (sort of) and provided a mechanism for pay raises.

The amendment established the commission to give pay raises annually, if warranted. Their pay decisions do not require a legislative vote, thus insulating lawmakers from fallout from raising their own pay. Their recommendations on expenses are only advisory.

Legislators, naturally, think they are underpaid. Don't be so sure. And don't be misled by official pay of $15,869. First, being a legislator isn't supposed to be a full-time job. We have a citizen legislature, with a 60-day session (counting weekends) every odd year and a 30-day fiscal session (again counting weekends and supposedly limited to routine budgeting) every even year. There are interim committee meetings but they've become too numerous and serve increasingly as a way for legislators to pad per diem pay supplements. Legislators generally draw $45,000 to $50,000 a year in combined payments. Many of them also are drawing $1,000 a month in sham "expenses" paid to spouses as alleged office help.

The commission got off to a good start with suggestions to research the pay in other states and to also be mindful of the consumer price index.

In 1993, voters set pay for state officials commensurate with what they thought elected officials should be paid. The amendment allowed for inflationary pay adjustments, but politics and the economy discouraged increases.

One simple and reasonable way to adjust official pay would be to apply the consumer price index inflation rate to the 1993 salaries. This would raise the governor from $87,759 to almost $99,000; the lieutenant governor from $42,315 to $48,472; the secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and land commissioner from $54,848 to $61,617; the attorney general from $73,132 to $82,156, and legislators from $15,869 to $20,539.

The commission also will set judges' pay. They are already paid well. Circuit judges make $140,372, for example, and associate Supreme Court justices make $149,589. State judge pay ranks 28th in the U.S., not bad for a state that ranks 48th in per capita income.

The median household income in the state is $40,500, which means more than one worker contributes in many cases. So legislators already take home more than the median income for a part-time job.

Pay isn't the only factor to be considered. The politicians also qualify for defined benefit pensions. They are reimbursed for mileage at a rate far exceeding that paid other state employees. The per diem payment — $144 for out-of-town legislators — is untaxed and need not be documented though it's supposed to cover real expenses. Legislators also cheat on per diem, claiming it for days the legislature is in session but no one is meeting, such as on weekends. Other expenses — in addition to those nepotistic "expense" payments — can also be submitted. Many take subsidized junkets. They and their families qualify for state health insurance, a solid gold relatively low-cost plan that is generously subsidized (even for those who voted against the private option). And there's a huge loophole in the new rule that lobbyists may not buy meals for legislators: The amendment included an exception for "scheduled activities." Lobbyists are feeding lawmakers three meals a day when the legislature is in session and throwing cocktail parties nearly every night. Even a box lunch break for a committee last week was designated a "special event" to qualify for free grub.

The commission could make this simple. Recommend that the legislature only reimburse documented official expenses. That's the rule in private business. And pay? Give politicians precisely what they've produced for taxpayers. A 48th place ranking.

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