Early this year, knowing they'd have to make big cuts to state services to balance the budget, lawmakers in Olympia introduced a slew of bipartisan bills and constitutional amendments to cut their own pay.
But now, in the midst of a budget debate that’s already dragged the session into overtime, legislators say across-the-board salary reductions for elected officials in Washington probably won’t happen this year.
Sen. Joseph Zarelli, the sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would let the state’s salary commission reduce elected and appointed officials’ pay when the wages of other public employees go down, said intense debate about the issue had stalled his bill in the Rules Committee.
“I don’t have any great expectations at this point,” said Zarelli, a Republican from Ridgefield.
The commission that sets state officials’ salaries, called the Washington Citizen’s Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials, said in December that it had the authority to raise them, but not to lower them under the Washington Constitution. It said legislators would have to amend the constitution if they wanted lower wages. Elected officials’ pay has been frozen since 2008, and the commission is recommending current levels for the two-year budget period starting in September.
The commission has been in charge of deciding how much officials in the state get paid since 1986, when lawmakers and voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the commission and taking salary-setting authority out of the Legislature’s hands.
Part of the reason the proposals to reduce officials’ pay have stalled this year, though, is that some lawmakers say there’s a good reason the commission can’t reduce salaries.
Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he was concerned that lower pay for legislators would mean that a less diverse group of people could afford to be represented in Olympia.
He pointed out that it’s hard for lawmakers to work another job because they have to be in Olympia three or four months a year for session. With a legislator’s salary alone, he said, it isn’t easy to afford to move to the state capitol during session or raise a family.
“I’ve always felt that we need to have a Legislature that’s made up of more than just well-off people,” Murray said.
Currently, state legislators make $42,106 per year plus a $90 per day stipend while they’re in session, though they sometimes waive the daily amount.
But supporters of the pay cuts, including Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Zarelli said it’s hard to make the case that lawmakers shouldn’t see their salaries reduced given that the governor has already negotiated with state workers to take a 3 percent pay cut this year, and the Senate budget proposal would extend that 3 percent reduction to teachers in Washington as well.
A 3 percent cut to the current salaries of all legislators, elected executive branch officials and full-time judges from the state district, superior, appeals and Supreme courts would save about $3.2 million over the next two years. During that time, the state faces a budget shortfall of $5.3 billion.
Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said he wasn’t familiar with the proposals because he’d been concentrating on the budget instead, but he said he’d found a loophole that let him reduce his own pay voluntarily.
He said he’s been collecting a 5 percent lower salary this year because at the beginning of session, he’d simply asked the accounting office to cut it.
House Chief Clerk Barbara Baker said she hadn’t found any rules saying that an individual lawmaker couldn’t make those arrangements, so when Chopp came to her asking for lower pay she put together a form to send to accounting. She said she didn’t know of any other legislators who had done so, and she doubted any of them knew about it.
She said Chopp hadn’t wanted it to turn into a contest among lawmakers for the lowest pay.
Rep. Sam Hunt, an Olympia Democrat, said legislators have found some other ways to cut back as well by reducing the number of staff members that they employ, for instance. According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, the total staff that the Washington Legislature has during session has gone down over time, from 1,049 people in 1988 to 846 in 2009.
In the House, though, Hunt said bills to let the salary commission lower wages for all lawmakers were dead. As chairman of the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee, Hunt said he’d chosen not to have a hearing on any of the proposed constitutional amendments in his committee because of opposition to the idea from House democratic leaders.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was disappointed that the bills hadn’t moved forward in the Legislature. Early in the session, she said, she’d expected them to pass. “I’m very frustrated,” she said, speaking Wednesday about the proposed constitutional amendments. “I don’t think elected officials should get a bye.”
Regardless of whether the Legislature passes any of the proposals during this 30-day special session, though, Zarelli said this budget crisis has drawn attention to the issue and that he’ll plan to bring it back in the future.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826
WHAT THEY EARN
Salaries of selected state elected officials, according to the Washington State Salary Commission. The salaries will remain frozen for the coming two budget years, according to a new salary schedule adopted earlier this year:
|Supreme Court justices||$164,221|
|Superior Court judges||$148,832|
|District Court judges||$141,710|
|Supt. Public Instruction/Public Lands commissioner||$121,618|
|Sec. of state/treasurer/insurance commissioner/auditor||$116,950|
|Speaker of the House/Senate majority leader||$50,106|