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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Our View: Salary panel lets politicians dodge tricky issue

Even in good economic times, some elected officials ask the Washington state salary commission not to increase their pay. Then the commission approves raises for all.

This week, the commission heard a string of legislators and other officials make the customary plea for austerity. This time, though, the commission accommodated them with a proposed salary freeze for all nine elected statewide officers, the Legislature and judges across the state – 479 positions in all. The fiscal picture is that bleak.

The commission will now hold three public meetings before reconvening May 19 to make a final decision, which can’t be overturned except by a public vote. The system itself was established by voters more than 20 years ago, presumably to take politics out of compensation for elected officials.

In the process, unfortunately, it gave lawmakers political cover to decry pay increases, even in good times, and then collect them. A slice of accountability was lost.

In general, the commission structure is a sound idea. A majority of its 16 members are ordinary citizens, drawn at random, one from each of Washington’s nine congressional districts. They’re nonpartisan and disinterested. Their task is not to judge the government’s performance but to match responsibilities with appropriately competitive salaries.

The one blemish in the 1986 ballot measure creating the commission is that it doesn’t call on the Legislature to make the final call on the commission’s proposal. Officials’ salaries are part of government’s cost, and managing government’s cost is a responsibility of elected leaders.

Perceptions aside, the commission wasn’t created to protect the treasury but to eliminate the lag-and-catch-up pay cycles that resulted from political timidity on the part of lawmakers.

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