Pay hikes for top state officials no laughing matter by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

state-house-maGovernor-elect Charlie Baker said in no uncertain terms that “now is not the time to be talking about pay increases on Beacon Hill.”  No doubt a majority of the public  agrees with him. The trouble is: There’s never a good time to be talking about pay increases for politicians – not even, or perhaps especially – for those at the top.

Which is why a special advisory commission, under the leadership of highly respected UMass McCormack School Dean Ira Jackson, was tasked by the legislature with reviewing the salaries of top state officials, seeing what other states do, understanding official responsibilities and recommending changes. The advisory commission urged increasing the Governor’s salary from $151,800 to $185,000, with a housing allowance of $65,000 to serve the functions the Parkman House does for the City of Boston. (Massachusetts is one of a handful of states not providing a governor’s mansion for functions related to office.) Making the change would move our governor’s salary from 26th to 2nd among the 50 states.  Really, is this leap necessary in a state that ranks 14th in population?

Our auditor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state would each go from just over $130,000 to $165,000. This would give us the highest earning Lt. Governor, second most expensive when adjusted for cost of living. The secretary of state and auditor would be nearly as high (5th) in the rankings.  The treasurer and attorney general would go to $175,000,  second among the 50 states and sixth based on cost of living. The Senate President and the Speaker of the House, with recommended 75 percent increases, would go to first in the nation.

That 75 percent increase is especially hard to swallow when those holding the positions typically have had outside jobs as well. Any large leadership increase should be made contingent upon implementing a ban on outside work, which the commission recommended.  As for rank-and-file legislators, the commission would change the formula for computing automatic adjustments. That’s wrong and possibly unconstitutional;  it should stay as it is, linked to median household income.

Some raises for the top Constitutional officers do make sense, though I’m tempted to say they should be financed by eliminating the post of lieutenant governor, an office that wasn’t filled for the last two years and would surely not be missed.

The commission notes the illogic of having 1254 state employees earning more than the governor, who is in effect the CEO of the largest business in Massachusetts. And that’s true. The thinking is that raising the salaries to be more competitive with the private sector would help attract talented people. But I haven’t noticed a shortage of qualified candidates for statewide office. For all the commission’s national analysis, what’s the evidence that good people haven’t run because the pay is too low? With all the report’s charts, what evidence is there that more generous states got better candidates or officeholders than Massachusetts?

Public sector salaries are never going to compete dollar-for-dollar with the private sector, and the commission acknowledges this. That’s not why people go into public service, which brings different kinds of reward – value, mission, ego nourishment and connections for more remunerative positions after office.

What those in the public sector do get are more generous pension benefits than those working for private companies.  Even longtime service in lower-paying statewide office can pay off handsomely in retirement.

So, where do we go from here? Elected officials are barred from voting to increase their own salaries, so any action taken would only take effect after the subsequent election.  The total annual cost of the increases is under a million dollars, a pittance in a $36 billion state budget, but it is more significant rolling forward with its potential impact on state pension commitments. The commission seems not to have considered the pension implications.

The state has a shortfall of about $350 million, which needs to be  addressed now and absolutely should not come out of local aid, or, for that matter, from direct support for services like those for the homeless or developmentally disabled. The advisory commission recommends the cost of the raises be paid for by commensurate savings in the agency or department’s own budget, and that those entities be required to report annually on how they’re doing that. The legislature should deal with today’s budget deficit and find efficiencies to cover the raises before implementing the salary increases.

I don’t think Massachusetts has to move to the very top of government executive salaries, even adjusting for our higher cost of living.  None of those now in office or just elected ran with the expectation of dramatically higher salaries. The bottom line for me is that some increases may be in order, but they should be less generous than those recommended by the commission and phased in over time as was done with the minimum wage.

The thoughtfulness of the advisory commission report should at least be matched by the carefulness of the deliberations to implement its recommendations.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

One Response to Pay hikes for top state officials no laughing matter by Marjorie Arons-Barron

  1. gpage80 says:

    Thanks for summing up the commission’s findings. I liked the balanced tone, and I agree with your general conclusion (less generous increases in certain spots may be in order).

    The detail about the 1254 employees earning more than the Governor makes me think less about the Governor’s pay, and more about those 1254 employees. How many of them are, for instance, Associate Under-Vice Provosts of Administrative Affairs? Yes, I’m sure that some of them are doctors, some of them serve in other critical specialties…but not all fit that bill.

    Agreed that the private vs. public sector comparisons can sometimes be flawed, for tons of reasons. Ditto for the profit/for-profit comparisons. When that whole Elyse Cherry row erupted during the Gov. campaign, I, like most people, probably just fixated most on this detail: 590k annually to run a housing nonprofit in Roxbury?? Her defenders would say, “Yeah, but her for-profit counterparts are clearing that kind of dough.” Methinks the people who make those assertions need to spend more time in the private sector. Let’s find the people making 590k, let’s compare their day-to-day roles/responsibility/demands/job security, and then we might find ourselves not saying that sort of thing as much.

    I agree that most people don’t seek public life for the salary it provides, but it’s always worth at least asking the question about who can *afford* to take certain positions. It’s cute that Mike Bloomberg took a $1 salary as NYC mayor, and that he dipped into his own pockets many times for city projects, but I would hate to have a system limited to just patrician pols. Even in our own Fair City, we place a lot of demands on a Mayoral position that we refer to as ‘ceremonial’ and then don’t adequately compensate. My opinion: that is not a good thing.