Pay raise may come back to haunt Dukakis and legislators

POLITICS as usual is not only alive and well in Massachusetts, it's thriving. That is what the recently enacted pay raise for legislators, the governor, and other state elected officials is all about.

And that less-than-impressive move - especially the way in which it was carried out - is something that many legislators, and Gov. Michael Dukakis as well, could come to regret.

Critics of the 37 percent pay raise are almost certain to get the more than 25,000 signatures needed to place the question of repealing the measure on the November 1988 ballot. And once before the people, prospects for keeping the raise appear slim. On at least three previous occasions in the past three decades state voters have wiped out other legislative pay hikes, even ones of much more modest proportions.

Obviously those who voted for this year's legislation are counting on being able to convince constituents that they are worth the nearly $11,000 increase. That, however, could prove difficult. A lot of senators and representatives, who might have had a political cakewalk next year, may find themselves facing perhaps career-threatening opposition not only from candidates of the other party but from their own party, too.

Those considering a run for office in 1988 have been handed a potentially strong campaign issue. They could question not only the dimensions of the pay increase but also the manner in which it was rushed through.

And that is where in the eyes of some observers, including those in other states, presidential aspirant Dukakis hardly distinguished himself as a leader or guardian of tax dollars.

As motivated as Mr. Dukakis may have been, it is questionable whether he should have gone along with the emergency preamble added to the legislation. That special language waived the usual 90-day waiting period before a new statute takes effect.

The emergency preamble is to take care of just what the term suggests - an emergency. That situation would hardly seem to apply in the pay legislation, since as far as is known nobody in the Senate or House is, or was, about to starve had there been even a two-year delay in raising lawmaker compensation.

The reason for the preamble, which Dukakis clearly could have deleted, was to make the measure suspension-proof, thus blocking its foes and, more specifically, aggrieved voters, from preventing the salary increases.

The issue therefore was not whether, as the governor seems to feel, lawmakers are entitled to higher compensation, but it was the timing of the increase.

The governor, in signing the legislation into law less than 48 hours after it cleared the two lawmaking chambers, hailed the measure as ``fair and reasonable.''

This was the same Bay State chief executive, who just weeks earlier, responded with righteous indignation to a proposal for an only slightly larger legislative salary boost, that had been recommended by his special advisory board on legislative, judicial, and constitutional officer compensation. At that point he suggested a pay hike keyed to the cost of living might be in order.

What he finally agreed to in huddles with legislative leaders equals more than twice the rise in living costs in the commonwealth since 1983, when the previous salary boost took effect.

Besides providing for a three-step pay boost, part of it is retroactive to last January and the beginning of the current lawmaking session, the new law paves the way for automatic annual adjustments starting in 1989. These would be pegged to raises won by certain state employees through collective bargaining. A better arrangement almost surely would have involved tying increases to the cost of living statewide.

In their frenzy to raise the annual legislative base pay from $30,000 to just short of $41,000, legislators shoved virtually all other matters aside.

The big losers, as is usually the case when there is a substantial hike in lawmaker salaries, are taxpayers and their wallets. In the interest of fairness, what justification can there be for not giving welfare recipients and retired public employees hefty increases in their benefits? After all, many pensioners and those on relief rolls are barely getting by, on what they receive.

Lawmakers knew what their jobs paid when they ran for office. Nobody forced them to seek a legislative seat. It is breaking faith with constituents to campaign for an elective seat and them immediately press for, or support, any kind of an pay increase.

Massachusetts lawmakers now become the second highest paid in the nation, topped only by members of the New York Legislature, whose annual salary is $43,000.

The petition drive to place a pay-raise repeal question on the November 1988 ballot is being spearheaded by the Massachusetts State Republican Committee and by a coalition of groups and civic activists, including Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Signature sheets are expected to be ready by mid-June. Pay-raise foes will have until Aug. 20 (90 days after the measure became law) to collect at least 25,263 voter signatures. No more than one-quarter of them can come from any county.

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