A Massachusetts legislator can make a case that the work he or she does, if translated into another field such as finance, law or marketing, would command far more than last year’s $66,256 base salary on Beacon Hill. It’s a less compelling argument 10 months into a pandemic when hundreds of thousands of people are out of work, many more are underemployed, and evictions or foreclosures are darkening the futures of people struggling to make ends meet.
Several of the region’s lawmakers, sensitive to the fortunes of their constituents, have said that if they accept the extra $4,280 in base salary that is constitutionally promised them during the new legislative session, and that was certified before the new year by Gov. Charlie Baker, they’ll donate the extra money to people in need. It’s a significant, generous gesture.
The better gesture — not just for lawmakers willing to publicly talk about their choices, but for others who are unwilling to discuss the pay raise and thus, we presume, likely to accept it — would be to decline the 6.46% raise altogether. Leave that money in the state’s coffers, which are strained by surging expenses related to COVID-19 and a precipitous drop in tax collections, and that are ultimately supported by the taxpayer.
Just because our lawmakers are entitled to a raise — and, to be sure, they are legally entitled — doesn’t mean they have to accept it. Nor does it mean they should. “I don’t think there’s any justification for elected officials accepting a pay raise with the current state of the economy,” David Tuerck, president of the watchdog Beacon Hill Institute, told Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade last week.
It’s important to note the Legislature’s pay raise was automatic. It’s not as though lawmakers bizarrely voted to pad their salaries with the state’s unemployment rate just below 7%, and only a few months after it crested at nearly 18%.
The state Constitution ties lawmaker pay, as well as salaries for other state elected leaders, to the median household income in Massachusetts. A healthy economy means better income for workers and, eventually, more income for those working on Beacon Hill.
This is not like lawmakers’ pay package of 2017, when the Legislature enhanced the stipends for legislative leaders and committee assignments. That controversial maneuver, which was opposed by every Republican in the House of Representatives, as well as nine Democrats, layered an extra $18 million on Beacon Hill — including $45,000 each for the former House speaker, Robert DeLeo, and Senate president, Stanley Rosenberg.
This is more akin to the 5.93% raise that automatically kicked in as the just finished, two-year legislative session was getting underway in 2019, or the 4.2% raise that was automatically set in place two years before that.
When you think of it, the compensation package on Beacon Hill hasn't been a bad deal at all. Back when lawmakers were taking extra for leadership assignments in 2017, they also stretched their office and travel budgets, which now range from $15,000 to $20,000. All the more reason for them to politely pass this time around, when other workers in Massachusetts are lucky enough to see paychecks, let alone pay raises.
Instead our legislators should emulate other state leaders. Neither Gov. Charlie Baker nor Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito are accepting raises. Attorney General Maura Healey and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg are in line for 4.89% raises, but neither will take the extra cash, their spokespeople reported to Wade. (Auditor Suzanne Bump, on the other hand, plans to accept the $11,546 raise that is due her, making her annual salary $190,274.)
It’s always easy to tell someone not to take the money that’s offered them and a harder thing to actually do it. But in the case of our elected representatives, whom we trust to be fiscally responsible with the public’s money, such reminders should not be necessary.