Why the State House pay raises were a big mistake

Yes, I know that most State House employees who just got a pay raise haven’t had one in years, and don’t make all that much money to begin with.  It’s hard to begrudge someone making $35,000 a year a 3% pay raise when they haven’t had one since 2008.  I also know that the money to fund the raises came out of the House budget, and therefore that it’s not obvious that cancelling the raises would make the money available for other purposes (at least, not without additional legislation).

And yet, they were a big mistake.  They were a big mistake because of stories like this, among other things, from the Globe article linked above:

The latest raises — which the speaker and Senate president can grant at their own discretion ­­— immediately stirred outrage among human services workers who were told by the governor just last month that their 2 percent raises had been frozen because of dwindling tax revenues and a potential shortfall in the state budget.

The 29,000 workers, who care for the homeless and developmentally disabled, had already begun to protest at the State House on Monday when they learned that legislative staff members had been granted the 3 percent hike.

The workers earn $25,000 a year, on average, and have gone without an increase since 2008.

“There’s no sense of a shared sacrifice here,” said Michael D. Weekes, president and chief executive of the Providers’ Council, which advocates for the workers. “Why are the lowest-paid people taking it on the chin?”

Yes, yes, like I said, I know that denying House staff raises would not necessarily make it possible to give human service workers raises because the money comes from different accounts, blah blah blah.  Sorry, but nobody cares about that.  What people care about is that poorly-paid people who do very important work taking care of vulnerable people aren’t getting a raise while people who work for Bob DeLeo are.  Even worse, additional cuts and maybe tax increases for everyone appear to be on the horizon … yet DeLeo’s staff gets a raise.

It looks terrible.  And appearances matter in politics.  If people see House staffers getting a raise while human service workers don’t, and while their own taxes go up, they get mad, and their trust in the ability of Beacon Hill to raise itself above the Big Dig Culture is further eroded.  And that, in turn, makes it much harder to sell the public on expensive things that really should be done – like finding the money to get the T out of debt, to make serious, badly-needed infrastructure investments, and so on.

That’s why the raises are a mistake and should frankly be rescinded.  That’s also why the sales tax should go back to 5% – maybe not right now, given the state of things, but why it should absolutely be on the table.  If people don’t trust their elected officials to mean what they say (e.g., when they say a tax hike is an emergency measure), to share sacrifice when sacrifice is called for, and to spend money sensibly, the big stuff will never get done.  And that hurts everyone.

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Discuss

30 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. I don't buyt it

    Both groups are underpaid professionals. Both groups deserve a raise. Arguing that the second group shouldn’t get a raise because the first group didn’t makes no sense to me.

    Don’t forget, the folks who work in the state house also see the same sales tax. That is exactly shared sacrifice — when the legislature raised the sales tax, they raised it on everybody.

    If I spend $10,000 on sales-taxable items a year [and I don't!], then the delta is $125. I’d rather have it than not, but don’t make it out to be more than it is. In the mean time, the 3% raise on a $35k salary is $1k, before taxes — and since raises are a percentage, it also impacts all future raises. The fact of the matter is, in addition to those professionals sharing the sacrifice of the sales tax, they’ve also had an effective pay cut since 2009 thanks to inflation, even including the 3% raise.

    I don’t want folks getting 5% raises just because we’re flush with money one year. Likewise, I don’t want folks going without raises for years because we’re tight.

    • If fair is fair

      and they are both equally deserving, the would both get whatever raise was possible.

      The group of people personally known to the Legislature would not be singled out to live in a fiscal bubble of normalcy while the rest live in austerity that is created by the Legislature.

      Second, I object to the New Hampshirefication of Massachusetts, gradually transferring our revenue base from the income tax to sales and property taxes. I resent using permanent “crisis” to accelerate this trend.

      More broadly, and I take this to be David’s main point, every act of bad faith is a tax on government’s ability to do good. Dishonoring promises poisons the well of public support, breeds the worst cynicism, undermines the progressive agenda, and invites reaction.

    • "I don’t want folks going without raises for years because we’re tight."

      But that is exactly what has happened to the human services workers, who are on average paid less than legislative staff. So what is the logic behind giving raises to one group but not the other? Isn’t trickle-up correct that the only difference is that one is personally acquainted with Bob DeLeo and the other isn’t? Is that really such a great way of making the distinction?

      • I didn't say that the decision was logical

        The logical correction is to give the human service workers raises, too.*

        * I write that without the facts. They seem to be contractors, not direct employers, so it’s quite a bit trickier.

