Saturday, April 29, 2006

My Qualified Endorsement of the Unicameral's 75% Pay Raise

by Kyle Michaelis
On the May 9th primary ballot will be an amendment to Nebraska's constitution raising state senators' salaries from $12,000 to $21,000. This is a change that is long over-due - it having been 18 years since senators last received a boost in pay. As such, the New Nebraska Network offers a qualified endorsement of Amendment 1, based largely on the necessity of a pay raise rather than the merits of this particular proposal.

To be honest, I question whether a 75% increase in pay all at once is really justifiable. It seems a tad excessive, and I've worried that it would needlessly rub many Nebraska voters the wrong way, jeoparding the amendment's passage. But, I don't mean to squabble over amounts. These elected officials deserve and our democracy demands a higher salary that better reflects the vital function and high expectations of our state senators. This change will accomplish that.

Far more troubling is this amendment's inclusion of an annual cost-of-living adjustment that will break Senators' reliance on voters to seek any future pay raise. While 18 years is too long to go without some increase, I don't believe it's hurt the legislature to remain accountable to voters by leaving senators' salaries in the peoples' hands.

This change in the entire system is a break with Nebraska tradition that should bother people - even those like myself who will vote for it with some serious misgivings. Not only does it needlessly shift power away from the people, such institutionalized pay raises also create an illusion of consistency that actually makes state government more inflexible and less dynamic.

Senators should have taken into consideration that the expectations placed upon them can and do change over the years. But, now, both voters and senators will have an excuse to forever default to the status quo - destructively assuming that equitable compensation will take care of itself and that improved performance is no longer necessary.

All in all, it's a short-sighted "reform" - one that exaggerates the difficulty of asking voters for a pay raise while short-changing the accountability that such an act encourages in both senators and citizens alike.

That said, I will vote for the damn thing because the actual harm done by keeping salaries locked in at the ludcrously low $12,000 is worse, on balance, than the theroetical damage I foresee as this amendment's long-term result.

In fact, almost 100 organizations have united to form a coalition in support of Amendment 1. I assume that many do so out of urgency, though sharing some of the worries I've laid-out above.

One group has come forward to challenge Amendment 1, but - from the following Lincoln Journal-Star excerpt - I must say that I'm glad to have narrowly avoided their company:
Nebraska Taxpayers for Fredom says that state senators, who are "high taxers and big spenders," don't deserve a pay raise....

Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom appears to be the only organized group opposing the pay raise, according to Doug Kagan, chairman.

The group's message focuses on the taxes and says the "cheerleaders" for the amendment include active left-wing and special interest groups such as the state AFL-CIO, Nebraskans for Peace and the Nebraska Democratic Party.

The official blog of the Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom also reads:
Once again, liberals want to raise the salaries for state senators, from $12,000 to $21,000 annually, a 75% pay increase. How many of us have received 75% pay hikes lately?? Proponents now make the same argument they made for their case during the last pay hike campaign, that an increased salary would bring us better qualified and more dedicated candidates. Yet, taxes and spending both have exploded since that time. We must fight this pay grab until state senators rein in spiraling taxes and spending....

Citizen legislators should offer public service, even at a financial sacrifice, for only a few years and then return to live under the same laws they themselves have passed for others.

What doubts I have about Amendment 1 are at least somewhat relieved by the fact that a raving bunch of reactionaries like this stand in such vehement opposition to it. If they hate the amendment so much - to the degree that they want to blame it all on liberals, trying to alienate fellow reactionaries by mentioning that the Democratic Party supports it without mentioning that the Republican Party does so as well - then surely the plan must have merit.

For the full list of organizations supporting Amendment 1, see here.

And, for a full display of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom's insanity (including their declaring conservative U.S. Senate candidate and former Nebraska GOP chair David Kramer a socialist), be amazed here.


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