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editorial

With Mass. facing budget gap, it’s not the time to raise salaries

Governor-elect Charlie Baker suggested putting off the pay raises, including his own, until a host of fiscal problems are dealt with first.
Governor-elect Charlie Baker suggested putting off the pay raises, including his own, until a host of fiscal problems are dealt with first.Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

There’s a glimmer of good news in the recent recommendation by a special advisory commission to boost salaries paid to the governor and other top public officials: the findings were released in the full light of day, with two public hearings and online access to the study explaining the recommendations.

Transparency is welcome. But it doesn’t change the optics or the bottom line. This is not the right time to raise salaries — not when the state faces a $329 million budget shortfall and many Massachusetts families still face uncertain economic times.

The commission did its homework and presents a well-researched case for salary hikes for the state’s six constitutional offices, as well as for the House speaker and Senate president. But the research falls short of demonstrating any pressing need to follow the recommendations.

At $151,800, the current salary for the governor of Massachusetts is the 11th highest in the country. However, some 1,200 state employees earn more than that — and, according to the commission, that’s a key rationale for hiking the governor’s paycheck to $185,000. Yet, doing that would make the governor of Massachusetts the second-highest-paid governor in the country. And that’s without factoring in an additional $65,000 housing allowance the commission also recommends.

Under the commission’s proposal, the salaries of the House speaker and Senate president would also increase from $102,279 to $175,000 — an increase that would make them the highest-paid legislative leaders in the country.

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The commission argues that the current compensation formula for statewide office holders is outdated and should be increased to attract more qualified people, presumably from the private sector. But attracting quality private sector candidates isn’t a real problem here. Take the recent governor’s race: Of five candidates on the general election ballot, three were wealthy businessmen, including the winner, Republican Charlie Baker.

Besides, if a candidate begins a quest for office with the feeling that a public sector salary represents nothing but sacrifice, that’s the wrong midset. It might be nice to have more candidates of modest income who are actually in touch with life as most people live it.

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The state’s conflict of interest law prohibits public employees from participating in matters that affect their own financial interest. To avoid that problem, the commission’s proposals would have to be passed by the current lame duck Legislature, to take effect in January when new officials are sworn in. According to departing Senate President Therese Murray, it’s unlikely that will happen, given the controversy stirred up by the commission’s suggestions.

“The Senate can’t act unless the House does, and I don’t see that there’s a movement to do that,” said Murray, after delivering her farewell speech in the Senate chamber.

This is one time legislative inaction is the preferred outcome.