Pay raise hearing just for show?
DeLeo, Rosenberg drafted bill, made ethics inquiries before hearing
WHEN HOUSE SPEAKER Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg issued a joint statement last week about holding hearings on a two-year-old report to explore the possibility of raising salaries for themselves and constitutional officers, they indicated the process was evolving and public input would help shape possible legislation.
“The Legislature has yet to hold a public hearing on either this report or an earlier 2008 report,” the pair said in their statement announcing a hearing by the Joint Committee on Ways and Means. “We look forward to the hearing and testimony from experts and the general public on the 2014 report.”
But things aren’t always what they appear on Beacon Hill. The legislative leaders, it seems, had already made up their minds to push through a pay boost for themselves and most lawmakers and had drawn up a draft bill for ethics officials to review. The draft bill was attached to a letter sent to the Ethics Commission seeking guidance on possible conflicts of interest.
In a letter dated Jan 19, the same day as the Ways and Means hearing, the Ethics Commission responded to the legislative request. The actual pay raise legislation was not filed publicly until late Monday.
After analyzing the draft bill House and Senate lawyers sent to her, Ethics Commission general counsel Deirdre Roney determined that lawmakers could vote to raise their pay as long as they filed a conflict of interest disclosure with the commission. Roney noted in her letter that lawmakers were not increasing their base salaries, which can only be done in accord with the state constitution. Instead, they were boosting expense payments and the stipends most of them pocket for leadership work.
“(A)s you have explained it, the proposed legislation will leave in place the constitutional mechanism for changes to base compensation, and will only affect changes with respect to leadership or committee stipends, and expenses and per diems,” Roney wrote in the letter dated January 19, the day of the Ways and Means haring. “That being the case, I conclude informally that … the conflict of interest law does not prohibit action concerning the proposed legislation.”
House Democrats met in a caucus Tuesday morning to discuss the pending bill, which will come to the floor for a vote on Wednesday. The measure is expected to be voted on in the Senate Thursday and then go to Gov. Charlie Baker, who has said he won’t accept the pay raise included for him but has not indicated whether he will veto the legislation.
While DeLeo and his aides deflected questions about when the legislative push for a pay raise began, the speaker said the issue has been on the back burner since a compensation report was issued in 2008. That report was followed by a 2014 special commission study, which was shelved when incoming-governor Baker indicated he would “probably veto” any pay increase because of a yawning budget gap the state was facing.
“There’s never a right time, I fully understand that,” DeLeo told reporters as he emerged from the caucus where the sole topic was the pay hike. “This wasn’t something [I thought about] over the Christmas holiday. This is something which I’ve been hearing for years, I’ve been hearing from House members, from Senate members.”
DeLeo also said bringing the issue to a vote before committee assignments are made would relieve legislators of a potential dilemma of voting on their own salary increases because no one yet knows what positions they would hold.
“There were more than a couple of jokes that people may be interested in whatnot,” DeLeo said of the caucus, indicating members were eying higher posts and larger paychecks.
The bill adopts the recommendations of the special commission to raise constitutional officers’ salaries to $165,000 for lieutenant governor, auditor, and secretary of state, a roughly $30,000 increase for each; $175,000 for attorney general and state treasurer, more than a $45,000 hike for each; and $185,000 plus a $65,000 housing allowance for the governor, who currently earns $151,800. The measure would also give up to a $25,000 pay increase spread over four years to all judges and most court clerks, despite a salary hike for that branch just three years ago.
By including all three branches, the bill is defined as “general legislation” by the Ethics Commission, as opposed to “particular legislation,” which is intended to have a focused benefit. The distinction means legislators can vote for the general legislation even though they would personally benefit themselves.
Roney said all lawmakers would have to do to protect themselves from charges of conflict of interest is to file a disclosure with the commission. The Legislature’s lawyers emailed the disclosure to all members.
Under the recommendations from the special commission, the cost of the salary increases would have been slightly more than $930,000. Under the proposed bill, the cost of the pay hikes would be $6 million for the roughly five months remaining in this fiscal year, including $1.4 million for the legislative increases. The cost would rise to at least $12 million or more in the following full fiscal year, according to House Ways and Means chairman Brian Dempsey.“[The increase for the current year] is within the existing budget for the Legislature so those funds are already in place,” said Dempsey, who added lawmakers may have to pass a supplemental budget to fund the Judiciary increases.
Under the legislation, the controversial per diems, which are paid to lawmakers based on how far they live from the State House, would be eliminated, replaced by an expense stipend of $15,000 for those who live inside 50 miles to $20,000 for those outside. The expense stipend, which is currently $7,200, requires no vouchers or documentation and can be spent however a lawmaker sees fit.