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Lawmakers’ salaries intact

Proposals for cuts lost amid broader battles

OLYMPIA – Washington state lawmakers are not including their own salaries in widespread budget cuts that are poised to slash pay for other state workers – and possibly teachers.

Several proposals that would have led to lower salaries for top state officials have stalled in the Legislature. Sen. Joe Zarelli, a Republican from Ridgefield who sponsored a constitutional amendment to address the issue, said he doesn’t expect any such plans to pass, as they have become lost amid broader battles over a budget shortfall amounting to $5 billion.

“Symbolically, it’s important. But it amounts to very few dollars,” Zarelli said. “You can only fight for so many things.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire had requested last year a pay reduction for herself and other elected officials. To do so, the Legislature first needs to pass a change to the state constitution that would allow the Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials to make the alteration.

Zarelli said the commission should at least have that option available.

Salaries for lawmakers are currently frozen at about $42,000 per year plus a $90 per diem for each day they are in session. Gregoire earns about $167,000. Pay for elected officials has been frozen since 2008.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate have already given tentative approval to plans that would cut state employee salaries by about 3 percent. The Senate plan also included a 3 percent pay cut for all K-12 employees. Negotiators are now trying to finalize a budget agreement.

Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat from Seattle who is a lead budget negotiator, said he wouldn’t stand in the way of the bill to allow lower lawmaker salaries but argued against passing it. He said it’s difficult for people to work in the Legislature for a chunk of each year and hold a job back at home. Because of that, many of the state’s lawmakers are either retired or wealthy.

“I’m not sure that’s the kind of Legislature that is truly a citizen Legislature,” Murray said. “Cutting salaries doesn’t help.”

Gregoire has said that salary flexibility is not part of the budget talks but stated that she still wants it.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1986 that created the salary commission. The 16-member panel includes nine voters chosen at random by the secretary of state. The other seven members come from academia, business, law, organized labor and other sectors.

The commission meets once every two years to set salaries, using consultants’ studies and discussing the changing duties and responsibilities of each office and other factors.

Teri Wright, executive assistant for the salary panel, said commissioners were disappointed that the alteration didn’t move forward this year. They have often wondered what they would do if an elected official no longer had certain responsibilities but maintained a lofty salary. And they want the flexibility to lower salaries if the panel feels it is necessary.

The commission is turning its attention to next year, in hopes lawmakers will consider the proposal then. Meantime, Wright is a state employee whose salary would be subject to cuts passed by lawmakers.

“It seems like an unfair situation,” Wright said.

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