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Patrick may trim legislators’ salaries

Will use data in making decision; cut would be first since ’98 change

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / January 2, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick may give an unusual welcome to state lawmakers arriving back on Beacon Hill this week — by cutting their pay the day they are sworn in for a new two-year term.

An amendment to the state Constitution gives the governor the authority to set legislators’ salaries every two years, based on what has happened to typical household incomes in Massachusetts. And while Patrick will not say what he plans to do, several signs, including official wage data from the state, point to at least a slight cut in legislators’ base salary of $61,440.

That would be the first pay cut for the 200 members of the state House and Senate since at least 1998, when voters approved the amendment that took away lawmakers’ power to set their own salaries and handed the politically thorny issue to the governor.

Several legislators, including Senate President Therese Murray, said last week that they are bracing for a pay cut.

“I’m hoping it will go down a little bit, because I don’t want to hear about it going up,’’ said state Representative William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat. “People out there are suffering, and the jobs aren’t coming back.’’

Several economic indicators reviewed by the Globe suggest median household incomes in Massachusetts over the past two years were either flat or lost ground as the economy struggled to recover from the recession.

Employing the method Patrick used two years ago to calculate legislators’ 5.5 percent raise then, this year’s salaries are on track to be cut by about .5 percent, or a little more than $300 per member. An analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-funded watchdog group, justifies an even larger cut, of 3 percent, or $1,800.

Because complete data on household wages will not be available when the governor makes his decision, Patrick, like others before him, has some latitude in interpreting various income surveys.

Patrick’s top budget aide said the governor would use the same process he used two years ago to determine this year’s legislative salary adjustment, but would not yet say what conclusion he has reached.

“We have to do the best we can with the information we have, and it’s not perfect,’’ said Jay Gonzalez, the state’s administration and finance secretary.

Cutting legislative salaries, even a little, could antagonize the very lawmakers the governor needs to work with to pass his agenda. On the other hand, giving lawmakers raises as the state fires other employees and confronts a $1.5 billion budget gap in the next fiscal year could create ill will among voters, many of whom have lost jobs or seen their own salaries shrink.

Two years ago, Patrick gave lawmakers a $3,203 raise, to $61,440, which several declined to accept. The overall impact on the state’s $28 billion budget from those raises — $640,000 — was relatively small.

The symbolism of accepting the money was still too much for some legislators. But most take the raises, as well as other enhancements to their salaries, including bonuses for floor and committee assignments and, in some cases, thousands of dollars to cover the expense of driving to and from the State House. Many also hold second jobs.

Patrick has tried to take some of the heat off in the past, noting that lawmakers’ salaries are considerably lower than his, which is $140,535. But Patrick, who is subject to the same salary adjustment and also made millions in the private sector, turned down his raise two years ago. By law, he would have to take a pay cut this year if he decides one is warranted for legislators.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, said many of her constituents mistakenly assume all legislators are wealthy. When she drives up in a mid-1990s Geo Prizm with a tape deck and no hubcaps, she said, some are surprised and ask why she did not come in a limousine. She said she expects a pay cut because “it’s tough for everybody.’’ She could absorb the loss in income, she said, but legislators who have children might feel a greater pinch.

In setting salaries for the Legislature, the most reliable numbers for Patrick to use, from the US Census’s American Community Survey, are only updated through 2009. From 2008 to 2009, median household income in the state dropped by 2 percent, according to that measure. To determine what incomes did in 2010, Gonzalez said he would rely on average weekly wages reported to the state, as he did two years ago. Those wages increased by about 1.5 percent in the first quarter of 2010, the most recent data available, according to state Department of Revenue figures.

Any method a governor chooses to estimate such recent changes in typical household wages would be flawed, said Kevin Lang, an economist at Boston University.

“If I were going to be paid a lot of money to do it, I could come up with a figure that I could present with a straight face,’’ Lang said. “But I don’t think it’s a figure I would stake my life and liberty on.’’

Still, Lang believes most evidence suggests wages were down over the past two years.

Legislative salaries vary widely around the country, just as the roles and demands of lawmakers in different states vary. Several states, including Michigan and New York, pay their state legislators more.

In Massachusetts, the amendment handing authority over legislative salaries to the governor, which passed in 1998 and took effect in 2001, was supposed to take politics and guesswork out of the process by setting objective standards.

But in 2006, as Governor Mitt Romney was leaving office, one of his top aides told the Globe he might hold back on raising lawmakers’ salaries unless they voted on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The Legislature advanced the measure and Romney raised salaries by 4.4 percent two days later. Legislators, however, later voted down the ban, and it never ended up on the ballot as Romney and others had hoped.

Indeed, every previous salary adjustment since the amendment has resulted in a raise of between 4.1 percent and 8 percent.

“Every year when it goes up, people are calling on you to give it back,’’ said state Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat. “If you gave it up [two years ago], are you going to get a rebate?’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

Related

Graphic Legislators’ pay