How easy it is to rail against the salaries of elected officials. Embedded deeply in the human psyche is the near-certainty that somewhere, somehow the people who hold public office are getting away with unarmed robbery. It's a suspicion that's easy to play on, while proving the reverse — that a taxpayer-financed pay raise might actually be overdue and a worthy investment — is a tough sell under the best of circumstances.
And while we can't argue that everyone who holds such positions deserves their pay, what we do know is that the General Assembly Compensation Commission makes a good case for why Maryland's elected leaders ought to be paid more beginning next year.
This week, things got a little testy in the House when Democrats refused a Republican-led effort to put the commission's recommendations to a vote. Under Maryland's Constitution, the commission's findings go into effect automatically unless the legislature chooses to override them — sparing a lot of lawmakers running for reelection the potential political hardship of voting for a raise in what could turn out to be their own pay.
"The nerve of [Democrats] not to even vote on the issue leads me to believe they want to hide behind a recommendation of a committee instead of showing courage and voting for these hypocritical raises," Maryland GOP Party Chairman Diana Waterman proclaimed shortly after the non-decision.
To which, we can only say, they're doing exactly what Marylanders decided — by a constitutional amendment affirmed in a statewide vote in 1970, incidentally — should be done. And that is to take the decisions about how much legislators and other top officials get paid largely out of their hands.
Here's another way to look at it. What if we told you that we should hold legislators to the same standards that average government employees face? We'd give them raises no higher than the typical state worker and make sure their salaries go up no faster than the state's overall rate of personal income growth.
But wait, let's really put the screws on this. Wouldn't it also make sense to simultaneously reduce their pension and retiree medical benefits to help finance those systems and also reflect reforms that have been forced on other state employees?
Guess what? All those limitations are in place in the commission's plan to raise legislative salaries by 15.7 percent over four years. That may sound like a lot — which is what critics are counting on people to think — but since lawmakers haven't seen a raise since 2006 (twice having voted to refuse them in a nod to the economic recession), it's actually nothing more than an adjustment for inflation.
We would never claim that the current legislative salary of $43,500 represents a life of poverty for what is supposed to be a part-time job that comes with other benefits like housing during the legislative session. But the reality of the position is that it's not just a 90-day post either, and the more legislator compensation is allowed to stagnate, the more only the wealthy will be able to afford to hold office. It's difficult enough to find candidates who can swing leaving behind their regular jobs for three months of lawmaking each year.
In a perfect world, lawmakers would have accepted the Republican challenge and endorsed the commission's work outright because it's the right thing to do. But this is an election year and, say what you will about the Democrats, they aren't idiots. They know that few, if any voters, will bother to read the commission's report or investigate beyond "15.7 percent." All the vote would accomplish is to provide an opportunity for demagoguery, which you can bet we'll see pop up in campaign literature this summer anyway. And, of course, those who criticize the pay raise are always welcome to donate the money to charity or even write a check to the comptroller.
One more bit of information from the report: A Maryland state employee who earned a starting salary of $43,500 in 2007 would have a salary 22 percent higher today, while Maryland's personal income rose 17.7 percent over the same period despite higher unemployment. Under those circumstances (and saddled with higher pension and health care costs), lawmakers are unlikely to feel all that indebted to the compensation commission. Maybe they should look into joining a union.
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