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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Legislators getting raises for the next two years. Maybe they’ll earn them

OLYMPIA -- The Washington state Capitol at sunset. (Jim Camden/The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA -- The Washington state Capitol at sunset. (Jim Camden/The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A decision made in relative obscurity last week could generate the most incredulity and invective of any government ruling of 2017. It may also help break the legislative logjam over the budget, which is about to lead the state into a second special session.

Last week, a special commission decided that all state elected officials – legislators, state executive officials and judges – deserve a raise.

Legislators, who haven’t finished their work on time for seven of the last eight years, will get a 2 percent bump this September and another 2 percent next September unless voters step in. In terms of dollars – no one gets paid in percentages, after all – their current base salary of $46,839 a year would go to $47,776 a year on September 1, and $48,731 a year later. Folks in top leadership get about $5,000 to $9,000 more right now, and that will continue.

Keep in mind this is an annual payment for people who are legally required to work no more than 105 days in an odd-numbered year, and 60 days in an even-numbered year.

But wait, some of them might say, we handle citizen problems year-round and regularly go into special session, so we work longer than that. True, but they also have a work schedule during the regular session that counts every day of the week in that 105 or 60, and almost never work Saturday and Sunday. In fact, many of them have schedules that require their presence no earlier than noon most Mondays, and the Capitol campus parking lots are all but empty most Fridays by mid afternoon.

Sure, they don’t get time and a half for OT when a committee meeting stretches past dinnertime or the rare floor debate that goes late into the night, but that comes with the territory. Nobody punches a clock and the state treasurer doesn’t dock anyone for ducking out early, so it more than balances out. And yes, they get paid even if they are out sick or have a family emergency.

Although there’s no bonus for a special session, lawmakers do get to put in for their $120 per diem for each day of the special session whether they are in Olympia or not. 

If this seems silly or outrageous, you can’t blame legislators, at least not directly. They don’t set their own salaries, or those of the elected members of the other two branches of government.

Back in the mid ‘80s, legislators got tired of flak whenever they raised their own pay. So they sent voters a constitutional amendment passing the job to a special commission of citizen volunteers. Voters went for it.

At the time, a legislator made $13,750 a year. The first year of the commission’s existence, it bumped them to $15,500, and with the exception of a few years in the early ‘90s, pay rose steadily to $42,106 by 2008, when the great recession came along. That froze pay until 2014. While that may have been a hardship, it should be noted that regular state employees took a pay cut during part of that period. So did many workers in private businesses. Some legislators took a voluntary cut in solidarity, or donated some money to the charity of their choice. 

Some workers lawmakers represent who took those hits have slowly clawed their way back to pre-recession levels. Legislators got a $3,000 bump in 2015 and about $1,500 more in 2016. So compared to 2014, they’ll be up more than 15.5 percent by next September. 

these digits and dollar signs seem to undercut several tropes tossed around in recent months of budget negotiations. One involves salary contracts negotiated between the state and its unions, which have a 2 percent increase this summer, 2 percent next year and 2 percent in 2019. While it’s true those contract raises kick in earlier, and there’s an extra bump at the end, they are in line with legislators are getting, and can logically expect to get from the commission two years hence.

Some legislators said they don’t object to the raises as much as the principle of them being negotiated behind closed doors. Although the salary commission has public discussions about elected officials’ salaries in public hearings, most were held this year in a fairly out of the way place, a hotel in SeaTac, with minimal public input and no TVW to record proceedings. Some years, the commission holds hearings around the state, but not this year. 

Why not? The Legislature didn’t give them enough money, commissioners said.

During discussions leading up to this year’s push to improve public schools, some legislators took issue with the way to compare a teacher’s salary to jobs in the much revered private sector. Some lawmakers argued teachers only work 10 months out of the year – Or is it really just nine? There were debates – so their pay should be adjusted downward, appropriately. 

Their pay is calculated similarly. Consultants back in 2004 set up a system for the commission to compare legislators to a certain level of managers in state government, taking 70 percent of the salary at the low end of the pay scale because it’s “considered to be a position that works 70 percent of a full time job.”

Really? Some legislators don’t even work 70 percent of the 105 days of the regular session, and who knows what kind of hours they put in after that. But they’ll get the raise unless citizens mount a referendum drive, which would require gathering about 130,000 signatures in 90 days.

That’s unlikely. So maybe now that they’re getting their raises, they’ll think twice about complaining about the raises for state employees and shut the heck up about raising pay for teachers to a minimum $45,000 a year. Any legislator who thinks a starting teacher doesn’t work at least 95 percent as much as they do should switch jobs for a week. Maybe they can earn the extra money by coming up with a budget before July 1, so the state doesn’t go into a partial shutdown.

And perhaps next year, finish the session on time

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.