Little is on the schedule at the state Capitol this week, but the independent commission considering potential pay raises for legislators, statewide elected officials and judges will meet at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday in Room 272 of the Capitol.
The commission has a short time frame under the constitutional amendment approved by voters for deciding how much, if at all, pay for those elected offices should be raised and to make a recommendation on expenses for legislators.
The amendment established a commission appointed by the governor, House speaker, Senate president pro tem and Supreme Court Chief Justice. It meets once a year to decide if officials should get a pay raise. This year, the sky is the limit. In future years, pay raises are limited to 15 per cent.
I’ve written previously that pegging pay to the increase in the Consumer Price Index since voters last raised pay for elected officials would be a generous level, given that most working people haven’t matched the CPI in their own earnings. I’ve also said that a state that ranks 48th in median family income shouldn’t break the curve on official pay. And I’ve also said that legislators are currently abusing expenses through per diem claims for days not worked, through nepotistic payments to spouses as aides and through exorbitant mileage reimbursement. The commission has authority over pay. It can only recommend expense practices. I expect the commission to hear some recommendations on expenses, however, particularly in light of abuses recently uncovered by lawyers in an earlier successful legal action over expense account abuse.
The commission is supposed to take economic conditions into account. In sweeping elected offices this year, the new Republican majority spoke frequently about the poor performance of Gov. Mike Beebe in job creation. The GOP candidates also ran on the poor economic performance of the country in general under President Obama. And they decried wasteful government spending. So you’d think the GOP majority would welcome a commission pay decision that took all these factors seriously into account in holding down windfall raises for politicians who ran for office knowing the terms of employment. The Republican Party also, as a matter of party position, opposed this amendment.
The commission has 90 days after the amendment took effect Nov. 5 to complete its review and make a recommendation. The pay raises, if any take effect 10 days after filing with the state auditor.
The amendment, on the ballot as Issue 3, also ends gifts of any value by lobbyists or those who employ lobbyists to legislators, except at so-called scheduled events. Already, special interests are lining up to feed the entire legislature three times a day and provide a cocktail hour each night of the session. The Ethics Commission has yet to codify this section of the amendment as rules. They’ll be under pressure to codify them loosely, which was not the intent of the framers.
Before it’s over, I think we can expect a lawsuit on the change in term limits to allow 16 years of continual service (18 in the Senate in some cases) in the legislature. Some are trying to argue that past service doesn’t count and the term limit counting begins anew, which would allow term-limited lawmakers back in for 16 more years. Nobody who participated in the drafting of this amendment thinks that was intended.
I expect a lawsuit eventually, too, on the ban on corporate contributions. This could be the single most important element of the amendment in terms of legislative races if it remains in place.
The pay raise commission was essentially a sop to legislators to put the anti-gift rule on the ballot. Legislators believe people they appoint will believe they deserve much more money than they now receive. Several legislators have turned what’s designed as a part-time assembly of citizen legislators into a full-time job. The more they meet, the more mischief is done — another reason to be stingy with pay increases.