The wrong way to raise legislators’ pay
Some people say stagnant incomes are a major economic problem in this country. The Massachusetts Legislature decided to do something about that Thursday.
Unfortunately, their bold move applied only to themselves.
Lawmakers rammed through legislation that would sharply increase their pay — as much as 45 percent to legislative leaders, judges, and other top officials —
Technically, the legislative raise applies only to “leadership.” But the definition of that term is elastic enough to apply to practically any lawmaker. That is especially true of the Senate, which only has 40 members.
The raises themselves don’t bother me. At a base salary of $62,500, legislators are grossly underpaid. They make almost $40,000 less than Boston city councilors (who are arguably overpaid). The reality is that legislators cannot raise their salaries, ever, without criticism. No matter when this subject is broached, or how gingerly, it is met with cries that this is not the right time — no matter when they try it.
But, that said, there is no defending the way the State House heavyweights chose to ram through this $18 million pay package. When the House voted on the raises Thursday, there were just three floor speakers in opposition. Apparently, the rest of the opposition did not feel encouraged to express their thoughts. Historically, there’s more debate about the annual sales tax holiday.
The vote by the Legislature overrode a veto by Governor Charlie Baker. Baker’s veto was almost preordained, and he has said he personally will not accept the raise he is due under the bill. But he rejected the measure with one of the most mildly worded veto messages I can remember. Fiery opposition it was not.
Maybe Baker saw no reason to wage a war with lawmakers that he would probably lose. Maybe — as I suspect — he doesn’t really think the raise is all that terrible an idea. He called the idea “fiscally irresponsible” and stepped aside. The big Democratic majority in the Legislature owns this raise, not him.
As I said, I’m not against lawmakers making more money. But the way this was done bears all the qualities that drive cynicism about government. Voters’ attention was elsewhere, coming as the new president was being inaugurated, and passed while the state was transfixed by his bizarre behavior. Who has the bandwidth right now to protest raises for committee chairs?
Lawmakers could actually learn a lesson from the Boston City Council. The council’s pay raise process in 2015 was highly contentious, and it was public. Critics had months to make their opposition known. I don’t mean to overstate the nobility of the councilors: The council’s raises were excessive and intended in part to pad the pensions of some councilors who were plotting their exits from City Hall. But their hustle was transparent, if shameless.
There is regular chatter about the need for “two-party government” on Beacon Hill. But issues like the pay raise are a window into an insular club at work. The second the raise was formally proposed, the deal was as good as done. Republicans (and a handful of Democrats) went through the motions of voting against it, and the governor blandly suggested that it was a poorly timed idea. But there was never a sense of urgency to the opposition. Few seemed all that troubled by it.
Lawmakers figure no one will care by the next time they face the voters, and maybe they’re right. But you don’t have to look far to see how restless the public has become with business as usual in the halls of government.