This is an excerpt from Arguable, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Jeff Jacoby. Sign up to get Arguable in your inbox each week.
It was Coco Chanel who supposedly said: “The best things in life are free. The second-best things are very, very expensive.” For Massachusetts legislators, there seems to be no end to the list of things that ought to be supplied at no charge.
In that spirit, Senate President Karen Spilka opened the new legislative session last week with a call to make community college free for any Massachusetts resident.
“This session, as part of the Senate’s new Student Opportunity Plan, I am calling on us to make community college free for all students, and [to] dedicate more funds to public higher education institutions all across our state so that every young person can fulfill their dreams for their futures,” Spilka proclaimed as her colleagues applauded. “It’s beyond time. Let’s make it free.”
Making valuable goods and services “free” is becoming standard operating procedure for Bay State lawmakers.
Many legislators, for example, want to make phone calls free for incarcerated people; a provision doing so was added to the budget passed last summer. At the last minute, that rider was line-item vetoed by former governor Charlie Baker, but it is sure to be resurrected.
The House and Senate approved legislation last year to continue making school lunches free for all students, regardless of household income. They approved a bill to require free menstrual products in most public bathrooms, including those in schools, jails, shelters, and housing facilities. Senators passed a bill to provide free ID cards to homeless persons. A number of lawmakers are pushing to make MBTA bus service free. That has the support of the state’s new governor, Maura Healey, who said during the campaign that she is committed to “outlining a pathway to fare-free buses throughout the Commonwealth.”
Maybe these are good ideas, maybe not — we can have that discussion another day — but plainly many Massachusetts legislators believe that some things are important enough that they should be provided for free. Allow me to suggest an addition to that list: legislators.
Think about it: Why should the people of Massachusetts have to pay to be represented in the state Senate and House? If menstrual items and jailhouse phone calls are significant enough to be provided at no charge, then surely members of the Legislature are too. After all, the Massachusetts Constitution itself requires that there be a General Court comprising senators and representatives. Isn’t it wrong to force the people to pay for something to which they have a constitutional right?
And yet we do pay. We pay a lot — and the price tag keeps increasing. For the past two years, the base pay for Massachusetts legislators was $70,537 per year, plus an expense allowance of $22,729 ($17,044 for those within 50 miles of Boston). On top of that, every state senator and almost two-thirds of state representatives — about 70 percent of the Legislature — collected hefty “leadership stipends” that augmented their compensation by at least 20 percent. In 2021-22 that stipend was worth between $17,039 to $90,876 annually. Bottom line: No senator or representative was paid less than $87,581; some collected as much as $178,457.
Last week, as the new legislative session began, all those numbers went up. As my Globe colleague Matt Stout reported last month, the base salary for legislators has jumped to $73,654, their expense accounts have risen to as much as $27,295, and the “leadership” payment will now add at least $20,617 to most lawmakers’ yearly pay.
But why should Massachusetts citizens have to shell out so much money for the services, if that’s the right word, of the men and women elected to the Legislature. Virtually no other state pays its lawmakers anywhere near that kind of dough, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. What do we get for it? Almost no Massachusetts legislators have any sway, and the handful who do conduct nearly all their business in secret — indeed, Massachusetts state government is notorious for its lack of transparency. Rarely is any serious legislative matter debated openly, and bills are typically passed or rejected in pro forma votes whose outcome is decided in advance.
Bay State residents should not have to pay for such terrible representation — or indeed, for any representation. Anyone who wishes to serve in the Legislature should do so for free or for only a nominal charge. In hundreds of towns across Massachusetts, there are thousands of selectmen and town meeting members who are paid no more than a small stipend, if that, for the work they do on behalf of their constituents. Most school committee members aren’t paid either.
State legislators should be treated no differently. As Massachusetts’ neighbor to the north can attest, that’s hardly an outrageous proposition. New Hampshire rejects the notion that legislating is a job for well-compensated professional politicians. It pays its lawmakers just $100 per year, and its 400-member House of Representatives attracts the participation of a remarkably diverse array of citizens. “Unlike Massachusetts, where many legislative candidates are attracted by the prospect of status, influence, money, and a stepping stone to higher office,” I wrote in 2018, “New Hampshire’s statehouse tends to attracts true citizen-lawmakers — independent, civic-minded volunteers who choose to serve with no ulterior motive but good governance.”
In New Mexico, to take another example, state legislators are paid no salary at all — not even the $100 that Granite State lawmakers get. Apart from a per diem of between $165 and $194 a day for the few weeks each year that the Legislature meets, New Mexico’s state senators and representatives have always performed their jobs as volunteers.
So should their counterparts in Massachusetts.
No one, of course, is compelled to run for the Legislature. Those who choose to do so should not be motivated by the prospect of fat paychecks for little work. They should be attracted by the desire to serve the Commonwealth from a public-spirited interest in making Massachusetts better. While lawmakers keep coming up with new ideas for making things free, it is time that lawmakers themselves were free. We elect them; that’s enough. We shouldn’t have to pay for them too.