Tired of waiting for your boss to give you a pay raise? Try this instead; you appoint me to recommend your pay raise, and I’ll appoint you to recommend my pay raise. Then, if we don’t reject the pay hikes we’ve recommended for each other, they automatically take effect for the next four years.
Ridiculous? Impossible? For you and me, yes, but not for our state lawmakers. Here’s how the Annapolis pay raise buddy system works: the state’s elected officials can’t legally increase their salaries during their four-year terms. They can only raise the salaries of the next governor and next legislature taking office after the next election (November, this year).
Fair enough, but the incumbents don’t want their fingerprints on salary hikes that will benefit them should they win re-election. So, two supposedly independent salary commissions made up of non-elected citizens review the state lawmaker’s compensation levels and, in the last year of every four year term, decide whether to recommend increases or not.
Looks innocent on paper but here’s the catch; look who appoints the salary commissions. The Governor’s Salary Commission’s six members are appointed, equally, by the Speaker of the House and by the Senate President. Meanwhile the General Assembly Compensation Commission’s nine members are appointed by the governor (five appointees) and by the Speaker (two appointees) and by the Senate president (two appointees).
Needless to say, under this buddy system the people who get appointed are mostly statehouse insiders who can be depended upon to recommend generous salary boosts. Only once in their 43-year history have the salary commissioners failed to do so.
This year is no exception. The Governor’s Salary Commission says the next governor should get a 20 percent pay raise from $150,000 to $180,000. Keep in mind that Maryland governors and their families also get free housing (the 54-room governor’s mansion), free travel in state trooper-chauffeured state cars, free meals cooked and served by state servants, health care, a pension (more generous than state employees), a yacht and numerous other perks.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly Compensation Commission came through with a 16 percent legislator’s pay raise from $43,500 to $50,330 in addition to the legislative allowances for travel ($500), meals ($42 per day), lodging ($101 per day) and annual allowances for their district offices ($18,265) and staff ($5,800). They also get health care and special pensions.
That’s the buddy system — pretending there’s an arms-length distance between lawmakers and their compensation. But here’s the sleaziest part: once the two salary commissions make their recommendations the salary hikes automatically go into effect unless the lawmakers reject them. That’s right, the legislators never have to approve their pay raises, they get them automatically by simply doing nothing!
Only once in the past 43 years has the legislature rejected the salary commissions’ recommendations. That was in 2010 when, in the depth of the Great Recession, fear overcame greed and, as a matter of self-preservation, state lawmakers decided that accepting a pay hike might endanger their reelections. This year it’s back to business as usual: When the legislature adjourns on April 7 the new salary increased become final.
Frankly, the governor’s and legislature’s salary levels (12th highest in the nation) don’t bother me as much as the phony way they’re administered.
Anyone who goes into politics for the money will be sadly disappointed. When you add up all the hours it takes to get and stay elected (constituent service, answering letters and emails, attending every crab feast, citizens meeting and social even, fundraising, etc) in addition to the 90-day session and summer committee meetings you’re making about $2 and hour. Also, your legislative and political demands make you virtually unemployable elsewhere. Who’s going to hire someone who’s “away from their desk” half the year?
I’m fine with the phony commissions making supposedly arms-length recommendations. But the increases shouldn’t go into effect automatically. State lawmakers should vote, up or down, on the pay increases just as they do on every other state expenditure. If they believe they deserve a pay raise they should own it politically.
But there’s a greater concern: Every time we raise legislator’s pay we take another step away from a part-time, citizens legislature toward a full-time legislature run by a governing oligarchy of professional lawmakers.
The genius of Maryland’s part-time legislature is not just its geographic and demographic diversity, but also its economic diversity. In the old days people from various walks of life — farmers, shop keepers, watermen, tavern owners, lawyers, tradesmen, merchants, clergy and so on — “stood for election” and were sent to Annapolis as a cross section of the state’s economy. They were experts with first-hand knowledge in the various industries that the legislature governed. Back then legislators thought of themselves, primarily, as business people and, secondarily, as lawmakers. That’s why Maryland’s legislature met from January to April between the harvesting and planting seasons and when watermen were least busy.
Now, all that’s changed. Thanks to bigger salaries, 21 percent of Maryland’s legislators are “full-time lawmakers” (the General Assembly’s biggest employment category) with no other jobs or real world experience. Add to that the 20 percent of legislators who work for non-profits, public schools and county governments and almost half the people governing us are unfamiliar with the private sector in which most of us work.
And you wonder why Maryland has an anti-business reputation? That’s what happens to a state governed by people who’ve never signed the front of a pay check.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.