Pay raises recommended by commission
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Pay raises recommended by commission

Date: November 29, 2006
By: Rachel Higginbotham
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri judges, legislators and elected officials will receive a pay raise unless two-thirds of the legislature rejects it. The state's Salary Commission unanimously voted Wednesday to recommend pay raises that will go into effect July 1, 2007 for judges and elected officials, and Jan. 1, 2009 for state legislators.

The raise will include a $1200-per-year increase, and then an extra four-percent increase of the total salary. The only exception is that assistant circuit court judges will receive a $2000 raise on top of that.

Commission chairman Jack Pohrer said that this pay plan was "only fair" because it equals the raises that were given to state employees in 2004 and 2005. He estimated that the total affect the plan will have on the state budget will be near $2 million.

The recommendations will become reality unless the legislature vetoes them by a two-thirds vote by February 1. The overwhelming passage of Amendment 7 earlier this month makes it harder for legislators to reject the recommendations than previously, when only a majority vote was needed. The legislature itself put amendment on the ballot after they consistently vetoed the commission's recommendations.

"Amendment 7 gave this commission more teeth, so to speak," said Pohrer.

If the recommendations are not rejected by the legislature, it will be the first raise for elected officials, judges and lawmakers since 2000. 

The commission conducted four public hearings across the state within just an 11-day span before coming to their conclusions Wednesday in Jefferson City. Because judicial pay raises dominated the previous hearings, some lawmakers expected the commission to recommend judicial pay raises. But they were surprised to hear that the commission's pay plan also included raises for elected officials and legislators, which had hardly been discussed at all.

"I was hoping they would not ask for a pay increase for lawmakers and statewide elected officials," said Rep. Paul LeVota (D-Jackson County). LeVota attended the November 20 meeting in Kansas City to voice his opposition to the process. He said he wasn't opposed to pay raises for judges, but the way the meetings were handled.

LeVota added that he plans on voicing his opposition again when the plan is reviewed by the Legislature next year.

"I plan on making the case that it's wrong that this commission met for only ten days without all the members assigned, in a very rushed job, and now recommends money for a pay increase for the governor and other elected officials, who say that we don't have enough money to take care of the basic needs of the state, including health care and education," he said. 

Nine of the commission's members were present at the meeting. Three were on a conference call. There are 19 total members currently on the 22-member commission. 

Sen. Victor Callahan (D-Jackson County), who has been a staunch opponent to both Amendment 7 and pay raises for elected officials, said that he also plans to make a case against the plan in legislature. He argued that putting legislators in charge of their own pay raises is "putting the foxes in charge of the hen house."

"I think this recommendation is rewarding bad behavior on the part of a good majority of the legislature," he said. "It's outrageous that they would recommend a pay raise after there was a concerted effort to hoodwink voters and mislead them in a bait-and-switch, and I don't think that behavior should be rewarded."

"To meet the Friday after Thanksgiving, with very little or no notice, again just demonstrates that this was a shady deal," Callahan added. "This was not a full, open, deliberative process. You're not going to get much input from the public, or anyone."

Chairman Pohrer said that the time constraints didn't have an affect on the recommendations. "Even though we were on a tight time line, none of the facts changed," he said. He added that the amount of notice given to the public about the hearings was plenty.

"When we had our meeting in St. Louis, I listened to about five or six radio shows and they were all talking about (it)," he said.

Retired supreme court judge Paul Simon conceded that he thought it might have been helpful to be able to talk to more Missourians about the issue. But he agreed with Pohrer that the facts were what was important in the final decision.

"There may be been some advantage to talk to more people, but we had the public hearings, we announced them, and unfortunately we didn't get a lot of input, but we got some," Simon said. "But I think the facts were not contested."

Simon argued that without a pay raise, Missouri will have a hard time recruiting judges. Another Commission member, David Hankey, said that if he, as a business owner, didn't give his employees a raise every year, he wouldn't be able to hire anyone.

But Callahan disagreed: "I think everybody who accepts this job knows what they're getting into. I also think judges for the most part know what they're getting into. One thing the commission I don't think really considered on judges is that they have a retirement package an NBA player would be envious of."

Currently, retired judges receive 50 percent of their salaries per year.

The Salary Commission (formally known as the Citizens' Commission for Compensation) must publish the pay plan by December 1. Pohrer said that fulfilled it's duty by recommending the raises so sensibly.

"I think that's why this commission was formed--to take this a little bit out of what I would call the political arena and give an opportunity of some reactions to what is sensible to the Missouri citizens," he said.

But Callahan disputed the formal title and purpose of the commission: "that is the name of the commission, but I don't know that that's necessarily the makeup of the commission," he said. "When you have a retired judge as a member of the panel, I don't know how objective they'll be. I think if they were truly representing the views of the taxpayers and the voters that they would have rejected pay raises at least for the legislators."