Sensitive to the persistently sputtering economy and corresponding revenue losses, legislators in Olympia tacked on a provision to a bill cutting state salaries that would allow lawmakers to take a pay reduction, too.
As a matter of symbolism, it was a wise political gesture, but most of them have failed to follow through by voluntarily putting their paychecks on the chopping block.
As of Tuesday afternoon, only 12 of 49 members of the state Senate have signed up for a 3 percent pay cut, which is the same percentage that most state workers were hit with involuntarily on July 1. From this region, they are Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Sen. Michael Baumgartner, both of Spokane. Meanwhile in the House, 35 of 98 members are slashing their own pay, including Reps. Andy Billig and Kevin Parker, both of Spokane, Rep. Joe Schmick of Colfax and Rep. Susan Fagan of Pullman.
The low participation rate in Eastern Washington is probably due to the fact that a West Side newspaper, the Olympian, has been keeping track and printing the results. On July 27, the paper reported that only four out of 147 legislators had chosen to apply for the pay-cut waiver. That article and follow-ups have sparked increased participation.
Since 1986, when voters approved a constitutional amendment, state legislative pay has been established by an independent salary review commission. However, that change only allowed the commission to raise or freeze pay. Attempts to adopt a reduction option have failed to pass the Legislature. Hence, the legislative addition of forms that lawmakers can fill out if they want their pay reduced.
These voluntary cuts do not amount to big dollar savings, because legislative salaries are pretty low. For instance, House members would collect $105.26 less per month. But it is striking that so many legislators would vote to adopt a path to lower pay and then avoid it.
Participation rates have been higher for holders of the nine elected statewide leaders. Gov. Chris Gregoire, Treasurer Jim McEntire, state Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen have voluntarily taken pay cuts. The other five chose to donate to charities an amount equivalent to 3 percent of their pay.
Again, the total amounts won’t put much of a dent in the coming state budget shortfall, but it is important for leaders to show they’re willing to make the same types of sacrifices they are imposing on state workers. This symbolic gesture will also help lay the groundwork for the inevitable call for state employee unions to surrender even more.
The fact that 955 state workers make more money than the governor indicates that more opportunities are available. In addition, state workers’ benefit packages are still generally more generous than those of private-sector workers.
This legislative pay-cut saga began when lawmakers and other political leaders demonstrated sensitivity to shared sacrifice and the burden to taxpayers. Well, the economic and revenue pictures probably won’t brighten anytime soon, so they better hold on to that thought.
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