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Patrick cuts lawmakers’ pay by $300

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By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / January 4, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick told state lawmakers yesterday that he will trim their salaries by about $300 to match the drop in pay experienced by typical Massachusetts households over the past two years.

The Constitution requires the governor to adjust legislators’ salaries every two years, based on changes in the state’s median household income. But this is the first time since voters passed a 1998 measure linking median income and lawmakers’ pay that salaries for 200 state House and Senate members will go down instead of up.

The 0.5 percent pay cut to lawmakers’ $61,440 base salaries carries more symbolism than economic consequences. The savings will have hardly any impact on the state’s projected $1.5 billion gap for the next budget year, which begins July 1. For lawmakers, it amounts to a loss of about $6 per week, and it does not affect the thousands of dollars in additional money many receive for holding leadership positions and driving to and from the State House.

Patrick avoided any attempt yesterday to compare the cut in income, which will also reduce his salary, with the layoffs and pay cuts faced by many employees in the private sector. Instead, he portrayed the salary cut as a mostly mechanical exercise.

“I don’t think the issue has anything to do with symbolism, or at least not principally with symbolism,’’ Patrick said at a press conference outside his State House office. “This is in the Constitution, and we’re following the law.’’

Several legislators have said they were expecting the cut and, to some extent, welcoming it, given the harsh economy facing their constituents. In other years, they have been bombarded with questions about whether they would accept a raise. This year, they are being asked whether the cut was large enough.

“We all understand the economy out there,’’ said Senator James E. Timilty, a Walpole Democrat. “It’s perfectly fine with me and with all my colleagues. I haven’t heard a complaint.’’

Marc Lombardo, a newly elected Billerica Republican who will be sworn into the House tomorrow, said the loss in salary is “essentially nothing’’ compared with the 10 percent cuts that some people in the private sector have withstood.

“We need more than just symbolic cuts,’’ he said.

The change in law, taking decisions about their own pay out of lawmakers’ hands, was supposed to insulate political leaders from questions about their salaries. But House and Senate leaders drew a crowd of reporters yesterday as they attempted to make the case that the cuts, together with other recent belt-tightening measures, reflected the empathy lawmakers have for their constituents’ economic struggles.

Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat from Plymouth, said she had expected a cut in salary two years ago, instead of the 5.5 percent raise that Patrick ordered then. She said that she was among several lawmakers who donated that raise to charity and that House and Senate members took voluntary furlough days, numbering between three and five, over the past two years.

“We have been participating in the pain,’’ she said.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, said, “It’s only appropriate that people see that we, as legislators who represent our constituents, are receiving the same type of treatment that they are.’’

The constitutional amendment “left it to the economic factors to decide,’’ he added. “Whatever it comes out, that’s the way it comes out, either up or down, and I think we have to live by it.’’

By law, Patrick’s $140,535 salary will go down by the same 0.5 percent, or about $700, as a result of the change.

The amendment requires the governor to set salaries based on changes in median household income within the state. But because US census numbers lag behind by a year, it is up to the governor and his staff to use alternate economic measures, giving Patrick some leeway in his decision.

Patrick’s budget chief, Jay Gonzalez, used a combination of census figures and wage data gathered by the state, the same method he used two years ago to give lawmakers a 5.5 percent raise. That $3,203 raise, even though it was politically difficult for many lawmakers, may have been too low in retrospect. Census figures not available until after the raise was given showed median household income in the state actually rose by more than 9 percent between 2006 and 2008, meaning the raise probably should have been even larger, about $5,300.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.