How pay reflects power on Beacon Hill

Should speaker, Senate president be paid like governor?

If anyone has doubts about the centralization of power in the Legislature, take a look at the special advisory commission’s recommendations on the pay of top elected officials.

The commission is urging lawmakers to dramatically boost the salaries of the House speaker and Senate president from $102,000 to $175,000 a year. The commission said the two lawmakers deserve the biggest raises, elevating them to salary levels just below the governor ($185,000), on a par with the attorney general and treasurer, and higher than the state auditor, secretary of state, and lieutenant governor ($165,000).

Pay typically reflects power, and the advisory commission’s recommendation is confirmation of the centralization of power in the Legislature in the hands of two individual lawmakers. The advisory commission’s recommendation would make the Massachusetts speaker and Senate president the highest-paid legislative presiding officers in the country. The salary recommendation also reflects what everyone on Beacon Hill knows: that the speaker and Senate president run their respective branches.

The speaker and Senate president draw their power from their colleagues, not voters. They are elected by voters in the districts they represent and then selected as presiding officers by their colleagues. As presiding officers, they hand out committee assignments, which determine how much influence a lawmaker has on legislation and how much pay in excess of their base salary they receive. With few exceptions, the House speakers and Senate presidents of the last 30 to 40 years have used this control over committee assignments and extra pay to centralize power in their offices.

The power manifests itself in a variety of ways. When Gov. Deval Patrick recently called for closing a gap in this year’s state budget by cutting local aid, House Speaker Robert DeLeo called the proposal a nonstarter. Even though DeLeo is just one of 160 House members, everyone on Beacon Hill assumed he was speaking for the body as a whole.

The Probation corruption trial also showcased the influence of the speaker and Senate president. Federal prosecutors demonstrated that former Probation commissioner John O’Brien, a member of the judicial branch, paid the closest heed to job candidates recommended by the speaker and Senate president because they wielded control over his budget. O’Brien’s office even allowed DeLeo, at a time when he was on the verge of becoming speaker, to let his supporters in the House refer job candidates for positions at a new facility in Clinton. Most of those candidates were hired sight unseen.

In its report, the special advisory commission described the speaker and Senate president as “the leaders of a coequal branch of state government. Both positions wield enormous authority over the budget, operations of state government, and legislation, and both positions, along with that of governor, require those who hold the positions to be on-call at all times.”

For a private sector comparison, the commission likened the jobs of speaker and Senate president to a cross between a chairman of the board and a chief operating officer. In both private sector comparisons, the two lawmakers were woefully underpaid.

Ira Jackson, the chairman of the advisory commission and the dean of the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the salary recommendations for speaker and Senate president reflect the realities of Beacon Hill.

“We were looking at things as they are,” he said. “Nobody can deny that their jobs are like the governor’s.”

The commission compared the pay of legislative presiding officers in 11 states with so-called full-time legislatures. In that group, current salaries in Massachusetts were in the middle of the pack, behind Illinois but ahead of Michigan, New Jersey, and New York.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Greg Sullivan, the research director at the Pioneer Institute, said in an analysis released Thursday that Massachusetts does not have a full-time legislature. He said the National Conference of State Legislatures describes Massachusetts as one of five “full-time lite” legislatures. In that group, the current pay for the Bay State’s presiding legislative officers trails only Illinois.

Sullivan also points out that boosting the pay of the speaker and Senate president to $175,000 would accentuate their first-among-equals status by putting their salaries nearly $115,000 above the $60,033 base pay of rank-and-file lawmakers.

“To me it’s like the imperial speaker and the Senate president. No other state does this,” said Sullivan, a former legislator himself who previously served as the state’s inspector general. “They’ve elevated the role of the speaker and Senate president to be in a category similar to the governor. This is unprecedented. It’s one more step toward this idea that the speaker and the Senate president are the Legislature.”