By Gintautas Dumcius and Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON — Outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday quickly signaled his support for major increases in the salaries of eight top state officials, as recommended by a special commission, while his successor said he would “probably veto” them if they arrived on his desk before the state’s financial situation had improved.
In a statement released as the commission was outlining its conclusions, Patrick conditioned his support for the pay raises on legislative action on his proposal to help bring this year’s $36.5 billion budget back into balance amid revenues that are not meeting benchmarks.
“I will not approve legislation to change the compensation of public officials unless the Legislature first sends me an acceptable budget solve,” Patrick said in a statement. “I trust that the Legislature, and the general public, will understand why action to balance the budget should precede action on compensation.”
The commission recommended pay hikes for the House speaker and Senate president as well as the state’s six constitutional officers – governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, auditor and secretary of state.
>>> For audio of the entire press conference on the commission’s report, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/twg/index.php?twg_album=audio%2F2014&twg_show=12-01_Raises.jpg <<<
>>> For publishable photos from the event, go to http://statehousenews.com/ <<<
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, didn’t support or rule out the pay increases in a brief statement. “The report will now be reviewed,” DeLeo said.
Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat who did not run for re-election, said she believes constitutional officers and legislative leaders should be compensated “commensurate with the full time positions they hold.”
“These are thoughtful and comprehensive recommendations which we are currently reviewing to determine how they could be practically implemented and what the next steps may be,” she said in a statement.
In his statement, Patrick added, “While I have no personal stake in the changes, and believe people don’t run for public office for the salary, I understand the demands of the jobs and agree the compensation should be updated. I also agree that, in the short run, implementation should not depend on additional appropriation.”
Commission member Michael Widmer told the News Service a state law would need to be approved to change the salaries of the top eight state officials.
Massachusetts has a full-time Legislature although lawmakers, including many who hold second jobs, spend a good portion of their two-year session meeting in lightly attended informal sessions.
Charlie Baker, the incoming governor, struck a different tone in the pay raise debate.
“Now is not the time to be talking about pay increases on Beacon Hill,” he told reporters during a press conference in Brighton he called to respond to the pay panel recommendations. “There’s a very significant deficit that needs to be dealt with and I think that’s really where the focus for the leadership in state government should be at this point in time, and that’s certainly where my focus is going to be.”
Baker (R-Swampscott) allowed that compensation and cost-of-living for those who choose public service as a career is “worthy of discussion,” but not, he said, at a time when the governor is making emergency budget cuts that will impact citizens across the state.
“I think if the Commonwealth was in great shape financially and everything was swimming, you know, going along beautifully fiscally and operationally you didn’t have to spend half a day at the registry to conduct a relatively simple transaction, then yeah, maybe that would be the right time to have this conversation. I sure don’t think that’s now, and it’s certainly not going to be today or tomorrow,” Baker said.
Several lawmakers have suggested pay raises would be difficult to approve during lightly attended informal sessions, where any single member can prevent a bill from advancing, and with the state in the midst of cutting programs and services.
Whitman Republican Rep. Geoff Diehl has vowed to block any pay raise legislation since any single lawmaker can block a bill from advancing during informal sessions or bring such sessions to a halt by doubting the presence of a quorum. Diehl declined comment Monday, saying he wanted to read the commission’s report.
“As merited as the increases may be, I think they would be poorly received by the public,” said Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), adding that lawmakers aren’t being paid “starvation wages.” “I’m not unsympathetic but the optics would be terrible. The fiscal problems need to take priority.”
Patrick last month unilaterally slashed $198 million in spending and asked the Legislature to authorize spending reductions in agencies that are exempt from his budget-cutting authority. The legislation is sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee, as lawmakers, including Speaker DeLeo, have registered their opposition to any cuts in local aid to cities and towns without outlining a plan to address the budget gap remaining after Patrick’s unilateral cuts.
Created through a section in the fiscal 2015 budget, the special panel studying the compensation of public officials and comparing it to the private sector recommended Monday that the governor’s salary should be raised by $33,200 to an annual $185,000 and coupled with a new $65,000 housing allowance.
Compensation for the Senate president and the House speaker should be set at an annual $175,000, up from $102,279, the seven-member panel said in its 28-page report. Commission members also recommended “reasonable adjustments to the stipends provided to other House and Senate leadership positions,” saying such changes were “justified.”
The chair of the commission, Ira Jackson, said he had “no idea” how the Legislature will react to the recommendations.
In order for the recommendations to go into effect for the next incoming legislative session and constitutional officers, lawmakers would have to act before the end of the current legislative session, Jackson said.
