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Lawmakers propose bills to suspend their pay raises


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POSTED: Saturday, February 07, 2009

Hawaii's government leaders created a system to give themselves automatic pay raises without ever having to vote for them, but now lawmakers are feeling pressure to freeze their salaries at current levels.

Legislators do not want voters to think they are lining their own pockets at the same time that they have to cut programs and services because the state is out of money.

In the midst of the biggest financial crisis in decades, their pay shot up by a third to more than $48,000 a year Jan. 1. Hawaii's part-time legislators do most of their work during the session that ends in May, but they are answerable to voters year-round.

Measures pending before lawmakers this year call for the governor, department heads, judges and legislators to pass up already scheduled future pay raises to save the state more than $4 million over the next two years.

Another proposal asks these 208 high-level state employees to take a 5 percent pay cut in addition to a salary freeze, with total savings of $6.5 million.

“;We need to truly share the pain. ... We need to lead by example,”; said Rep. Della Au Belatti (D, Tantalus-Makiki), who sponsored the pay cut bill. She added, “;It's not a wildly popular idea among my colleagues.”;

Hawaii's legislators got a 36 percent pay raise—to $48,708 from $35,900—on Jan. 1. It was their first raise since 2005, and they had not seen an increase in 12 years before that, noted Speaker of the House Calvin Say.

Gov. Linda Lingle received two 5 percent raises worth $10,480 to boost her pay to $123,480 on July 1. Judges' pay has jumped more than $30,000 over the last three years, and they now make at least $148,548.

All of the raises kicked in as a result of actions by a Salary Commission with no legislative fingerprints and little oversight.

“;We all know we have to do what we have to do. It's anticipated right now that the pay raises will probably play a role in the balancing of the budget,”; said Senate President Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua).

Both Say and Hanabusa agree that any legislation reducing planned pay raises would only influence future pay raises. They say any law limiting pay would affect all three branches of government—the executive, judicial and legislative.

“;We have to take some action if we're going to suspend it,”; said Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise). “;If the surplus was in place, there wouldn't be any discussion about the pay raise. That's the reality.”;

Hawaii's top government leaders are getting automatic raises because the Legislature made the system that way in 2006, when they created a new Salary Commission to recommend pay increases.

These increases are added to their paychecks unless lawmakers vote against them.

Voters approved the Salary Commission idea during the 2006 elections. It was meant to prevent legislators from having to vote on their own salaries. But they will have to cast exactly that kind of vote if salary freeze legislation moves forward at the Capitol.

Unless lawmakers suspend the salary increases, additional annual pay raises will continue inflating top government employee incomes.

The executive branch is due another 5 percent raise July 1 and 3.5 percent annual raises through 2012. Judges get alternating 10 percent and 3.5 percent pay jumps every year through 2012, and legislators receive 3.5 percent increases each year.