Freeze state wages for executives, judges and legislators


POSTED: Tuesday, January 13, 2009

While state nonexecutive employees are being warned of possible pay cuts during the nation's economic crisis, Hawaii legislators are offering cheeky reasons for their own wages to rise by more than one-third. The suggestion that denial of the pay raise would be unconstitutional is doubtful, and the notion that a legislator would be politically dumb enough to claim legal standing and challenge such a pay freeze in court is laughable.

The pay raise was arranged through a clever constitutional amendment ratified in 2006 that created a commission to recommend pay for legislators and state executives. Voters would realize only later that the amendment resulted in generous, automatic pay raises without requiring a vote by legislators. Four of the commission's seven members are appointed by legislative leaders.

Legislators' salaries were to have increased to $48,708 from $37,500 on Jan. 1 and are scheduled to reach $57,852 by 2014. The raises are based on House Speaker Calvin Say's insistence that “;full-time legislators”; deserve such a salary, although the Legislature meets less than four months during the year.

The constitutional amendment, ratified in 2006, provides that salaries recommended by the commission for the state's 76 legislators, 90 judges and 42 executive employees would be automatic unless the Legislature “;disapproves the recommended salaries.”; Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, a lawyer, says she is uncertain about how to do that, while acknowledging that it “;would send a powerful message to Hawaii workers.”;

Hanabusa maintains that any such pay-freeze legislation would have to treat such salaries equally across the board, but the constitutional clause says nothing of the kind. She says cutting the pay of legislators would be unfair without also reducing the pay of judges and executive state employees. Freezing the wages of nonexecutive workers without doing the same to the salaries of legislators, judges and state executives would be just as inequitable.

The state Council on Revenues has predicted that tax collections for the 2009 fiscal year will be about $150 million less than it had expected earlier. Gov. Linda Lingle suggested last week that she might seek furloughs of nonessential workers, requiring that they take off one day a month without pay. Her budget proposal had earlier called for freezing raises for state workers to avoid having to eliminate any jobs.

State department directors are paid salaries of $108,960 to $120,440 and are scheduled for 5 percent raises in July 1, while judges make $135,048 to $164,976 for the chief justice and are scheduled to increase by 10 percent. Noting that she is asking state employee unions to forgo proposed pay raises, Lingle suggested last month that “;state leaders also make sacrifices and lead by example.”;