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Commission rejects ballot measure for legislative salary hike

Voters routinely reject proposed pay raises for legislators, but for the second election in a row, they won’t have the chance to decide.

On a 2-2 vote, the Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers rejected a proposed ballot measure that would have asked voters to increase lawmakers’ salaries to $30,000 from $24,000. The five-person panel was missing the potential tiebreaker because House Speaker Andy Tobin declined to make his appointment to the commission.

Tobin, R-Paulden, said he left the position vacant because he didn’t think it was appropriate to ask voters to raise legislative salaries at a time when the economy is still struggling.

“The economy’s not right. I don’t think we should be giving anybody, elected officials raises right now. The economy’s in the tank. It’s improving. It’s getting better. But this isn’t the time,” Tobin said. “When the private sector starts improving that’s a better time to have that conversation.”

Tobin’s actions echo those of Gov. Jan Brewer two years ago. Brewer didn’t make her two appointments to the commission in 2010 because she wanted to keep the proposal off the ballot while the economy and the state’s finances were in such poor shape. The commission had enough members for a quorum, but was unable to meet because the governor’s appointees include the chairman.

The Senate president and Arizona Supreme Court chief justice appoint the other two members.

This year, the governor’s appointees split on whether to increase lawmakers’ salaries, which is lower than at least 21 other states.

Brewer appointee Dennis Mitchem, a retired CPA, introduced the motion to refer the $6,000 pay raise to the ballot. Mitchem, who served on the commission in 2000 and 2002, said lawmakers in Arizona are “shamefully underpaid.”

“If we can’t recommend a pay increase for something as woefully inadequate as something like our legislative salaries, we’re endorsing the status quo,” Mitchem said. “I don’t want to endorse the status quo. For me that’s unacceptable.”

The motion was seconded by attorney Joe Kanefield, who was appointed by Chief Justice Rebecca Berch. Kanefield said he doubted that voters would approve the measure – voters have rejected the last six proposed pay raises – but said legislators are underpaid and thought it should be referred nonetheless.

“I don’t see my job as a commissioner to necessarily predict what the voters will do,” he said. “I always would prefer to err on the side of letting the voters decide the question.”

But the other two members disagreed, though they both said legislative salaries are too low. Bill Feldmeier, who was appointed by Senate President Steve Pierce, said he saw no point in referring a ballot measure that voters are going to reject anyway.

“I think the timing is real bad for that,” Feldmeier said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with any recommendation other than to hold off … maybe two years from now.”

Chairwoman Lisa Atkins, Brewer’s other appointee, said she didn’t believe the commission should be asking for a legislative pay raise at a time when both the public and private sectors have cut back so much.

Atkins also was concerned about the lack of deliberation about how much of a pay raise it would ask for. Mitchem chose his figure after a commission staffer explained that the 2008 commission sought a $30,000 salary because a proposal to increase lawmakers’ pay to $36,000 lost by a relatively small margin in 2006.

“I like to be able to explain how we arrive at things,” Atkins said. “To pick a number that almost made it four years ago to me is not substantive.”

The commission must refer its proposal to the Secretary of State’s Office by July 9 to get it on the ballot, meaning it will not have enough time to reconsider.

Voters have not approved a legislative pay increase since 1998, when they raised lawmakers’ salaries from $15,000 to $24,000.

The commission also said it will schedule a future meeting to discuss salaries for statewide elected officials, judges and clerks of the court. Those proposals must be forwarded to the governor, who has discretion on whether to ask for legislative approval.

 

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