Understanding the Pay Increase Vote

By State Sen. William Brownsberger

There has been a lot of visibility recently on the legislature’s vote to increase the salaries for the statewide constitutional officers (Governor, Attorney General, etc.), for legislative leaders and for judges.

I’ve posted details on this issue at willbrownsberger.com and I’ve received mixed feedback there.  I wanted to offer here are a few points that tend to get lost in the discussion.

In 2016, the two most powerful legislative leaders made less than 12,476 other state employees.  An adjustment is long over due.

The stipends for legislative leaders have not been adjusted since 1982.  The bulk of the pay increase for them is catch up to inflation.  This should give some comfort to those who are comparing the percentage increase to smaller annual adjustments they are accustomed to receiving themselves.

The legislative and executive adjustments taken together total roughly 0.01% of the state budget and they will be absorbed within agency budgets.  No budgetary increase will be required in the current fiscal year, but, in future years, the costs will be part of the budgetary base.

The responsibilities of legislative leaders are necessarily much greater than those of other members.  Some lament the differences in compensation among legislators at different levels of responsibility.  While I favor a shared leadership model and a transparent, inclusive approach, there has to be an identified leadership team to run the show on a day-to-day basis and there is a lot to that.

The legislature sought and received a ruling from the Ethics Commission before the vote.  Legislators were not voting on their own personal compensation, rather on the compensation of a class of employees that happens to include them.   That sounds like a distinction without a difference, but it is actually important.  Many votes that legislators take affect them personally — if they cut taxes, they benefit from the tax cut; if they spend more on schools, their kids benefit from a better education.  Ethical rulings prohibit legislators outright from voting on matters in which they have a unique personal interest, but not on matters in which they are members of a general class.

I’m grateful to those who have said kind things to me to the effect of “you deserve it”, but the conversation on my website has helped me get clear in my own mind that that is not the right question.    It is irrelevant whether any particular individual or even a class of individuals “deserves” an increase.  While other hard-working people are struggling, no one “deserves” anything.

The real question is how the compensation adjustments will affect the public interest generally.  As a taxpayer, I support the increases for two basic reasons.  First, these important positions should be attractive enough that there is vibrant competition to fill them. To some extent the chronic lack of competition reflects satisfaction with the performance of incumbents and/or recognition of the power of incumbency, but it also suggests that the compensation offered may be a deterrent.  We don’t need to pay so much that people are running for the money alone, but we may be going too low right now.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t want legislative leaders to feel distracting financial pressures.  The responsibilities of legislative leaders do create financial strains.  They are expected to make numerous public appearances and frequently to pay event costs for other legislators, staff and constituents.

There is no good time for a vote on pay increases, which is why the leadership numbers haven’t been increased in 35 years.  But the start of the session, before legislators have been assigned leadership positions, is the logical time.

Please visit  willbrownsberger.com for complete details on the vote.  As always, I appreciate hearing from people, either on the website or at 617-722-1280 or [email protected].

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