TWO WORDS; ONE QUESTION.
As the campaign to reform the Massachusetts Legislature and repeal its bloated pay raise gets under way, the Beacon Hill smog machine is revving into overdrive, pumping out all manner of excuses and arguments to defeat the initiative. But two words and one question are all you need to clear away the haze.
The two words -- "intervening election" -- are today's topic. For the question, tune in Thursday.
Virtually everything about the 1994 pay raise -- which was filed by Governor Weld on Nov. 30 and rammed through the House and Senate on Dec. 2 -- reeked of bad faith:
There were Weld's lies in November that a salary hike "isn't even on my radar screen" and "is not something we're considering." There was the secret commission appointed to study the pay issue, which met in secret for just two hours before filing a secret report urging a raise. There was the sheer scale of the increase: a rapacious 55 percent. And the speed with which the bill was taken up -- heard in committee on Friday morning, passed by both houses Friday afternoon. And the "emergency preamble" to put it into effect immediately, instead of after the normal three-month waiting period. And the stealthy redrafting of the bill as an appropriation, making it immune to repeal by referendum. And the give-'em-the-finger smugness of legislators like Rep. Joan Menard of Somerset, who crowed: "If people don't like it, let them be mad at us for now and let it . . . go away."
But most obnoxious of all was the absence of an intervening election.
Political hacks whine that it is impossible to raise their salaries without triggering public anger. "There is no good time to do this," shrugged House Speaker Charles Flaherty on the day the pay hike was voted. "There is no process by which people would agree it's well done." At a hearing last month, House Ways and Means chairman Stanley Rosenberg complained: "There is a core of people in this commonwealth who would never consider any process of raising legislative salaries to be appropriate."
What makes voters seethe isn't the increase in money. It's the greed, stupid. Legislators would rarely get in trouble for boosting their pay if they simply waited until after the next election before taking the bigger paycheck.
Allowing an intervening election before the pay raise kicked in would be a sign of integrity and of respect for the voters. The Legislature voting on the money wouldn't be the one collecting it, so no one could accuse lawmakers of inflating their own paychecks. And since voters would be going to the polls before the raise took effect, no one could charge the Legislature with pulling a fast one. Of course it would help if increases were kept modest. But if legislators knew they'd have to win reelection before pocketing the additional pay, increases would be kept modest.
Under the 27th Amendment, Congress may not pass and collect a salary hike in the same term. ("No law, varying the compensation for the services of the senators and representatives, shall take effect until an election . . . shall have intervened.") It's a simple concept; even Beacon Hill should be able to grasp it. Yet every time Massachusetts legislators want more money, they resort to shyster trickery to get it.
In 1979, they pushed through a pay hike in the wee hours of Halloween with no public hearing and no explanation. Voters were furious when they found out. Philip Johnston, then a state representative and later a key aide to Gov. Dukakis, predicted: "The public reaction to the way it was done has been so negative that I doubt there'll be a pay raise for the next 10 years."
Not for the first time in his career, Johnston's numbers were way off. Only three years later, the legislators were at it again. During the infamous "feeding frenzy" of 1982, they attached a 50 percent raise for themselves to a judicial pay measure, which cannot be challenged by referendum. In May 1987, hungry for more, they passed a bill boosting their salaries by 37 percent, made it retroactive to Jan. 1, and tacked on an emergency preamble so they wouldn't have to wait. Voters couldn't repeal it until November 1988, by which point the pay raise was already two years old.
"If you're going to be hanged as a horse thief," snickers Tom Birmingham, the Bill Bulger disciple who succeeded his mentor as Senate president, "you might as well steal the horse." The one thing that never occurs to the Birminghams is that you can acquire a horse without being a thief.
But that isn't Beacon Hill's way. End runs, midnight sessions, parliamentary chicanery, greased skids: Legislators are willing to do almost anything to get more money -- except ask the voters courteously. Even now, the repeal initiative could probably be stopped in its tracks if the House and Senate simply suspended the pay raise until after the elections in November. But they won't do it. To wait for an intervening election is to express faith in the voters' fairness and good sense. In Massachusetts, state legislators have no such faith.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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