ANALYSIS: Panel could recommend pay raises for elected officials

Sunday, November 23, 2008 | 5:10 p.m. CST; updated 8:42 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 23, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — More than half of its members are missing. But a citizens commission is forging ahead with public hearings that could result in recommended pay raises for Missouri's elected officials and judges.

The consideration of pay raises during a poor economy and declining state revenues is awkward. So, too, is the fact that the 22-member salary commission is meeting with just 10 members because Gov. Matt Blunt has not made appointments.

But the Missouri Citizens' Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials is simply doing what the constitution mandates, said Tim Hufker, a Fenton businessman serving as chairman of the commission.

"We're doing what we feel our duty is," Hufker said.

The salary commission is supposed to have 12 members appointed by the governor, nine randomly selected by the secretary of state from among Missouri's registered voters and one retired judge appointed by the state Supreme Court.

The secretary of state and Supreme Court made their appointments earlier this year. But Gov. Matt Blunt has appointed no one and has no plans to do so.

"He does not see a need for an increase in pay for elected officials," said Blunt spokesman Rich Chrismer.

The Missouri Constitution requires the salary commission to meet every two years, to hold at least four public hearings around the state and to make pay-raise recommendations by Dec. 1 for judges, legislators and elected executives.

Those salary plans automatically take effect in the next state budget, unless they are rejected by the House and Senate.

The intent of the voter-approved 1994 amendment was to relieve lawmakers of the politically sticky issue of setting their own salaries.

But through the first decade under the system, it seldom actually resulted in pay raises. In 2001, lawmakers thwarted the pay raises by refusing to fund them in the budget. In 2003, legislators rejected outright the commission's recommendations. In 2005, the commission never even met, because no members were appointed.

Judges became increasingly frustrated, claiming the lure of higher private-sector salaries was discouraging lawyers from serving on the bench. So the legal community successfully pushed a November 2006 ballot measure making it more difficult for lawmakers to reject the salary commission's recommendations. Blunt appointed commissioners immediately after the voters' approved the changes, but their terms have since expired.

As a result of the 2006 recommendations, salaries for circuit judges rose from $108,000 in 2006 to $120,484 this year. Effective Jan. 1, legislators will get a 14.5 percent pay raise — from $31,351 annually to $35,915 — to make up for several years of flat wages.

The salary commission is now weighing whether to grant additional pay raises, which would kick in July 1.

Again, it's the legal community that is pushing for more money.

When Blunt failed to appoint members to the salary panel this year, it seemed as though the commission would fail to exist.

But Kansas City attorney Pat McLarney, who lobbied for the 2006 ballot measure, spurred the partial commission into action. McLarney contacted Hufker and encouraged him to organize the citizens appointed by the secretary of state, stressing that the commission did not need a full contingent of members to operate.

Indeed, the Missouri Constitution makes no reference to a quorum being necessary for the salary commission to function. It states simply, "The commission shall file its (salary recommendations) ... by the first day of December."

Although a majority of its positions remain empty, "the only choice for the commission was to ignore the constitution and not meet, in which case nothing gets done, or meet with those appointed and do their best," said St. Louis attorney Mark Levison, who is advising commissioners.

The salary panel held public hearings last week in Kansas City and Springfield. It plans to hold hearings Monday night in St. Louis and Tuesday morning in Jefferson City. Then Tuesday afternoon, the commission plans to meet again at the Capitol to consider its salary recommendations.

So far, most of those testifying have encouraged pay raises for judges, Hufker said. The judicial advocates have suggested that salary gaps should be narrowed between circuit and associate circuit judges and also between judges and private-sector attorneys, he said.

But those arguments must be balanced with "the economy and the state budget issues, which have to be weighed as a significant factor by this commission," Hufker said.

The ultimate factor may be the commission itself. What weight does its salary recommendations carry, with only a minority of its 22 slots filled?

That will be determined by legislators, who would need a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate if they want to reject the salary commission's recommendations.


EDITOR'S NOTE — David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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