Harriet Lloyd: Returning Legislative Pay Raises is Hardly a Statement
Thursday, July 26, 2012
Rhode Islanders don’t often witness lawmakers behaving altruistically, but over the past few weeks, that thundering sound in the Ocean State has been a stampede of incumbents to forfeit – yes, forfeit - a 3.2% automatic cost-of-living raise that boosts their current salary from $14,186 to $14,640. A lot of Rhode Islanders don’t realize that state senators and representatives are paid for the part-time privilege of serving the people (Senate President Paiva-Weed and House Speaker Fox earn twice as much). At latest count, however, about one quarter of Rhode Island’s 113 legislators have declined the raise as pressure mounts for those who have yet to feel the taxpayer’s pain.
While the cynical suggest that this munificence is merely an opportunistic political maneuver, taxpayers nevertheless appreciate the gesture. Admittedly, it was considerably nobler in 2011, a non-election year, when Sen. Ed O’Neill (Dist.17), declined his raise in light of the average family’s financial plight. Hardworking Rhode Islanders tend to remember refreshing moments like that because they’re so rare.
But, despite the appreciation, the question becomes: Where was bi-partisan goodwill and concern for the citizen’s wallet during the actual 2012 legislative session? Why the sudden exhilaration over $500 raises now, when there was so little thought and discussion regarding an $8 Billion state budget or a $100 million 38 Studios catastrophe? Taxpayers don’t mean to be ungrateful, but the priorities seem a little out-of-whack.
During those odious, late nights of June, after many months of squandered legislative opportunity and sham hearings, hundreds of costly bills crafted in secrecy were once again rammed down the throats of Rhode Island’s struggling families. Amidst the chaos and confusion, how many millions of dollars could have been saved if one quarter of our legislators had stepped up to the plate on the taxpayer’s behalf? What might have been the savings if one quarter had exposed the $8 billion budget process for what it was: a betrayal of transparent, accountable government?
It might have been nice for taxpayers if greater review and consideration had been accorded critical casino gambling legislation that rushed through a modest 18% state ‘take’ from Rhode Island’s third-highest source of revenue. Imagine the millions in savings – and earnings - that might have been possible if one quarter of legislators had backed up House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, whose concerns were drowned out by the tsunami of lobbyists roaring through the State House that night.
As the Governor’s Municipal Relief and Pension Reform legislation was left to decay with only minor elements adopted, one quarter stood by. When outrage and denunciation of the 38 Studios debacle was called for, one quarter said nothing as tens of millions of taxpayer dollars were so casually sacrificed. When special favors and insider plum appointments were bestowed upon cronies, legislators looked the other way.
Rhode Island’s taxpayers know the value of a dollar, so they appreciate a savings of $500 per legislator, they really do. Therefore, since the raises have already been budgeted, they’re anxious to know when they can expect the refund. Not so fast, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer! It seems that the money remains in the coffers of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services to be used at that committee’s discretion…in other words, it will be held in reserve for heftier raises doled out by Senate and House leadership to their favorite buddies.
So, while forfeiting cost-of-living increases sounds like a boon to taxpayers, legislators will have to forgive the lack of enthusiasm for a ‘stacked deck’. It’s a little late in the game to hand out accolades when Rhode Island families could have used more meaningful generosity and concern a few months back.
It was in June that one quarter of our legislators needed to leap out of their seats, call in the reporters, and scream bloody murder until the State House rafters shook. That just might have caught the notice of the other three-quarters, but more importantly, taxpayers would have seen legislators actually earning the fourteen grand.
And that’s a moment taxpayers would pay to see… if only we had one quarter.
Harriet Lloyd is President of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC) www.statewidecoalition.com