  2. There's no question that both direct-care workers and legislative employees

    should get raises. But it’s curious that The Providers Council would be described in the Globe as “advocates for the (direct-care) workers.” Mr. Weekes and the Council represent the providers, which are state-funded contractors that employ those workers.

    It’s fine that the Council wants more money from the Legislature for the workers its members employ, but, as we’ve pointed out, the providers themselves have chosen over and over again to give their CEOs handsome raises in recent years, while cutting the pay of the direct-care workers or keeping their wages flat.

  3. I See It Differently David

    First off, there’s never a good time for the move. NEVER!! So the expected responses are… well.. expected.

    But the second point I want to make is upsetting.
    This could be Murray and DeLeo getting everything in order before they leave, voluntarily or otherwise. And I’m thinking otherwise.
    So I disagree with you and love the move because it’s never easy to do, but it scares me for what it might mean.

    eb3-fka-ernie-boch-iii   @   Tue 27 Nov 3:21 PM
  4. David is apparently in the "only rich people should run for public office" camp

    Lawmakers should be paid a salary commensurate if their level of responsibility and workload. I would be fine with tripling their salary.

    • Irrelevant,

      as Christopher accurately points out below. This is about staff, not legislators.

    • So,

      you are in the only rich people should work in social services camp? The claims that this doesn’t come out of the budget are magical thinking- this is a zero sum game.

      • misread the article

        I do think lawmakers, their staff, and social workers should all be well compensated though. We get the government we’re willing to pay for. If we skimp on salaries, we’ll get poorer quality work.

  5. Actually, Marcus Graly...

    …I believe we are talking about legislative staff in this diary. I believe the legislators themselves get automatic cost of living adjustments per the Constitution.

    • That's correct.

      Legislators can neither raise nor lower their base compensation via legislation or fiat – it happens automatically, depending on how the median income in the state has moved over the last couple of years. Of course, that doesn’t include the bonus that Scott Brown used to get for being the second deputy assistant minority whip or whatever his hilarious title was.

    • Sorry, I should have read the article more carefully.

      I agree with dave-from-hvad that both should get raises, though, as always, it’s tricky when the budget is tight…

  6. Our human services

    people certainly deserve a raise. They are overworked and underpaid. I don’t blame them in the least for using this news to their advantage.

    But there are 29,000 of them. Are there 29,000 State House employees? Increase all of their salaries by $1000 and increase the budget by $29 million, if my math is correct. How much would a raise for State House employees cost? Fiscally, they are apples and oranges.

    • Some numbers from the Globe article

      House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo granted 3 percent raises to all 460 House employees for a total cost of $764,000, and Senate President Therese Murray gave 3 percent raises to a small handful of her direct staff. Those salary increases followed a 3 percent bump that Patrick gave to hundreds of non-union managers in July at a total cost of $10 million.

      So yes, you’re right that giving raises to House staff costs less than giving similar raises to all the human service workers. But I can’t see how that’s an argument for doing it. Strikes me as a non sequitur.

      • Not a reason to pay

        the House people. Just a reason not to pay the human services people. It can be done where as the we can’t possibly come up with the money for the human service workers who do it.

        Seemed like it was worth pointing out.

  7. I can't believe ya'll missed the obvious here...

    What people care about is that poorly-paid people who do very important work taking care of vulnerable people aren’t getting a raise while people who work for Bob DeLeo are.

    … according to EBIII, it’s the same job!

    (rimshot!)

    I mean… c’mon… there’s such a wealth of comic potential here I can’t believe you didn’t go for the jugular: its got gambolling and it’s ironic; and satiric; as well… it’s ironical-satirical, satirical-ironing and very nearly terminally hilarious.

    What’s the difference between a legislative staffer and person who works with the intellectually disabled? Not a thing (rimshot!)

    Maybe it’s all part of a plan to get professionally trained mental-health and disability workers to seek the higher paying jobs of tending the legislative ruminants on beacon hill? (rimshot!)

    Jokes practically writing themselves an all ya’ll can do is argue and be all serious up in da joint. I’m particularly disappointed in you EBIII… c’mon man… where’s your sense of trollishness? You’ve actually committed at least one act of substantive contribution. Sheesh! Boy, the trolls must still be in mourning from the election if I gotta be the one to distract from the substance of the debate…!!!

  8. I disagree, David

    Those legislative staffers deserve those pay increases. We can’t expect our state legislature to function well if we are not willing to pay the staff fairly.

    And, of course, the human services workers also deserve pay raises. That’s why we should NOT lower the sales tax yet. The state does not have sufficient revenue to pay its people.

    And, it’s time that our government’s leaders stop trying to “look good” and start trying to “do good”. Salary increases and sales tax increases might not look good, but they are the right things to do.

