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Raising legislative pay [Editorial]

With public approval ratings for most political figures suffering these days — Congress is hovering around 9 percent, an all-time low — and unemployment still relatively high, it's probably not the best time for elected officials of any kind to seek a pay raise. Yet legislative salaries are now under review in Annapolis and are likely to become an issue in the upcoming legislative session.

Lawmaker pay is an easy target for criticism. Rare is the voter who is left wide awake at night fretting that his delegate or state senator is paid too little. More common is the individual who simply wishes elected officials were paid by merit (and strongly suspects there's considerable savings to be found there on the local, state and federal levels).

But legislative compensation is actually a serious issue. What's needed are salaries that encourage qualified people, whether they are rich or working class, to seek elected office but not so much that they are tempted to take up the profession as a full-time career. We also want to insulate these part-time law-givers from the economic entreaties of special interest groups but not pay them so lavishly that they might regard themselves as a ruling class.

This week, the General Assembly Compensation Commission recommended that delegates and senators be paid 16 percent more over the next four years, or slightly more than $50,000 per year by 2018. Four percent more each year might seem too generous, but the commission also recommended that lawmakers contribute 2 percent more of their salaries to their pension fund, and this would be the first pay raise they've seen in eight years.

How does it stack up with surrounding states? According to a report released last month by the Department of Legislative Services, the current salary of $43,500 is less than what state lawmakers are paid in Pennsylvania and Delaware but more than in Virginia and West Virginia. It is fairly typical of Mid-Atlantic states.

Presiding officers would continue to receive more — but not all that much more. The Senate president and House of Delegates speaker would see their pay rise from $56,500 to $65,371.

Given that lawmakers preside over a state government with more than 70,000 employees and a budget exceeding $30 billion, it's remarkably modest compensation. Of course, most hold a second job, and there are perks included — food and housing during the 90-day session as well as health and retirement benefits.

Still, it's hard to view these as overly generous, even by public sector standards. Baltimore's City Council president earns a six-figure salary. So do Montgomery County Council members. Those are considered part-time jobs as much as any in the General Assembly. Some of Maryland's best-paid school superintendents and state's attorneys earn four or five times as much as state legislators, albeit working full-time in the job (not counting those weekend trips to Chicago by Baltimore County's Dallas Dance) — with cars and drivers often tossed in.

Would freezing the salaries of delegates and senators cause profound economic hardship? Probably not, at least not for most. But there could be a subtle effect, a pressure brought to bear to discourage all but the well-off and those so-called "professional politicians" who seek a full-time career in politics to aspire to the job.

Even now, it's challenging for lawmakers to be excused from their jobs for 90 days. That's one reason why a relatively high percentage of delegates and senators are lawyers or self-employed. That's not necessarily bad, but the list of lawmakers who are farmers (2) steamship clerks (1) and social workers (1) is rather short.

Surely, the greater the diversity of lawmakers in Annapolis, the greater the chance they will govern in a more thoughtful manner. A farmer better understands the plight of farmers, a minister knows the issues facing churches, a non-profit worker the challenges facing charities, yet the General Assembly currently has three times as many lawyers as all of the above.

Raising salaries so slightly won't change that, but it probably won't aggravate the situation either — as a continued pay freeze or a big increase might. Raising salaries in Annapolis may not be the most politically popular cause around, but it's probably a necessity.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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