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StarBulletin.com

Lingle's pay-freeze plan is a challenge to state lawmakers


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POSTED: Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Suspending pay raises due the state's top executives in the next two years would nip just a small piece from an anticipated $1.1 billion revenue shortfall but would signal to taxpayers that their government leaders are willing to bear some of the pain of the economic downturn.

While the salary freeze would trim only about $4.1 million in operating expenses, state agencies across the board have been told to cut up to 20 percent of their budgets to avoid possible deficits, and putting off pay increases will cause less damage to critically needed programs.

The proposal by Gov. Linda Lingle would shelve raises for 42 executive branch officials - her own, the lieutenant governor's and her Cabinet members' - who were to receive increases of 5 percent next July and 3.5 percent in July 2010.

The 90 members of the Judiciary, including Supreme Court judges, also were to get raises of 10 percent in July and another 3.5 percent in 2010.

The most politically charged part of Lingle's plan would have state legislators give up a 3.5 percent pay raise in 2010. In addition, the governor is asking lawmakers to do without a 36 percent raise they are set to receive Jan. 1.

That increase will bump compensation for most of them to $48,708 from $35,900 for the three to four months of work during the legislative session. The House speaker and Senate president also will get a differential, raising their pay to $56,208 from $43,400.

Lingle could not include next month's increases in her bill proposal because they have already been ratified. The issue has been controversial because a constitutional amendment allows a salary commission to set new pay levels for various government leaders. The raises go through automatically if legislators do not reject them as a whole.

The governor framed her plan against her previous request to public employee unions "to forgo proposing raises in the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations," adding that "it is important that state leaders also make sacrifices and lead by example."

She upped the political ante further by noting that "it would be inappropriate" for leaders to accept raises when "many Hawaii residents are losing their jobs or seeing their salaries frozen or reduced."

House Speaker Calvin Say said earlier this year that lawmakers will "follow the governor's lead" when it comes to the state's financial matters.

In putting up the bill, Lingle has set a path from which legislators might find it difficult to stray.