TO PRESERVE 1994's odious Weld-Flaherty-Bulger pay raise from repeal, Massachusetts legislators (and the lobbyists who dance attendance on them) will say almost anything, however ridiculous. But what choice do they have? Suppose you'd pulled off a scam to jack up your salary by 55 percent -- with no change in job description or performance -- and then had to defend it from attack. Wouldn't your arguments be painfully feeble, too?
Some of these arguments are about process. "There's never a 'right' way to raise our salaries," the politicians kvetch. "However we do it, it's always controversial." But as anyone past grade school should be able to figure out, there is a right way: Keep the raises modest, vote on them openly, and make them effective only after an intervening election. That's the honorable course -- the one the Legislature never takes.
The arguments about substance are even feebler. There are many variations, but they all boil down to this: State legislators work year-round at a hard job with grave responsibilities, and they deserve to be paid a decent salary.
Only . . . they don't. Except for a tiny handful, state legislators don't have a hard job, don't work year-round, don't have grave responsibilities -- and certainly don't deserve more money.
Since the Pay Grab of '94, members of the General Court have been helping themselves to salaries that start -- start -- at $46,410. Then there's the "leadership pay" (anywhere from $7,500 to $35,000) disbursed to nearly every senator and numerous representatives. And the $3,600 annual expense allowance. And the mileage per diem of up to $50 daily. And the fat federal tax write-off for those who live more than 50 miles from the State House. Pretty lavish compensation for people who don't actually produce, operate, grow, fix, or supervise anything.
"Lavish" isn't opinion, it's fact. Bay State legislators are paid more money than their counterparts in 45 states; the national average is about $23,000. None of the other New England states -- most of which are better governed than Massachusetts -- comes close even to the average, never mind to $46,410.
But then, no other New England state is gripped by the delusion that serving as a state representative or state senator is a full-time profession, or that legislative sessions must be perpetual. In Connecticut, the Legislature manages to adjourn no later than June. The New Hampshire Legislature sits for just 60 days a year. In Vermont, legislators convene every other year.
Is it a coincidence that the state with the highest taxes, worst crime, and lowest bond rating in New England is also the only one whose Legislature never adjourns? Maybe. But in 42 states, legislative sessions are short and sweet, and it's hard to see what we gain by being different.
The pay-raise repeal initiative heading to the November ballot would cut both salary and sessions down to size. Instead of $46,410 for a year, legislators would be paid half that sum -- $23,205 -- in six monthly installments. They could still hang around for 12 months -- but the checks would stop in June. Conversely, if they wrapped up their business in 90 days, they'd still collect the full $ 23,205. ("Ninety days?" I hear Beacon Hill gasp. "Impossible!" Tell that to Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming. None of them has legislative sessions lasting more than three months.)
Limited sessions and restrained pay are the norm in American statehouses. Yet to hear the pay-raise propagandists tell it, they would spell doom for Massachusetts. Happily, it takes just one simple question to blow away their alarmist rhetoric. Observe:
"Today's legislative problems," says ex-Superior Court Judge Owen Todd, denouncing the repeal effort, "are too complex for part-time, amateur legislators." If that's the case, how do 42 other states manage?
With limited sessions and lower pay, says state Rep. James Fagan, a Taunton Democrat, "we will have government of boys, housewives, and the idiot children of the idle rich." If that's the case, how do 42 other states manage?
"The state has a $17 billion budget," says Jack Flannagan, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "You can't run a $17 billion business with a part-time board of directors." If that's the case, how do 42 other states manage? (Dumb metaphor, by the way; corporate directorships are part-time positions.)
The repeal initiative would lead to "an exclusionary Legislature dominated by lawyers and other wealthy people" (political operative Kevin Sowyrda) . . . "a Legislature of 'old ladies'" (lobbyist Kevin Harrington) . . . "a potential disaster" (state Rep. James Colt) . . . "social cannibalization" (Senate President Tom Birmingham).
If that's the case, fellas, how do 42 other states manage?
Little is required of state legislators; it is a fiction that they must get bloated salaries and be on hand at all times. Where they need to be is back in the real world, working real jobs and living under the laws they create. The pay-raise repeal initiative -- coming this fall to a ballot near you -- is the way to send them there.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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