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Eminent good sense from a bare majority


"It's a fair and equitable way to finally get this pay raise monkey off the public's back, the public servants' back, and everybody else's back." said Gov. James R. Thompson, after the Illinois General Assembly approved a plan for future cost-of-living adjustments in salaries for more than 1,200 state officials.

After more than a decade of struggling with the issue, the legislature, as the governor suggested, seems to have found a reasonable answer to the troublesome question of pay raises for itself, judges, state elected officers, cabinet heads and other high-ranking officials.

Under the plan, originally proposed by the Compensation Review Board, salary levels for officials covered by the panel will be adjusted every July 1 according to a federal inflation index that measures changes in employment costs for public administration occupations. Increases could not exceed 5 percent, nor could salaries drop below then-current levels, in the unlikely event of "deflation."

As part of a political compromise forged by Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park), the legislature also turned down the immediate 14.6 percent pay raises the board recommended to restore buying power eroded by inflation since the last pay raise, in 1987.

Despite the eminent good sense embodied in the Rock plan, only 34 senators and 60 representatives voted for it, although one assumes that most of the nay-sayers will quietly accept whatever cost-of-living adjustment is forthcoming in July 1991.

No one seemed to quibble with the proposed cost-of-living adjustments for the governor, whose salary could rise to almost $98,000, nor for other state elected officials. No one criticized the notion that salaries should be raised for department directors, some of whom now earn less than their subordinates. No one became indignant over possible pay raises for the judiciary, including circuit court judges, who today earn little more than some recent law school graduates.

Instead, the controversy focused, as it has every time the subject has come up in the last 15 years, on the possibility that legislative salaries might be increased from the current $35,661 level.

Listening to the customary pay raise debate, one is never sure whether those opposing higher salaries do so because they truly believe they don't deserve anything more in which case they should step aside for someone more capable or whether they're merely too spineless to face the potential political fallout from supporting wage increases.

Granted, there seems to be an element among the electorate that adheres to the proposition that public officials should work for free, and no amount of rational discussion will open their closed minds, Pandering to the benighted, however, is hardly the way to form sound public policy, on pay raises or any other issue.

At most, the adjustment in 1991 would raise base legislative salaries to $37,444. Leaders receive bonuses, and, barring an unfavorable ruling from the Illinois Supreme Court, most other legislators also will receive stipends for committee posts. It's not certain whether the pay compromise also covers the bonuses, but assuming it does, and that the COLA is for the full 5 percent, the four legislative leaders would receive an additional $16,800, while others in leadership would receive lesser amounts, down to $6,300 for committee chairmen and minority spokesmen.

Not all committees work equally hard, of course, nor are all members of a party's leadership team equally valuable. But for the key players, extra pay is justified, and the rest would earn it, too, if the committee systems were strengthened and all assistant leaders were assigned specific duties.

The higher base pay, meanwhile, is hardly an outrageous sum for what has become a full-time job for most conscientious lawmakers.

In fact, the most fanciful argument against the pay compromise contended that higher legislative salaries would run counter

8/July 1990/Illinois Issues

to the concept of the citizen-legislator in favor of career lawmakers. Unfortunately for those embracing the nostalgic notion. that bridge was crossed, probably irrevocably. 20 years ago when continuing annual sessions and executive budgets became the norm.

Just compare legislative handbooks, past and present. In the 1971 edition, for example, only 12 out of 235 General Assembly members listed "legislator" as their occupation, while the 82 lawyers comprised almost 35 percent of the membership. In the current edition, almost half of the members 86 of 177 say they're legislators. The 34 lawyers make up the next largest occupational category, but account for less than 20 percent of the assembly as a whole.

Annual sessions, institutionalized when the new Constitution took effect in 1971, are not the only reason that more and more lawmakers over the last 20 years have found it difficult, if not impossible, to hold an outside job.

Equally significant has been the change in the typical lawmaker's role back home. Constituents increasingly have come to view their legislator as an ombudsman whose job is to assist them with a host of government-related problems. In fact, some lawmakers say they're busier in their district when the legislature is not in session than when they're meeting in Springfield. Reflecting this reality, district office allowances have risen to $57,000 a year for senators and $47,000 for House members; 20 years ago, lawmakers received only $50 a session for "stationery, newspapers, postage and other incidental expenses."

Moreover, changing views of what's ethically permissible for legislators also run counter to the idea of lawmakers whose real livelihood derives from some private occupation. A full-time legislator obviously doesn't face the same potential conflicts of interest as someone voting on legislation affecting his or her profession.

Despite the pay raise demagoguery sure to surface this campaign season, the COLA compromise is a sensible way to insulate wages for state officials, including legislators, from inflation protection most other American workers now enjoy.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times

July 1990/Illinois Issues/9

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