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Now Is Not The Time To Raise Salaries On Beacon Hill

Governor-elect Charlie Baker has a real-time opportunity to demonstrate that his administration will not represent business-as-usual at the State House.  Baker is pictured here during a news conference with Gov. Deval Patrick, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014 in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Governor-elect Charlie Baker has a real-time opportunity to demonstrate that his administration will not represent business-as-usual at the State House. Baker is pictured here during a news conference with Gov. Deval Patrick, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014 in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

As a parting gift to taxpayers, Gov. Deval Patrick last week expressed support for a report by the “Special Advisory Commission Regarding the Compensation of Public Officials” that was created by the Legislature and signed into law by Patrick with little fanfare in the FY 2015 state appropriations bill. Patrick appointed four of the commission’s seven members.

The commission recommended substantial pay raises for the next governor and the commonwealth’s other statewide elected officials, and also concluded that the Senate president and speaker of the House should be the most highly compensated persons in their respective offices in the nation. And though generally ignored in press coverage, the report further suggested a change in the data used to calculate the biennial salary adjustment for each member of the Legislature — a move the commission projected would increase legislative salaries by nearly 7 percent in the coming term.

If the pay raises come up in early negotiations with legislative leadership in 2015 — and they will — Baker must not rubber stamp the increase.

In a slap to the collective face of the electorate — who were denied an opportunity to hear what their candidates had to say about a hefty politician pay increase and to respond in kind during the campaign — the commission released “preliminary findings” and held two public hearings just days after the election. This transparently cynical timing ensured the issue would fly under the media radar and keep voters in the dark.

Pawning politically unpalatable issues off on special commissions, of course, is hardly an original strategy. In fact, it’s a classically crass political move. It’s disappointing, however, that Patrick would resort to it so late in his second term. A higher standard is expected of him by the electorate.

Politicians will occasionally hand a dubious issue off to a commission to sanitize it in the research of so-called policy experts-for-hire (or for-temporary-appointment, as the case may be), float the politically disembodied recommendations in the media, and when the response goes bad they can readily throw the commission under the proverbial bus.

That is exactly what happened with the last commission Patrick appointed to deal with the thorny compensation issue. In June 2008, the Advisory Council on Compensation issued the Guzzi-Costa Report, as it was popularly known, recommending pay raises for statewide officeholders, legislators and trial judges.

That report was issued, though, in the middle of Patrick’s first term and prior to legislative mid-terms the following November. Patrick, then-House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray all read the writing on the voting booth wall and cited the budget deficit and likely cuts to worthy assistance programs as reasons for rejecting outright the recommendations of the commission that months before they had created.

This time around, however, Patrick, Speaker Robert DeLeo and likely incoming-Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (who was quoted referring to the report’s “bold recommendations”) have yet to dismiss the substantial pay raises out of hand. So they linger, but will be difficult to move in lame duck because the Legislature is in informal session, where individual legislators can block bills from coming to a vote. The pay raises may still rear their ugly heads, however, in the New Year.

Ironically, Patrick did Gov.-elect Charlie Baker an unintended favor by endorsing the recommendations. Baker has a real-time opportunity to demonstrate to those who voted for him that his administration will not represent business-as-usual on Beacon Hill. If the pay raises come up in early negotiations with legislative leadership in 2015 — and they will — Baker must not rubber stamp the increase.

This is particularly true in light of midyear budget-deficit estimates of about $330 million that Patrick will leave for Baker as a New Year’s gift. Moreover, Patrick has suggested making unilateral, emergency budget cuts of about $200 million, and also making unpopular cuts to local aid.

Baker stated in the media he “probably” would veto any such bill that included the pay package, perhaps to leave wiggle room. But he must shift his rhetoric to the firmer “definitely” would veto, because the longer this issue continues to float around the halls of the State House, the more likely it is to weasel its way into negotiations.

Pawning politically unpalatable issues off on special commissions, of course, is hardly an original strategy.

It is understandable that Baker wants to start off on the right foot with the Legislature, develop good relations and work well across the aisle. This is, of course, what Patrick and legislative leadership who support the pay raise have counted on. But signing a pay raise based on the handy work of the commission surely is not a way to achieve these admirable goals.

Agreeing to such a pay raise would cause Baker to lose respect in the eyes of the Legislature — and, more importantly, to lose the respect of the electorate. It would immediately take the sheen off a promising new administration. He would be conveying a message along the lines of, "You elected me largely on my sound platform of addressing budget problems and government performance issues, and to reduce job-killing regulations. But first I have to give Beacon Hill an across-the-board raise." Such a decision would be ludicrous on its face — though, certainly, stranger things have happened on Beacon Hill.


Editor's note: Since writing this piece, John Sivolella has been appointed to Gov.-elect Charlie Baker's transition team for "Better Government."


Also today:

Cody Fenwick: In Favor Of Pay Raises On Beacon Hill And Beyond

John Sivolella Cognoscenti contributor
John teaches American Politics at Columbia University and is a senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute.

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