“It’s their call,” said Jackson, who is dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass Boston.
The commission also recommended eliminating legislative per diem payments for travel — Jackson called them “simply indefensible” — and precluding outside employment and income for constitutional officers, the House speaker and the Senate president, other than “passive” income from investments.
The elimination of per diems — payments made for each day the Legislature is in session and other days a legislator heads to the State House for “official duties” — would save $300,000 a year. The payments range from $10 to $100, depending on the proximity to Beacon Hill, the commission said.
The total cost of the recommendations comes to $934,343 a year, according to Jackson. While that is a small portion of the state budget, “during tight fiscal times, we conclude that these costs can and should be readily absorbed within the budgets of each constitutional office and by both branches of the legislature, without additional appropriation or any additional taxation,” he said.
Jackson, who was appointed the chair of the commission by Gov. Patrick, said the commission was “fact-driven” and called its recommendations “fair and balanced.”
Asked about Baker’s current opposition to the raises, Jackson said he knows Baker, referred to him as a “management expert,” and added that he wants to give the governor-elect a chance to read the report.
“I think we offer a fairly compelling argument that is just good common sense, good management practices, that…there not be 1,254 employees reporting to the governor who earn more than he or she does,” Jackson said.
Though Baker said he wanted to read the report before commenting on particulars, he did say, “I don’t want a housing stipend. I can tell you that point blank.”
Massachusetts is one of six states that does not provide the governor with a residence or a housing allowance.
Asked about the argument that it sets a bad management precedent for the governor to earn less than some of his top deputies, Baker said, “I don’t have a problem with people in my Cabinet earning more than I do. I don’t have a problem with people, if they deserve it, earning more than the governor does.”
Though Baker acknowledged that it’s important to pay adequately to attract top talent to government, he pointed to the field of “terrific” candidates that ran this cycle as evidence that current salaries do not pose as a deterrent.
“This notion that somehow in the grand scheme of things this is the big decider with respect to whether or not people decide to get into public life or not, I don’t buy it,” Baker said.
Widmer, the head of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a member of the commission, noted that he has repeatedly said the $329 million budget shortfall identified by the governor “understates” the problem, and the incoming governor will likely have to make his own cuts.
“Obviously having a balanced budget is right at the top of the list of the state’s priorities, but I would say in terms of our recommendations here, one is that we’re making a strong argument that they not add to the spending in any way, it’s an infinitesimal amount anyway in the context of a 36 billion dollar budget,” Widmer said.
The report also recommends:
— Salaries of $175,000 for the attorney general, who makes $130,582, and the treasurer, who earns $127,917;
— Salaries of $165,000 for the lieutenant governor, who would currently make $134,932, the secretary of state, who currently earns $130,916, and the state auditor, who currently earns $134,952;
— Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to determine increases and decreases in compensation for constitutional officers and legislative leaders on a biennial basis;
— Increasing legislative office expense allotments to $10,000 from $7,200 for legislators with districts within a 50-mile radius of Boston, and to $15,000 for legislators outside the radius;
— Compensation increases must be cost-neutral and reported on an annual basis;
— The creation of future special advisory commissions, on a biennial basis, to review compensation and recommend reforms.
The last public compensation commission, which issued its recommendations calling for increases in 2008, was “largely ignored” and never acted upon, aside from increased compensation for judges, which the current commission took into account as it deliberated its recommendations, Jackson said.
The commission did not look into the implications for lawmakers’ pensions if the increases are approved, Widmer said.
The commission also did not call for a change in legislators’ base salaries, “in part because the public has already spoken” through a 1998 constitutional amendment keying the salaries to changes to median family income, Jackson said. The commission did recommend using a “consistent” process with data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis to measure change in the most recent eight quarters.
Legislators currently earn a base salary of $60,033, though many lawmakers received additional pay in connection with extra assignments doled out every two years by legislative leaders. According to the commission, legislators’ average total pay was $73,175 in 2013.
Cathy Minehan, a commission member and dean of Simmons College’s School of Management, said a future commission could look at tying public officials’ compensation to performance measures, like in the private sector.
After the meeting, Jackson was asked about Patrick’s statement on approving the salaries in exchange for a budget fix. “It’s above my pay grade,” Jackson said, smiling. “And I was unpaid.”
The full report is available at http://www.statehousenews.com/content/docs/2014/12-01_FinalReportSpecialAdvisoryCommission-NOV30.pdf.
Michael Norton contributed reporting.