Legislative income inequality
Widening pay gap in House could have negative impact, reps say
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
NOW THAT PAY RAISES for lawmakers have been finalized, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg will soon dole out the lucrative leadership and committee assignments that could allow some legislators to more than double their pay.
That power in the hands of just two Democrats sparked some of the most spirited dissent among the Democrats and Republicans who opposed the pay hikes.
But the leaders of two branches this week dismissed concerns that their ability to reward expertise, longevity and, in many cases, loyalty could erode the fundamental ties between the electorate and the lawmakers they send to Beacon Hill to represent their interests.
House and Senate Democrats last week overrode Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of an $18 million compensation package for public officials, including $2.8 million in stipends for dozens of legislative leadership positions and increased office budgets for lawmakers.
Though debate was scant, members of both parties gave voice to the idea that the newly fortified stipends controlled by House and Senate leadership could make lawmakers more beholden to their party bosses than the people.
“Our current speaker, I like and admire and do not feel that he would abuse this current power. But what we are doing by passing this, is we are setting ourselves up for potential future abuse of power,” said Republican Rep. Shawn Dooley, of Norfolk. “When the speaker at his whim, at his leisure for no reason, can take away a third of a legislator’s pay, or grant them an additional third of their pay, that is an extraordinary amount of power that you are putting in the hands of one man or woman. That is not good for democracy. That does not foster debate.”
Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, made a similar argument for his colleagues to consider before Hecht became one of nine Democrats to buck House leadership and vote against the raises.
Hecht said he was concerned that all of the extra pay would be “allocated at the discretion of one individual – the speaker.”
“I have serious concerns that this bill will make the House more unequal, more hierarchical, and less representative. And that has real consequences for how we make law and how effective each of us can be in representing our communities,” he said.
Like Rosenberg, DeLeo brushed aside the notion that his control over stipends – which range from $65,000 to $15,000 – could serve to stifle debate and disagreement in the House.
Hecht, who criticized the perceived consolidation of power in the speaker’s office two years ago when DeLeo eliminated term-limits for himself, noted that the new stipend structure would make the pay gap between top leadership and rank-and-file members even greater than it is now.
With a previous pay gap of 56 percent and the largest in the country, he said the chasm will grow to 125 percent under the new stipend structure.
“In those sorts of circumstances, all too easily representation can get turned on its head. Instead of focusing on what constituents want and working to convince colleagues, one can find oneself waiting to hear what leadership has decided, and then working to convince constituents,” Hecht said.
Dooley, in his remarks on the House floor last week, also looked beyond the next round of assignments to consider how the new stipends will impact the race for speaker when DeLeo eventually decides to step aside.
Dooley recalled how past battles for the speakership – like the one waged in 2008 between DeLeo and Rep. John Rogers – “divides colleagues” and could seriously impact a lawmaker’s livelihood based on which side they choose.
“It becomes petty in nature,” Dooley said. “Now you’re creating, along with that, huge amounts of money for over 50 percent of the caucus, so the winner gets to dole out a tremendous war chest to his supporters, and cast down to the rank and file those who don’t support him,” Dooley said.
Rep. Jim Lyons, an Andover Republican, joined Dooley and Hecht during the brief floor debate to oppose the raises.“Public service is not about private enrichment. And that’s what this is becoming. Public service is just that – public service. And what this bill does, it creates private enrichment and is simply unfair and it is wrong,” Lyons said.
Neither DeLeo nor Rosenberg have put a timetable on when to expect leadership and committee assignments. Most positions are expected to remain unchanged from last session, though departures from the Legislature after last session have opened up several opportunities for Democratic lawmakers to move up the leadership ladder.