Editorials

Pay raises for Washington elected officials unpopular but prudent

The Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials is preparing to raise pay for legislators, judges and nine statewide executives including Gov. Jay Inslee.
The Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials is preparing to raise pay for legislators, judges and nine statewide executives including Gov. Jay Inslee.

There’s no good time to announce that elected leaders are due for pay raises, but it’s most unwelcome during election season, when public perception of these officials is filtered through the lens of negative campaigning.

Nevertheless, the Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials is preparing to raise pay for legislators, judges and nine statewide executives including Gov. Jay Inslee. The panel was established in 1987 to insulate these officials from the appearance of nest-feathering.

Setting salaries with maximal professionalism and minimal politics is the right way to handle an unpopular action. The Pierce County Council, which recently approved its own set of pay raises, would do well to emulate the state’s arm’s-length approach.

Giving state officials a 2.5-percent cost of living adjustment, plus increases to base pay in line with market forces, makes sense at a time when the economy is strong. And boosting the salaries of 147 legislators from $48,731 to $57,425 over two years doesn’t qualify as an outrageous budget buster — not when tens of thousands of teachers are seeing double-digit percentage pay hikes.

A competitive salary would encourage more citizens from all walks of life to run for office. Why should Washingtonians accept a Legislature defined by affluence, out of reach of people who can’t afford to take a part-time job with more than part-time demands?

Granted, the proposal would also reward full-time leaders who collect six-figure salaries. Governor pay would increase from $177,107 today to $189,186 in two years, or 6.8 percent.

Supreme Court justice salaries would all rise from $190,415 to $225,562, an 18.5 percent increase. Living paycheck to paycheck will never be a concern for them; on the other hand their job is to decide the thorniest problems lower courts can’t resolve.

It’s hardly shocking that Tim Eyman, the state initiative opportunist, is test-driving a “Give Them Nothing” ballot measure. We understand taxpayers might not like the size of some increases, but they should beware Eyman’s irresponsible hyperbole about rigged systems and payoff schemes.

The proposed pay hikes would actually bring state officials within relevant salary ranges, a conclusion that a team of legal and human resources professionals reported after studying wage trends. The 16-member state salary commission has representatives from business, organized labor and higher education as well as randomly chosen Washingtonians.

Anyone with questions or concerns is welcome to attend public hearings wisely scheduled after Election Day. By then the negative campaign mailers will be recycled, and we can watch TV without being assaulted by nasty political ads.

Rank-and-file state workers, who were given a two-year series of pay increases that started in January, have less reason to be salty about electeds collecting fatter paychecks. Placing their financial welfare ahead of politicians was the correct way to go.

Most importantly, no elected officials in Olympia will vote on their own pay increases. Few things erode public trust more than watching a body of politicians raise their hands to give themselves a raise.

It’s why Pierce County Council Chairman Doug Richardson wants a charter amendment to change the county’s system to more closely resemble the state’s.

The county’s independent citizen salary commission analyzed comparable earnings in the region and recently determined 11 elected officials should receive 2.5-percent raises. The beneficiaries include the seven council members plus the county executive, auditor, assessor-treasurer and sheriff.

Council members, with the exception of Dan Roach and Pam Roach, voted in favor.

The raises are modest COLAs. They’re staggered to prevent council members from collecting additional salary in their current terms.

Even so, the optics aren’t good. In the future, Richardson wants the commission to have the final say and for the council to have no vote. That model is already used in Snohomish County and some Washington cities.

We support the idea. Raising elected officials’ pay should be removed as far from elected officials as possible.

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