A state panel narrowly recommended Friday that Connecticut legislators and constitutional officers receive their first pay hikes in two decades — albeit very modest ones.
But whether the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont will order those increases remains uncertain.
The Commission on Compensation of Elected State Officials voted 3-2 Friday morning to tie the salaries for lawmakers and constitutional officers to inflationary factors.
Based on current rates, that would involve an increase of slightly more than 1%. But because no raise could be implemented before the next term for lawmakers begins, in January 2023, the increase would be based on inflationary rates at that time.
And legislative leaders and a spokesman for Lamont all said no talk of raises can proceed unless it’s done in a collaborative, nonpartisan manner.
“Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the union [and] legislators have not had a raise since 2001,” said former House speaker Richard J. Balducci, who chairs the compensation advisory panel.
He noted that lawmakers haven’t received a pay hike since 2001 and constitutional officers since 2003. “Inflation over the years certainly has dimmed the value of their compensation.”
A 2019 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures confirms Balducci’s assessment that Connecticut’s compensation hasn’t kept up with its relatively high cost of living.
Of the 39 other states that set an annual compensation rate for its lawmakers, 22 exceed Connecticut’s $28,000-per-year base pay for senators and representatives. New Mexico provides no salary for its legislators.
Nine other states pay their legislators on a daily, weekly or sessional basis, rather than on a set annual amount.
Though Connecticut’s General Assembly serves part-time – with regular sessions stretching roughly five months in odd-numbered years and three months in even-numbered years — commission member Mary Ann Handley, a former state senator from Manchester, said there is recognition legislators’ jobs are becoming more time-consuming.
Constituent work has exploded over the past decade, legislators say, as e-mail and social media have made it far easier for voters to reach out to their lawmakers.
“Unless we provide a reasonable income for somebody who’s going to be a legislator, we’re really cutting out a lot of people who can’t afford to take this kind of job,” Handley said, adding that weakening diversity in the General Assembly harms its ability to represent all interests.
But commission member Justin Bernier of Plainville said the current compensation is “within the range of normal” and added that many citizens are struggling without raises in an economy weakened by the coronavirus.
“We’re not seeing real wage increases in Connecticut for many years now,” he said, adding that raises for state officials at this time “doesn’t make sense to me.”
Legislators also receive other forms of compensation.
Most lawmakers hold leadership titles that raise their wages. Compensation for leaders ranges from $30,403 to $38,889.
The state provides $5,500 annually to senators and $4,500 to representatives for expenses they don’t have to document.
And legislators also receive a mileage reimbursement — which they don’t have to document. As long as they demonstrate they came to the Capitol, they receive this reimbursement, even if — for example — they arrived at no expense by carpooling with a colleague.
This mileage reimbursement also is counted when calculating legislators’ pensions. Rep. Holly Cheesman, R-East Lyme, introduced a bill this year to end that practice.
“Why would it even be included in the first place?” she asked.
But Balducci noted the committee’s proposal would not dramatically boost state officials’ pay, only end the stagnation that’s gone on for the past two decades.
If those same conditions exist when the next state term begins in January, legislators’ base pay would rise from $28,000 to $28,364.
Lamont, a Greenwich millionaire, does not accept his $150,000 salary, but the governor’s base pay — on paper — would rise to $151,950. Similarly, the annual compensation for other constitutional officers would grow from $110,000 to $111,430.
Lawmakers would continue to receive inflationary pay adjustments at the beginning of each subsequent, two-year term — and constitutional officers at the start of each following, four-year term — under the compensation panel’s proposal.
The General Assembly approved a similar arrangement for judges’ compensation in 2012.
Leaders of three of the four legislative caucuses stopped short of endorsing the raises but agreed with the commission’s conclusion that legislators’ responsibilities have grown, even as their pay has stagnated.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, all said raises could be discussed — provided neither party tries to make a partisan issue of them.
“I would never put that to a vote unless I knew we had agreement, at least in our chamber, with the Republicans,” Ritter said.
“Paying legislators a base salary of $28,000 for a job that’s very time-consuming and becoming closer to full-time than part-time puts barriers to entry for people to run for office,” said Candelora.
Looney said the topic at least is worth a thorough review. He said leaders of some of the major legislative committees — such as the budget-writing and bill-screening panels — are especially poorly compensated.
“There are varying [work] loads within the legislature that are not reflected in the compensation at all,” he said.
But Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said too many are struggling in Connecticut’s economy to consider pay hikes for elected officials.
“Middle class families are facing unprecedented financial struggles because Connecticut is unaffordable,” he said, calling Balducci’s panel “tone deaf” to the problems facing the state.
Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss, said the governor would be willing to participate in compensation talks provided they are comprehensive and nonpartisan — particularly if it would provide more people an opportunity to serve in government.
“Representative government is a cornerstone of our democracy, and there is no doubt that we must ensure there are not barriers to that representation,” he said.