OLYMPIA – About half of the 15 members of the Spokane-area legislative delegation have volunteered for the same 3 percent pay cut they imposed on state workers.
Many who have done it, such as Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, say it’s a personal decision.
“As a businessman, the buck starts and stops with me,” said Parker, who owns coffee shops. “It’s the same with us as legislators.”
Parker’s seatmate in Spokane’s 6th District, Republican John Ahern, said he doesn’t plan to ask for a pay cut, but he is donating 3 percent or more to charities, including his church and the Boy Scouts as well as organizations that oppose abortion.
“This way I know exactly where the money is going,” Ahern said. If he took a pay cut, the money would stay in the state’s general fund and go to state programs or agencies he doesn’t support, he said.
Ahern acknowledged he could receive a tax benefit from making those charitable donations. Taxpayers who itemize deductions can reduce the federal income tax they owe with donations; he won’t know until his taxes are done next year.
State employees should have the same option of donating 3 percent of their salary to charity instead of taking a pay cut, he added. “I don’t have that authority,” but the Legislature should consider it, he said.
The budget that legislators approved in May gave other state employees a 3 percent pay cut starting July 1, the start of the biennium. During their session, legislators talked about taking the same level of cuts.
There was a problem, however: Legislators don’t set their own salaries. That’s done by a special commission voters created through a constitutional amendment in 1986. The commission has the authority to raise or maintain legislators’ salaries, but not lower them.
Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to let the commission lower the salaries of legislators and other elected officials, but it didn’t pass. Legislators agreed to let members volunteer for a cut.
Billig did. “I wanted to show solidarity with the other state workers,” he said.
As of Friday morning, 34 legislators had volunteered for pay cuts of 3 percent, and four Democrats – House Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle and Reps. Troy Kelley, University Place; Larry Seaquist, Gig Harbor; and Kevin Van de Wege, Sequim – opted for 5 percent cuts. Standard legislative pay is $42,100 a year, so a 3 percent cut is $105.25 a month.
Some state workers had their pay cut and others have been laid off, so opting for a pay cut can show a legislator understands some of what others are experiencing, said Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
“But people’s situations are fairly diverse. It’s an individual decision,” she added.
Being able to choose is one advantage legislators have over others on the state payroll, she said.
Sen. Jeff Baxter, R-Spokane Valley, said taking a pay cut was in line with his view that state government has grown out of proportion to the population, and its size and costs have to shrink. It was also in keeping with his decision to decline state health insurance and stick with the coverage he has through his business, even though that’s more expensive: “I want to set an example as far as being frugal.”
Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, took a pay cut but didn’t want to discuss it in detail: “I don’t want to put other legislators in a bad position. It’s just something I felt I should be willing to do.”
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he’s still trying to decide whether to take the pay cut or donate to charity. He said he’s been busy with the wheat harvest and a death in the family and hasn’t had time to make a decision.
“I didn’t even remember that it was an option until it started getting some play in the press,” he said.
Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, said he hasn’t made the request yet, although he might this fall if the state’s revenue forecast continues to drop.
“I haven’t ruled it out,” Morton said, although he added that legislators haven’t had as many raises in recent years as state employees and have had to cut their expenses.