Bonus legislative pay no guarantee of better lawmaking for Bay State

If you think you are paying your state legislator a pretty nice salary at $30,000 a year, perhaps you'd better take another look. A substantial number of Massachusetts lawmakers get bonus pay that pushes salaries as high as $65,000. Massachusetts lawmakers are a generous lot, especially when it comes to themselves and others in positions of political influence.

Although the current base salary for legislators of $30,000 a year is lower than many state senators and representatives would like, an increase within the foreseeable future can hardly be justified. Perhaps even less meritorious is the idea that certain state lawmakers should continue to earn more than others.

While compensation differentials are neither new nor unique to the commonwealth, the number of legislators so rewarded has increased substantially during the past decade and a half, and the amounts involved have ballooned way out of proportion. Yet those who could do something about bringing this extra pay back within reasonable bounds are not about to move in that direction. This was demonstrated most graphically in two recent roll-call votes in the House overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal to scale down the bonus pay provided for legislative leaders and committee heads.

Obviously, few representatives were in a mood even to consider the measure. Still, the debate might have been more stirring, and quite possibly the 112-to-33 ``ought not to pass'' vote could have been closer had forces outside the legislature which have criticized the high bonus pay lifted a finger in the proposal's behalf. Beyond almost-timid whispers of support when the legislation was aired earlier this year before the joint House-Senate Public Service Committee, Citizens for Participation in Political Action (CPPAX), its prime sponsor, could hardly have done less to rally lawmaker backing for it.

Similarly all but abandoning the measure as perhaps something out of reach were Common Cause/Massachusetts and Citizens for Limited Taxation, which as members of a legislative rules-reform coalition had tried to get the extra pay differential scaled down through an initiative petition intended for last November's statewide ballot. That effort was thwarted when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in late 1983 that legislative rules changes are beyond the scope of the state's voter initiative process.

While providing additional compensation for the House speaker and Senate president surely has more merit than the bonus pay that some of their legislative colleagues earn, there can be little doubt that giving these politically powerful gavel-wielders $65,000 -- more than twice the salary level for rank-and-file senators and representatives -- certainly smacks of extravagance. If nothing else it sends a wrong message that state lawmakers are less than sensitive to the continuing and overriding need to hold down spending.

The CPPAX legislation was reasonable in that it recognized that both the speaker and Senate president do have more time-consuming and responsible jobs. Thus, it would roll the compensation levels for these leaders only back to $45,000, which is one-half more than the legislative base pay. At the same time the chairmen of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees would receive $37,500 -- one-fourth more than rank-and-file legislators in their chambers, instead of $55,000, nearly twice the base lawmaker pay.

And the heads of other legislative committees as well as the majority and minority floor leaders in the House and Senate would be given only a $1,000 annual salary advantage over the $30,000 compensation base. Currently they receive between $37,500 and $52,500 (one-quarter to three-quarters extra), depending on their positions.

Even with only $1,000 bonus pay, the chairmen and floor leaders would be better off than those holding similar posts in nearly every other state legislature. Massachusetts, it should be noted, is among only seven states in which additional pay is given any legislative chairman.

The number of lawmakers so favored, and the dimensions of their differentials, appears to be greater here than anywhere else.

So-called bonus compensation levels for House speakers and Senate presidents is provided in 37 other states. Except in New York, however, the extra pay is much less than in Massachusetts.

California, the nation's largest state, gives none of its lawmakers -- not even the Senate president or Assembly speaker -- an extra penny. Somehow, this has not proved to be a problem in attracting legislative leaders. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest a similar arrangement in the Bay State would deprive various key lawmaking posts of talented occupants.

Without additional compensation, legislative committee chairmanships, especially those involving little heavy lifting, might no longer be used, as has been all too often the case in the past, by the speaker or Senate president as rewards for political loyalties. Instead, the best interests of the state and the taxpayers would be best served were every post given to the ablest lawmaker available, irrespective of special ties to the leadership.

Thirty-five percent of the 200 state legislators -- 34 senators and 36 representatives -- now earn between $7,500 and $35,000 in extra pay for their services.

In some instances the amount of additional work involved is minuscule. The Joint Legislative Committee on Federal Financial Assistance, for example, rarely handles more than a few dozen proposals a year, yet the Senate and House chairmen receive one-fourth more salary than rank-and-file lawmakers. Clearly, there is little logic to support any additional pay for these posts.

A strong case certainly can be made for abolishing that panel, which deals mostly with resolutions memorializing Congress or the President to take on action or action. But efforts to sell that idea, have attracted little lawmaker support.

For reasons more personal than practical, those receiving, although not necessarily earning, additional pay are not about to go along with anything that might mean a smaller salary. After all, how could that be explained to one's family?

Had the CPPAX legislation, filed jointly by Reps. Robert F. Jacubowixz (D) of Pittsfield and Lucille Hicks (R) of Bedford, made it through the House, where less than a quarter of the 160 members get bonus compensation, the Senate would hardly have greeted it with open arms. All but six of the Senate's 40 lawmakers hold bonus pay niches.

Given a few more years and perhaps a bit more imagination, the number of legislators provided extra pay seems all but sure to increase. Those who question that possibility, if not likelihood, have forgotten that as recently as the early 1970s substantially fewer than a dozen Massachusetts legislators got even a dime more than the $10,000 that was the base pay then for legislators.

Since it is unrealistic for senators and representatives to rally behind any move that might chop the pay of themselves or colleagues, a better and certainly surer way to accomplish this would be through the initiative petition process. To put the matter on the November 1986 statewide ballot, at least 61,308 voter signatures would have to be collected early next fall. That is far from an impossible task if CPPAX and others are sufficiently committed.

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