Lawmakers plot another pay hike try

SOME of the highest paid part-time workers are Massachusetts lawmakers. And it is something few senators and representatives, least of all their leaders, are willing to concede. Instead of accepting the overwhelming will of their constituents less than two months ago, they are planning another legislative compensation boost, probably of less than modest proportions.

The goal is restoration of the voter-repealed $10,000-a-year increase in the lawmaker salary base the state solons gave themselves in 1987.

While some of the more timid legislators might settle for a less substantial salary hike, those running the two chambers appear to have no intention of going for less than was provided under the controversial measure wiped off the books in the Nov. 8 election.

As difficult as some legislators might find it to scrimp along on as little as $30,000 annually, they certainly owe it to those who sent them to Beacon Hill at least to try.

Clearly, lawmaking in the commonwealth is not a full-time job and what is accomplished could be dealt with more efficiently.

While a six-month limit on the annual session, as some would-be reformers have suggested, might be unrealistic, rarely, if ever, should a sitting lasting beyond mid-summer be necessary.

Rather than figuring out some way to get more pay, what lawmakers might consider are changes in their work pace to get on with the people's business more expeditiously. This could mean more time for outside business or professional pursuits, thus making legislators less dependent on their lawmaking compensation.

If what the commonwealth needs are 200 full-time legislators, that has never been demonstrated by past performance. To rush through another pay hike would send a strong message to voters back home that the lawmakers supporting the measure are insensitive to constituent wishes.

In fairness to the lawmakers, under the state Constitution they have the authority to set their compensation by law. But it seems only right that those whom they represent should have a voice in the matter. A better approach would be to have any legislative salary increases enacted automatically placed on the next statewide ballot and, if voter endorsed, not effective until the following January and the start of session.

Under this arrangement, lawmakers having justified higher pay could accept it with perhaps a freer conscience. And to win voter approval, many of them just might work a bit harder to justify a prevailing ``yes'' vote.

Before rushing ahead with another salary adjustment statute, individual legislators might want to study the November vote on ballot Question 1 in their own district. Voters statewide were against the pay raise better than four to one - 429,008 ``yes''and 2,065,532 ``no.' Another 195,089 Bay Staters who voted expressed no preference.

This was at least the fourth time in less than three decades that state voters have repealed a compensation increase that lawmakers had given themselves.

Should legislators again disregard the wishes of those who sent them to Beacon Hill, opponents try a different course and rally behind a state constitutional change to provide a means for voter recall of legislators who are out of line.

The possibility of being removed from office in mid-term might make some legislators a bit more careful before blatantly disregarding the wishes of those they were elected to represent.

In many Massachusetts towns, the recall is available, affording voters, even if unsuccessful, a way of venting frustrations over an elected official's performance. Some other states also have this arrangement for getting rid of public servants whose constituents feel they have misstepped.

But amending the state Constitution to allow for recall elections is complex, requiring either the lawmakers themselves to take the lead or a grass roots effort with thousands of voter signatures to get an initiative petition before the legislature.

Under such a voter-instigated arrangement, only one-fourth of senators and representatives, meeting in joint convention, at separately elected legislatures, are needed to advance the proposed constitutional change to the state ballot. It is then up to the voters.

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