Connecticut’s first legislative pay raise in more than 20 years is unexpectedly getting serious consideration for a vote Monday as lawmakers begin their three-day sprint to their midnight Wednesday adjournment deadline.
With the state running a surplus and lawmakers set to cut taxes, legislative leaders discussed over the weekend whether the time might finally have come for raising the annual base pay of $28,000 that took effect in 2001.
“At some point, you’ve got to do something,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.
The issue of pay raises would be a surprise addition to the agenda of the General Assembly that intends to vote on revisions to the second year of the biennial budget before turning to a shrinking list of priority bills.
Lawmakers return to the state Capitol on Monday with more than 500 bills still technically alive and awaiting action, but the bar is high for passage in the waning days.
With time limited and the General Assembly dedicated to its tradition of unlimited debate, moving business in the final days requires a consensus of the two parties and two chambers.
Before leaving a few minutes after midnight Friday, the Senate Democratic majority used a parliamentary procedure to kill six House bills, a reprisal for a bipartisan move in the House to amend a Senate bill, apparently without the consent of its sponsor.
“It’s going to be an interesting few days,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “Certainly the budget … is something that we know we need to get done for the state of Connecticut, but beyond that I’m not sure how it’s going to go.”
Pay adjusted for inflation?
The issue of legislative pay got an unexpected showcase on the opening day of the session in February.
A lawmaker from each party, Democrat Joe de la Cruz of Groton and Republican David Wilson of Litchfield, announced they would not seek reelection and that pay was a factor. De la Cruz noted that the topic typically is taboo.
“A politician asking for money on the House floor sounds crazy, but I can do that because I’m on the way out the door,” de la Cruz said.
“This is going to sound really strange coming from a Republican, but I entirely agree with my good representative on the other side of the aisle that we are underpaid for the work that we do and that our job is much more than a part-time job,” Wilson said.
Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, who was elected in 1988, filed a bill that would increase the base pay from $28,000 to slightly more than $44,000, a figure he says is equal to the current pay, adjusted for inflation.
With a stipend for expenses — $4,500 for House members, $5,500 for senators — and slight extra pay for leadership posts, compensation for most lawmakers ranges from about $32,500 to $35,000.
The Appropriations Committee approved Godfrey’s bill for a public hearing, but it died once the committee’s deadline passed. Legislative pay still could be placed before the House and Senate with the consent of the House speaker and Senate president pro tem.
Ritter said he will present the topic to his House Democratic majority caucus to gauge the comfort level in voting for raises. The exact amount still was subject to talks, but the range under consideration for the base pay was between $37,000 and $42,000.
If passed, no legislative raises could take effect until January, when the winners of the November elections take office and begin their two-year terms.
Ritter said passage would be unlikely without some support from both parties. The House Republican leader, Candelora, said he is supportive of raises and indexing salaries to inflation.
“We’re seeing a lot of retirements this year,” Candelora said. “People can’t afford to be up here. I don’t think legislators should have to take a vow of poverty when they choose to be a public servant.”
Tensions clouding legislative agenda
Beyond the budget and a short list of consensus measures, the rest of the agenda was unclear.
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said the House is committed to voting for final passage of Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2, both measures addressing mental health issues in children. One passed unanimously in the Senate, the other nearly so.
Rojas said he was unsure what consequences might flow from the Senate leadership’s decision to kill six House bills by recommitting them to committee.
“That’s a sign of the tension, the nature of House and Senate tension. Whether that continues to go through the next few days or not, who knows?” he said.
At issue was how the House handled Senate Bill 5, a measure intended to provide safeguards related to online dating and workplace sexual harassment.
Candelora said Democrats and Republicans in the House felt the bill broadened the definition of sexual harassment as to make enforcement unworkable, so it was amended and returned to the Senate.
“We did not kill their bill. We sent it back in time to be voted on. And the amendment was based on a principle, a problem that over a majority of the House members had with the bill,” Candelora said. “So to suggest that we don’t have a right to deliberate and return a bill to the Senate, it’s disturbing.”
In retaliation, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff closed out the Friday session by recommitting six House bills.
“To recommit bills and kill them because you want to get even with people is something that I have never seen done in these chambers,” Candelora said.
The bills appeared to have been chosen to punish certain lawmakers involved in amending Senate Bill 5, Candelora said.
Duff declined to comment.
The recommitted bills were House Bills 5374, 5232, 5382, 5240, 5140 and 5387. Their topics range from creating a commission to commemorate America’s 250th anniversary to rules for the hand harvesting of horseshoe crabs.