Stipends on steroids
Bigger paychecks give leaders more sway over members
HOUSE SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO and Senate President Stan Rosenberg got much more than a $1,000-a-week pay hike when the Legislature passed the bill to increase their salaries: They also were handed enormous clout to reward – or punish – lawmakers to ensure their fealty by controlling as much as a third of their income.
Not only does the new law give hefty stipend increases for leaders in both chambers, it creates money out of nowhere for 23 previously unpaid positions for majority members in the House and an additional $5,200 windfall for 16 Democratic members of the Senate.
The number of House Democrats with stipends is going from 55 during the last term, which was about 44 percent of them, to nearly 80, or roughly two-thirds of those in the majority.
“All this extra pay, totaling over $1.5 million, will be allocated at the discretion of one individual – the speaker,” state Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat who voted against the raise, said during the debate to override Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto. “The bottom line is the Massachusetts House is an outlier. Its structure is more discretionary and hierarchical than any of our peer legislatures identified by the [special salary] commission, and far more than the US House. Members’ ability to represent their constituents should not be minimized. Representation can get turned on its head. One can find oneself waiting to hear what leadership has decided, then working to convince constituents.”
Last term, senators could collect more than one stipend but the stipend value was capped at $15,000. The new law eliminates the dollar cap and a new addition to this year’s Senate rules allows members to collect stipends for up to three leadership positions as long as they are different posts, such as assistant majority leader, committee chairman, and committee vice chairman.
The statute will now grant a $5,200 stipend — $100 a week – to 16 joint committee vice chairs, positions that were previously unpaid. With 27 Senate chairs of joint committees as well as 11 Senate-only committees, all 33 Democrats, not including Rosenberg, would receive a chairman stipend. And while the rules prohibit collecting two stipends as chair, those who are also vice chairs of joint committees would receive an extra $5,200.
Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, who has been outspoken in his support of the pay increase, said senators have many more assignments because there are only 40 of them while the House has 160 members. He said that while most, if not all, senators will receive the extra pay, it will be evenly distributed among the whole body in an equitable fashion
“It’s up to the Senate president to spread it around,” he said while dismissing concerns it puts the Senate on a higher pay plane. “The Senate members have more leadership responsibilities. We got a lot more to do.”
The GOP was not left out, though, which may explain the muted opposition from the minority party during the floor debates. When it was being considered, the bill had only two amendments offered by Republicans in the House and none in the Senate.
Under the new law, not only do members of the leadership teams in the House and Senate get robust increases, the ranking minority members of four committees will have their stipends doubled. In addition, three ranking minority House members and one ranking Senate member of committees whose posts were previously unpaid will go from zero to $15,000 more in their paychecks plus their increasing expense stipend.
One Senate position that will see a doubling in the stipend is the ranking minority member of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. That position last term was held by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who, if he keeps the job in the current term, would get the $15,000 stipend for that post as well as a $60,000 stipend for serving as his party’s leader. Tarr’s pay could rise to $137,547, not counting the $15,000 he will receive for “office expenses” in his check.
All 35 Republicans in the House and all six in the Senate voted against the raise and in favor of upholding Baker’s veto, but none has said definitively whether they’ll accept the increase.
“I think I’m probably inclined to,” House Minority Leader Brad Jones told the State House News Service after the override vote when asked whether he would take the money. “Why not?”
Jones stands to receive an extra $37,500 in his paycheck this year, raising his annual salary to more than $122,547, plus the expense pay.
“It seems to me that you’re sending a variety of messages, one is somehow now this is going to be the law so I’m going to go devalue what I do vis-a-vis my counterparts in the rest of the body?” Jones said. “Next of all, if you don’t like the thing that you passed now I’m going to leave the money under the care, control, custody, and discretion of the same people who passed this bill in the first place? I don’t think it’s fair for me to now go to my family and say, ‘I’m not worth that,’ even though I’m going to work just as hard or harder.”
Of the $18 million in annual salary increases approved by lawmakers, members of the 200-person Legislature stand to receive $2.8 million. The share for Republicans who voted unanimously against the money comes out to at least $647,300, including $327,500 in increased stipends for leaders in the minority caucus and $319,800 in increased office expenses for all members.
For rank-and-file members who have not held leadership positions in their caucus and are unlikely to see an increased stipend added to their paycheck, the raise will come in the form of a boost to their office expenses account. Lawmakers living within a 50-mile radius of the State House will receive $15,000 for office expenses in their checks, up from $7,200, while lawmakers who live further away will receive $20,000.
State Rep. Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, one of the few Republicans to speak out on the floor against the hikes, said it was unlikely he’d get one of the plum extra stipends. “I speak my mind way too much to ever be a part of leadership,” he said.
But Dooley said the power of the pocketbook that now resides with House and Senate leaders of both parties is as troublesome as the added cost to taxpayers. Dooley said there could be a justification for a pay hike provided there was a ban on all outside income, not just on the speaker and Senate president, as now mandated in the law. And Dooley suggested there was a better way to award the raises.
“The better way to handle that is let’s put a stipend on every time someone shows up for a committee hearing,” he said. “I go to meetings where there are 30 members and only two or three show up. Let’s tie this thing to performance.”State House News Service contributed to this report.