The uncomfortable subject of state elected-official compensation has come up. I am likely to need to vote on it sometime soon and I would welcome your thoughts.
Back in 2014, the legislature created a commission to review the compensation of the legislature and state constitutional officers. The commissioners included two in senior positions at the University of Massachusetts, one from the Governor’s budget agency, two from good government groups (the League of Women Voters, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation), two more from the private sector (one from the Business Roundtable, one a former Federal Reserve executive).
It would not be fair to call anyone in the group an outsider, but the group was certainly well-informed, experienced, competent and credible and their report is very complete and factual. It is significant that their findings and recommendations were unanimous in every respect.
The commission’s report came out in December 2014, in the middle of the Patrick-to-Baker transition. There was no appetite to act on it at the start of the 2015-2016 session as the state was going through a round of deep budget cuts.
From a legislative perspective, there is no good or comfortable time to act on the report, but now is a reasonable time. It makes sense to consider compensation in the beginning of a session when most of the legislative leadership roles have not been assigned — fewer legislators will have to vote on particular stipends associated with their own positions.
In a nutshell, the commission recommended substantial pay raises for the state’s senior elected leaders. Their compensation is not out of line with compensation of similar positions in other states, but it is a small fraction of the compensation of roughly comparable positions in the private sector. The commission pointed to the need to attract skilled leaders, the desirability of keeping those leaders away from financial pressures that would create temptations and the importance of attracting those who are not independently wealthy to serve.
The Governor would go from $151,800 to $250,000 (including a new housing allowance) and the other constitutional officers — Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, Auditor and Secretary of State — would receive increases to $165,000 or $175,000. The largest percentage increase would go to the Senate President and the Speaker, who despite their enormous power and central role, have the lowest salaries — they would rise from $102,279 to $175,000. Knowing the responsibilities of all of these positions and having a window into the work load and pressures that they entail, I support these increases without ambivalence. The pay scale will still remain dramatically below comparable private sector roles and, in fact, well below many public sector roles (see box below).
The recommendations of the commission will only result in minimal changes for the majority of legislators. The base compensation of legislators is governed by a constitutional amendment (Article CXVIII) which causes it to rise and fall with the median household income of the state. It was $58,157 when I started in 2007 and has moved up and down, most recently increased to $62,547 as of the start of this year. In addition to that base compensation, legislators receive an expense allowance of $7,200, which is fixed by statute. This allowance goes straight into legislative paychecks as taxable W-2 income and there is no specific accounting for actual expenses. Finally, legislators are entitled to a statutory “per diem” payment for each day that they travel to the state house, ranging from $10 to $100 based on travel distance. Many legislators decline the per diem, as do I.
The commission recommended that the per diem concept be abolished and that the expense allowance be increased to $10,000 for close-in legislators and $15,000 for legislators outside a 50 mile radius. For the closest legislators who have been declining the per diem, this will net to a $2,800 increase. For a few of the most distant legislators who, given their high travel costs, do accept the per diem, the change may net to a slight decrease. The per diem concept is messy, arbitrary and unverifiable. I support without ambivalence the concept of eliminating it and adjusting the expense allowance as proposed.
For legislators who hold some type of leadership post — a committee chairmanship or a role in floor operations (majority leader, whip, etc.) — the commissions recommendations may have a substantial impact. The commission recognized that “reasonable adjustments in the stipends provided to other House and Senate leadership positions are justified” but did not detail any recommendations as to these positions. Given the substantial increases recommended for the top leaders, some substantial adjustment would be appropriate. As of this writing, there is no proposal on the table, but if we vote on a bill in the next week or two, it is likely to include increases for the various stipended leadership posts. Currently most committee chairs receive stipends of $7,500 with certain committees ranging higher, up to $25,000 for the Ways and Means chairs.
For example, as Senate Chair of the Judiciary, my pre-tax paycheck last year included base pay of $60,033 plus $7,200 for expense plus a chairmanship stipend of $7,500 — a total of $74,733. With the proposed expense adjustment, that would increase to $77,533. The stipend would likely also increase by a so-far unspecified amount, but I would expect the amount to be material.
I have always been grateful for the opportunity to serve the public. I have made peace with the idea that I earn substantially less than I did in private sector roles I held right out of school and I have been proud to make the life-style sacrifices I have made over my 25 years of appointed and elected public service. The life style I do have is adequate and I am acutely aware that there are many people in need at this time.
Thanks so much to all of who have commented on both sides of this question. The exchange has helped me a lot.
A couple of points that I neglected to mention that are responsive to some of the comments:
I’m grateful to those who commented to the effect of “you deserve it”, but this conversation 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 favor the increases for two basic reasons. First, these important positions should be attractive enough that there is vibrant competition to fill them. Many voters would say that they don’t feel that they consistently have good options. Every two years (four years for the statewide offices), these seats are open, but there is often only one candidate. To some extent the 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 is often inadequate to attract people.
Second, 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 pickup event costs for other legislators, staff and constituents. If they do have any significant outside sources of income (which most legislators do not), they have less time to devote to them. It has been become standard practice for senior legislators to fund-raise heavily and to spend those campaign funds on business expenses like business phone, business travel and business meals. While the practice is legal, it does reflect financial strain and contributes to a tighter relationship between donors and legislative leaders. The pay increase will not end that practice, but it will lower the strain in a healthy way.
Overall, the commission’s recommendations are thoughtfully designed and benefit the public. I expect to support the legislative package that implements them.
A lot of people seem to be responding to the proposed numbers for the senior elected officials as being too high. I would agree that they should not be making what bandit CEO’s make (millions or billions).
But I do feel that the proposed salaries in the $150,000 + range are actually reasonable — at the proposed levels, the top leaders would still be making less than hundreds or thousands of public employees. That may be the most appropriate comparison.
Any one can view the entire state payroll at mass.gov/opencheckbook. If you take a minute to download the data and sort through you will see that among state employees in 2016, there were:
In the City of Boston in 2014, according to a download from https://data.cityofboston.gov/ there were:
Those earning more than the typical Senator include school custodians, teachers, firefighters, etc. The work they do is important, but so is the work we do in the state house. Incidentally, all of these public employees have pensions which are the same or better than legislative pensions.
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