JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's elected officials and judges would have a better chance of getting pay raises under one of the issues before Missouri voters Nov. 7.
The measure, Amendment 7 to the state Constitution, would restrict the power of the legislature to reject automatic pay raises recommended by a state commission that sets salaries for state-elected officials.
Effectively, it would allow legislators to enjoy the benefits of a pay raise while a majority voted against the raises.
The official description of the proposal highlights a quite different section of the proposal -- one that provides that elected statewide officials, legislators and judges would forfeit pensions if they are convicted of a felony that occurred while in office, or removed from office due to impeachment or misconduct.
But it's the second part of the amendment--the part regarding the Citizens' Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials--that has some Missouri lawmakers' opposition.
The commission was created by a Constitutional amendment in 1994. The commission is composed of 22 members -- nine appointed by the secretary of state, one by the judges of the supreme court, and 12 by the governor.
The commission is supposed to meet every two years to adopt salary plans for elected officials and judges. But it has not met since 2000, after the legislature consistently refused to fund the recommended salary raises or vetoed the plan entirely.
In fact, Gov. Matt Blunt has not appointed any members since he took office, according to spokesperson Jessica Robinson.
After consistent vetoes from the House and Senate, and one year when the legislature accepted only part of the recommendations, the commission saw no reason to continue meeting, according to Amendment 7's legislative sponsor, Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson.
"They basically gave up," Lipke said. "It's hard to get people to give of their time and effort to meet all over the state and have hearings and...then put together their recommendations and then every year they got shot down, or they get tinkered with through the appropriations process. It's hard to get people to volunteer to do that."
Amendment 7 does not completely remove legislative oversight, but rather makes it more difficult for lawmakers to reject pay raises for themselves and other state officials.
The proposal would raise the size of the vote required to reject a pay plan -- from a majority to a 2/3 vote. And, it would remove a provision that lets the legislature block funding for the pay raises.
"It just seemed like a common-sense thing to do," Lipke said. "We had a system that wasn't working at all, so now hopefully we're going to tweak it enough so that it's going to function in the capacity that I believe the voters felt like [the commission] was going to back in 1994. Since then, ultimately nothing changed because the legislature still controlled it."
However, Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, said that the ballot text of Amendment 7 is deceptive.
"The wording on the ballot is designed to deliberately confuse voters," Callahan said. "The first part is written so that voters will think that they're denying felons their pensions, but the real intent is a pay raise."
Callahan said that the forfeiture of pensions by convicted, impeached or removed officials is already covered in other laws.
Callahan voted against the change when it was before the legislature , along with eight other senators and 40 representatives. He argues that, if Amendment 7 passes, the commission will act in the interest of elected officials, raising salaries without accountability to voters and taxpayers.
"The system isn't broken now," Callahan said. "Right now, everyone goes through the same process for pay raises. There's accountability in the system. If this passes, you'll have lame-duck governors appointing commission members, and lame-duck legislatures getting raises without having to face voters. They won't be accountable. They'll just say 'it wasn't our fault, the commission did it.'"
"If you feel that strongly that you deserve a raise, propose it as a bill so you can be held accountable to the taxpayers," he said. "It [Amendment 7] is like putting the foxes in charge of the hen house."
If passed, Amendment 7 would require that no salary raise take effect until January 1, 2009. Lipke said he thinks this is what will make elected officials accountable to their constituents. He said that voters will be able to decide whether to re-elect pay-raise supporters in 2008, before officials can receive the raise.
"They [Legislators] know that if they voted for some crazy, outrageous recommendation, they'll be kicked to the curb," Lipke said.
Amendment 7 does not make officials accountable at every election, though.
"There's nothing that says you have to run for re-election before a pay raise takes place [after 2009]," said Lipke. "But the voters will be able to look back and see the voting record for their elected officials before they vote."
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