By early 2017, the pay of Massachusetts’ top elected officials was, by some accounts, dragging woefully behind. A state commission had called several state salaries “outdated and inadequate.” Legislative stipends hadn’t been raised for decades.
The circumstances set the stage for a hasty, and controversial, push in the Legislature, which muscled through a law hiking the pay of a slew of elected officials, including many of their own, over a gubernatorial veto.
Six years later, however, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, according to a Globe review. Fueled by a provision in that 2017 law, the salaries for statewide constitutional officers and legislative leaders have grown every two years since, making many Massachusetts officials now among the highest paid in the country.
Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg’s annual salary of $238,794 is nearly $19,000 more than that of any other elected treasurer in the nation, according to a Globe review of available salary data. The pay for Attorney General Andrea Campbell, at $222,639, and Auditor Diana DiZoglio, at $229,377, also top all their elected peers, while the salaries of Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll and Secretary of State William F. Galvin rank second among those elected to those positions.
Officials have turned down pay raises at times, meaning not all of their salaries have increased simultaneously. But if every hike allowed under the statute had gone into effect, the pay of all six statewide constitutional officials, Governor Maura Healey included, would rank number one among elected officials at their positions nationwide, according to a Globe analysis.
In the Massachusetts Legislature, the salaries of current House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka have swelled by 30 percent since early 2017 to reach $182,818, not including the $20,000-plus they can claim for expenses.
Among the country’s 10 full-time Legislatures, only New York’s Senate and Assembly leaders can earn more in a year — about $682 more than Mariano and Spilka — before their per diems.
The Globe reviewed the most recent publicly available salary data in all 50 states in a bid to compare the pay of Massachusetts’ top officials to their counterparts nationally. In ranking where they stood, the Globe analyzed the current salaries for similar elected statewide positions across the country, in some cases relying on public databases, reviewing recently passed laws, or filing public records requests to determine how much statewide officials make.
In some instances, positions that are typically elected by voters here are appointed by the governor or the Legislature elsewhere, impacting the salary scale. For example, Tennessee’s secretary of state, treasurer, and comptroller — who has similar duties to an auditor — are all appointed and statutorily make the same amount, which currently is $245,004 a year.
How states determine their elected officials’ pay varies drastically: Some entrust a separate committee to recommend whether elected officials deserve a raise; others leave it to the political will of the current Legislature. In Maine, where the governor’s pay has sat at $70,000 for nearly four decades and a former first lady once waited tables to pay off a car, a gubernatorial raise has long been a fruitless pursuit.
The 2017 Massachusetts law specifically barred many officials from actively earning outside income, while creating a specific measure to automatically adjust their pay: Raises, or decreases, happen every two years based upon quarterly changes in statewide salaries and wages, as determined by data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It’s similar to a mechanism built into the state Constitution that automatically adjusts legislators’ base pay every other year.
That salaries for Massachusetts top elected officials have climbed to such heights is, in one respect, by design. A 2014 advisory commission recommended the state adopt the automatic trigger, arguing that statewide officials’ pay was too low particularly compared with the high cost of living here. Nearly a decade later, Massachusetts has only become more expensive — Hawaii was the only state with a higher cost of living last year — and, some argue, the demands of the job are even greater in a fractured political environment.
“We were quite upfront that this would result in salaries that would be at or near the top. So I’m not uncomfortable with that outcome,” said Michael Widmer, a former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a member of that 2014 commission. “There’s an underappreciation for how difficult these jobs are and how important they are.”
While technically tied to economic fluctuations, the automatic adjustments have, in practice, continually increased the pay of the six constitutional officers and top legislators by tens of thousands of dollars — sometimes in a single swoop. This year, officials scored a 20 percent raise, with many salaries hiked by nearly $40,000.
Such a system also effectively saves lawmakers from taking politically fraught votes to raise their or others’ pay, said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College. That, he said, can create “obvious tension” among voters whose pay isn’t automatically adjusted to meet the economic moment.
“They should be taking those votes every time. They clearly did it on purpose because it comes with a big political risk,” said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the conservative-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “It becomes harder for the public to hold them accountable.”
It hasn’t removed political decision-making entirely, however. Healey, for example, has the country’s fifth-highest gubernatorial salary at $222,185 a year, but just the fourth-highest among the state’s six constitutional officers.
Her pay is depressed comparatively because her predecessor, Charlie Baker — a Republican who ran on bringing fiscal constraint to state government — repeatedly turned down pay increases, keeping his base pay at $185,000.
If he had accepted raises in 2019 and 2021, the 20 percent increase afforded to officials this year would have pushed the governor’s annual salary to more than $252,000, according to a Globe analysis. That would be the highest in the country, slightly topping New York Governor Kathy Hochul‘s $250,000 salary, which currently leads governors nationwide.
The same goes for other top officials. Driscoll’s salary would be $225,107 — topping New York’s lieutenant governor’s $220,000 as the most nationwide — if her predecessor, Karyn Polito, hadn’t turned down raises.
Galvin said in February he wasn’t taking this year’s 20 percent pay hike “at this time,” but left the door open to taking it later. Should he, his salary would jump to $225,107, which would top all other elected secretaries of state. (Currently, Connecticut’s makes the most at $189,483.)
Healey and others either declined to directly address questions about their salaries, noting their pay is set by statute, or didn’t respond to Globe inquiries.
Mariano defended the system, arguing that it “effectively depoliticizes the process” and ensures salaries don’t languish. Before 2017, for example, legislative stipends — the extra pay attached to leadership positions — hadn’t changed in 33 years.
Lawmakers tied those to the biennial adjustments, too, meaning Mariano’s stipend continues to grow. He and Spilka now get $109,163 for holding each chamber’s top spot in addition to a $73,655 base salary. Add in expenses, and both Democrats make more than $203,000, nearly double what their predecessors made before the 2017 bill was passed.
Mariano said higher pay also can attract a wider range of people seeking office. “The current system . . . ensures that a diverse group of candidates of all economic backgrounds can pursue leadership positions in government,” he said.
Research studies have found that raising the pay for elected officials can help reshape how state government operates. Better-compensated legislators tend to introduce more bills and miss fewer votes, one study found. With higher pay and benefits, elected officials tend to pass policies that more often favor voters than special interest groups, another found.
But whether higher pay actually means those with less money run for office is unclear. One 2016 study found that in states that pay politicians more, working-class people didn’t appear to be more likely to run, to win, or to run again for office.
“The big barriers for regular people [holding office] isn’t the prize you win, it’s the cost of the race,” said Nicholas Carnes, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and one of the study’s coauthors. “That’s just a really, really high wall.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.