Pay hikes for legislators? Only if both parties agree, Dems say

Photo of Ken Dixon

Democratic leaders in the legislature said Friday they will not allow a vote on a plan to raise lawmakers’ salaries by a few hundred dollars unless Republicans agree to do it in a bipartisan bill.

And it doesn’t appear likely that will happen.

The state Compensation Commission on Friday recommended modest annual pay increases of about 1.3 percent, linked to inflation, to the $28,000 base salaries of the 36 state senators and 151 representatives, along with similar hikes for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer, secretary of the state and comptroller.

The raises — the first in 20 years — would not take effect until after the next election in 2022, and would increase General Assembly salaries by about $350 in 2023.

But while House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said he’s willing to discuss the possibility of raising lawmakers’ pay, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said it’s a proposal that he can’t support at a time when the pandemic has a grip on the state’s economy.

Richard Balducci, a former speaker of the House who is chairman of the commission, said Friday that it would take years to turn the annual cost-of-living raises into meaningful increases in annual pay. “Some say the economy means we just don’t have the money there, and I know things are still difficult, but when is there going to be a good time?” Balducci said in an interview. “We want to give them the ability to vote on it.”

In 2019, the commission rejected a raise for lawmakers. The vote Friday was 3-2. Under the proposal, the $110,000 salaries for constitutional officers would rise by about $1,400 in the first year. Gov. Ned Lamont, a multi-millionaire, has declined the $150,000 annual pay.

Balducci warned that with the high cost of living in Connecticut, the low compensation discourages otherwise qualified people from running for election to the General Assembly, which in recent years has become more and more of a full-time job.

And while many lawmakers are committee chairs or have higher paying leadership titles — plus mileage and $4,500 to $5,500 a year in expenses — lawmakers should consider the pay hike, he said.

“The current pay for Connecticut lawmakers is in line with other part-time legislatures around the country,” said Justin Bernier, a member of the commission who voted against the proposal. “Connecticut’s private sector workers have not enjoyed real wage increases, largely because of a self-defeating business environment, so I can’t see why the legislators who helped create this mess should give themselves a raise.”

Bernier added, “It would be a different story if Connecticut wages were rising or our legislators were being underpaid compared to the national average.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he understands the amount of time lawmakers spend on their legislative duties, particularly over the last year in the pandemic. Bu he said, “For something like this, I have to look at both sides of the aisle and say if you want to bring it to a vote, I will only put it on the board if the agreement is bipartisan.”

Raising legislative salaries would allow for more people of average means to serve, Ritter said. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to be a full-time legislature at part-time pay,” Ritter said.

The pay issue surfaces routinely over the years.

“While most constituents think we’re making $100,000 or more, the reality is it’s a fraction,” said Candelora, R-North Branford. “I think it’s a conversation we should have, but it’s also another item on our plate.”

Candelora agreed that the salary can be a barrier to people seeking the office.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the value of the legislative pay might be lower than what salaries were when he first joined the General Assembly, in 1981.

“I’m glad the commission recognizes that it is appropriate to raise the compensation,” Looney said. “You often see members with several years in the legislature, as they are gaining leadership roles and experience, leave for financial reasons because of the pressures of family and the need to make a living.”

Without mid-career members, it means more young lawmakers, the very wealthy or those who are retired from their first careers, are in the General Assembly, he said.

Asked to comment on the proposal, Kelly immediately dismissed it.

“Really? Pay raises for Connecticut lawmakers during a pandemic?” Kelly said in a statement. “The phrase ‘tone deaf’ comes immediately to mind. Middle-class families are facing unprecedented financial struggles because Connecticut is unaffordable. In 2019, the commission’s chair said he didn’t feel, in these economic times, that we can ask taxpayers to pay for legislators’ raises. So today, apparently, everything’s great with our economy?” Twitter: @KenDixonCT