Massachusetts legislators are about to pull off the Great Pay Heist of 2017.
After a hurry-up process that slights transparency and takes refuge in convenient fictions and pretzel logic, the House passed the pay raises on Wednesday, with the Senate expected to follow suit on Thursday.
There’s certainly a case to be made for a decent pay raise on Beacon Hill. But not in this indecent fashion. Good government and transparency concerns mean that this bill deserves a gubernatorial veto.
Consider just two aspects of this unfortunate episode. Legislators have attached an emergency preamble so the new pay will begin to flow immediately. And they have slipped in an increase for the judiciary. That will render the pay hike immune to an initiative petition repeal effort, since the state constitution excludes judicial compensation as a subject for ballot questions.
Because they are constitutionally constrained from raising their base salary of $62,500, lawmakers are targeting this pay increase for legislative leaders. On Beacon Hill, of course, such leaders abound. In the 40-person Senate, every member in both parties has a pay-enhancing leadership post.
Most committee chairs will see their stipends doubled, from $15,000 to $30,000. The Ways and Means chairmen will get a $40,000 boost. Bonus pay for the posts of speaker pro tem and Senate president pro tem — positions that didn’t exist 15 years ago — will jump from $15,000 to $50,000. The actual speaker and Senate president will get $45,000 raises.
In fairness, the legislative leadership has secured an informal opinion from the general counsel at the State Ethics Commission essentially saying legislators can move ahead with the pay hike as long as they file a written disclosure that they are taking action that will substantially affect their financial interests.
Still, the recognized best practice for avoiding ethical concerns with raises that legislators vote for themselves is to stipulate that the increases take effect at the start of the next legislative session. That way, lawmakers aren’t casting a direct vote to increase their pay; if voters disapprove, they can express their sentiments by defeating legislators who backed the pay hike.
In this case, however, legislators are using wafer-thin rationalizations to sidestep process concerns. Here’s one: By pushing this package through before the leadership posts have been formally filled, lawmakers technically aren’t voting to raise their own pay, but rather compensation for the positions they will soon hold.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who sometimes poses as a process liberal, even cites that fiction to justify the hurry-up pay-hike offense. “Pay adjustments need to be made now, at the beginning of our two-year term, before people have leadership and chair assignments and are not voting on their own raises,” he said in a statement to a Globe editorial writer. And why is the emergency preamble necessary? “Because we have to do our rules and appointments within the next couple of weeks, and that ought to be on the books and law by that time,” Rosenberg said later at a media availability.
Those rationalizations are so flimsy as to be laughable. The speaker’s office, meanwhile, failed to respond at all to a request for comment on the same issues.
Rosenberg also claims that the process “has not been rushed” because (1) the pay-raise commission made its recommendation in 2014 and (2) the Legislature last week held a hearing on a raise. That hearing, however, wasn’t on specific legislation. And the cost of the pay package under discussion was estimated at less than $1 million, not the nearly $18 million the total package will now cost. Further, no mention was made of the judicial pay hike.
Given lawmakers’ disregard for a proper process, for transparency, and for their constituents, Governor Baker should veto this pay hike and tell legislators to go about this the right way. The Legislature may have the votes to override him — but at least his veto would strike a lonely note for good government.