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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Raising lawmakers' pay is plainly immoral

By David Shapiro

State legislators appear to be clinging to a 36 percent pay raise they accepted at the beginning of the year despite a state budget deficit that's at $1.2 billion and growing.

Gov. Linda Lingle, who has told unionized state workers not to expect raises in the next fiscal year, last month asked the Legislature to suspend planned raises for themselves and top officials in the administration and Judiciary to set an example and save $4 million.

House Speaker Calvin Say earlier said he would propose delaying the legislative pay raises that take the part-time positions from $35,900 to $48,708, but he hasn't pressed the issue.

Senate leaders such as President Colleen Hanabusa and Ways and Means Chairwoman Donna Kim have been downright resistant, saying giving back the raises would be legally complicated.

Well, let's uncomplicate it for them:

The state is facing potentially its worst budget deficit ever, with the Council on Revenues warning Lingle and the Legislature last week that tax collections could drop further yet.

Funding is being cut deeply for public education and the social service safety net that protects the neediest people in our community. Lingle has said she may ask unionized public workers to take one-day unpaid furloughs each month to avoid outright layoffs.

Hawai'i's private sector has been hammered by unprecedented business failures and job layoffs that have doubled the state's unemployment rate.

Against this grim backdrop, for legislators to take pay raises especially on the magnitude of 36 percent is greedy and unconscionable.

A bill suspending all legislative (39.2 percent), judicial (13.5 percent) and administrative (8.5 percent) pay raises scheduled to take effect in 2009 and 2010 doesn't seem complicated at all.

It's understandable that lawmakers think they deserve more money and it stings to give up raises they were counting on, but everybody's hurting in this economy and leaders have to share the pain.

The state Salary Commission that recommended the big raises did its work more than two years ago when the economy was flush and the state budget was running a substantial surplus.

To defend the raises as "only" $4 million is callous. Every dollar we spend on these raises is a dollar less we have for our schoolchildren and critically needed social services.

We're only having this discussion because lawmakers have come to see themselves as politically invulnerable and free to pay themselves whatever they please.

Last year, 22 of the 51 House members and six of the 12 senators up for re-election ran unopposed and most of the rest faced only token opposition. With no competition, they see no political lumps to be taken for serving themselves first.

But some like Hanabusa and Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser aspire to higher office, and it will follow them to their future endeavors if they don't show responsible and moral leadership now in rescinding these inappropriate raises.

Hooser raised the question of morality in a thoughtful blog posting about budget cuts in education and social services when he said, "The state budget is ultimately a moral document and a statement of values of who we are as a people."

How is it moral for legislators to take massive pay raises when money is being slashed from our public schools? Where's the morality in increasing judges' six-figure salaries when there's little funding to help the ever-growing numbers of poor, sick, homeless and unemployed?

This is a no-brainer, and there's no point in dragging it out. Suspending these raises should be one of the first actions of the upcoming Legislature so it doesn't distract them from more pressing budgetary concerns.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.