  9. I see that the old management strategy of turning groups of people against one another is still in operation. Just surprising that it works on outside observers as well.

    Looking to save money? Shut down the film tax credit and these folks can all be paid something close to the importance of their work. Or, you know, start getting serious about raising revenue.

    sabutai   @   Tue 27 Nov 7:35 PM
    • Maybe you're right...

      but the strategy of combining not shutting down the film tax credit with giving your own staff a holiday kiss is not one likely to generate sympathy from the public for, you know, “getting serious about raising revenue.”

  10. I love this post

    Thanks for bringing these workers to more public awareness David. My dad was one of these human services professionals, the night shift for 30 years at various mental health hospitals around the state, and he’d be the first to tell you its dispiriting work. I griped about making 28k my first job out of college and he put me in my place “son that was my ceiling in mental health”. They are always the first to get cut, the first to lose health care and benefits, and they depend on public sector unions-as he put it “im making 25k with a union imagine how *bleeped* I’d be without one”. He is retired now, no pension for him just social security. It was a tough life while I was growing up (a scary year without healthcare when I was in second grade, and I remembered my heartbreak when our family dentist who we went to for 15 years dropped dads plan) and it hasn’t been an easy retirement for them either. But he doesn’t regret it, though an agnostic he would always say he was doing God’s work when he came home.

    • I love your post jconway

      Because it is about disparity and real people. I don’t begrudge the staffers a raise, but in the context of reduced revenue and the disconnect with those of us who are squeezed, have measurably reduced standards of living, no retirement and no benefit plans and job protections, it stinks! I am also reminded that these staffers who may work long hours and have crazy people to deal with (both their bosses and the public) are now enjoying a five month hiatus from formal sessions.

      The raises speak of more patronage with Beacon Hill feeding itself from the public trough.

  11. This got Scott Brown elected, and may again

    The One Party State government of Massachusetts: corrupt to the its last featherbedding and job for cousin Frank (a good guy, really!). “We need balance: some kind of check to a system that is out of control and completely unaccountable.” If that had been Brown’s slogan, he might have beaten Warren. I agree with David: the sales tax should go back to 5% and Beacon Hill workers should be last in line for raises, not first. (Incidentally, I think that all state employees should get raises including, critically, legislators who are paid so poorly they are wide open to corrupt inducements of various kinds, but that is a separate issue).

    • Indeed -

      we actually had a “Cousin Frank,” or more precisely, “Cousin Buster,” story in this very state a couple of years ago. We said then:

      “He’s my cousin, OK?” is not OK. This kind of thing is where the Big Dig Culture came from; it’s why Scott Brown won; and it’s why things could be really ugly this November if we aren’t proactive.

    • makes sense, it doesn’t make sense when trying to balance between sane elected officials and the totally insane idiots who call themselves Republicans. We do not need to balance sanity with insanity.

  12. Electing a Republican to the FEDERAL Senate does absolutely nothing to balance the overwhelming numbers the Dems have in STATE government. It might make sense to some that Brown could argue balance vis-a-vis Obama though my own view is you either like the President’s agenda or you don’t. If you do don’t vote for someone likely to block it at every turn and if you don’t don’t vote for him in the first place. Though recent election results suggest that about 7% of voters did make the head-scratching decision to split their tickets.

  13. State income tax should go to 6%

    Our state government has been chronically underfunded for a long time, and we make up for it by raising various fees, cutting local aid and causing property taxes to go up, delaying necessary infrastructure investment, cutting critical services, and yes, failing to give many state workers decent pay.

    Cutting the income tax even further would make everything worse, and would reduce trust in and support for a government that works less well. It would also severely hurt a lot of people. It would be a huge mistake.

    Yes, voters over a decade ago voted to cut taxes, but there was a sea change in attitudes about this stuff during the Bush administration and especially after Katrina. In a state like Massachusetts, the idea that we should slash government lost support. There’s no need to make a huge mistake by being hostages of the misled attitudes of the past.

    We desperately need to raise the state income tax.

  14. I spoke with a beneficiary of the raise

    Young guy, works on Beacon Hill. Full time.

    Prior to the raise, he was eligible for food stamps and section 8 housing. Post-raise, he is no longer eligible. It wasn’t a big raise [3% of small is small], but it was enough to lift him out of eligibility for poverty-related government services.

    Something to think about.

    • Something for

      those folks, what are they called, who vote on the budget, and decide how much money there is for underpayed but deserving state and local employees—ahh, what is that called? Just can’t think.

      Anyway, something for them to think about.

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