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Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Raising eyebrows

March 25, 2001

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If legislators can't bring themselves to vote for their own raises, maybe they don't deserve them.

It may be true that Kansas legislators are underpaid. It's also easy to see why its politically difficult for them to vote themselves a pay increase. But a plan passed by the Kansas House Friday to turn legislative pay raises entirely over to a nine-member commission isn't the right approach.

The bill calls for commission members to be appointed by legislative leaders, the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the state treasurer and the insurance commissioner. Under the bill, the commission would be appointed by May 1 and would fix salaries for legislators and recommend salaries for other elected state officials by June 15. The legislative salaries would automatically take effect on July 1; other officials' salaries would be subject to a vote in the next legislative session.

This certainly would eliminate the political muss and fuss of a pay raise for state legislators, but because all of the commission members are political appointees, it wouldn't eliminate politics from the process. Why should legislators' salaries be set by an appointed commission, no matter how well-meaning or competent its members?

The legislative pay commission would examine the needs of legislators and arrive at what seemed to be a reasonable compensation. Using that rationale, it would seem equally reasonable for the Kansas Board of Regents, another appointed body, to examine the needs of the state's higher education system and set a budget and employee salaries that would go into effect without legislative approval or the governor's signature. The dollar amount would simply be figured into the state budget.

The Legislature, in fact, already has a compensation commission. It was created in 1998, but its recommendations must be approved by legislators, who, so far, haven't been able to bring themselves to approve a pay increase. They say such an increase is needed to attract more people to serve in the Legislature, but they can't vote for it because they fear a negative reaction from voters.

Perhaps legislators would find their own pay raise easier to justify if they believed they had been fair to other workers in the state. Rep. Carl Krehbiel, R-Moundridge, explained his vote against the commission this week by saying he could not vote for such a bill until legislators made sure teachers, police and other government workers are properly paid. That makes a lot of sense.

Kansas voters are fair-minded. They would accept reasonable pay increases for state legislators if those increases were explained and justified by an independent commission like the one that already exists. But setting up a commission that sets legislative salaries that require no other approval goes against that Kansas sense of fairness.

Legislators should have to justify and take responsibility for their own salaries just as they do for every other expenditure of Kansas taxpayer money. If they can't do that, maybe they don't deserve the raise.

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