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Know the truth behind government pay raises

By Sen. Colleen Hanabusa/

Recently there has been considerable attention paid to legislators’ pay, including a call from the governor for the Legislature to forgo its first pay raise of the current cycle, which took effect Jan 1.

Sen. Colleen Hanabusa

Sen. Colleen Hanabusa

Whether her comment grew from not knowing recent history or a willful disregard of the true facts, Gov. Lingle did not mention a vital concern: while she received two pay raises since 2007, the legislators had received none. Consequently, she left the public with the unfair and inaccurate impression that accepting the legislative pay adjustment was somehow self-serving. It was not, and the public deserves to know the truth. All affected members of the Executive and Judicial branches received substantial salary increases in 2007 and 2008, and are set to receive another in 2009. By contrast, as of Dec. 31, legislators had received two pay raises over the past 15 years.


Moreover, even if it were legally possible to withhold the legislators’ raise, it would violate the policies behind the process of determining salaries mandated by our state constitution. Still, there has been virtually no discussion of what the constitution requires.

In November 2006, Hawaii voters approved an amendment to our constitution which mandates how we set the salaries of the governor, the lieutenant governor, the governor’s cabinet, state judges, and legislators. The Commission on Salaries recommends salaries for each position. In order to reject the commission’s recommendation, our state constitution requires that the Legislature disapprove it in its entirety; we cannot accept the salaries for some positions and reject others, or approve the raises for only some of the years provided for in the recommendation.

This means of recommending and accepting a package of salaries serves important public policies: ensuring fairness, providing impartiality, and removing politics from the process.

When the Commission made its salary recommendation in 2007, no branch of government requested that it be rejected, and the Executive and Judicial branches of government benefitted immediately.

However, because of statutory limitations on the implementation of legislative pay raises, the Legislature received its first raise under the recommendations Jan. 1 — a delay of over two years — which provided a $12,808 raise, to an annual salary of $48,708.

The governor and her cabinet received two raises since 2007. Gov. Lingle’s raises totaled $10,480. A third scheduled raise July 1, 2009, will increase her pay another $6,180 for a total increase of $16,660 over three years, to $129,660.

The lieutenant governor and the governor’s chief of staff have received raises totaling $20,444 since 2007, and their 2009 raise will bring that total to $26,468. Their pay as of July 1 will be $126,468.

Raises for the governor’s cabinet over the past two years range from $10,000 to more than $15,000. Raises in 2009 will bring their three-year totals to over $20,000 each. Beginning in July, all department heads except the attorney general will earn $120,444 per year. The attorney general, who will have seen his pay increase over $17,000 in the past three years, will earn $126,468.

As of July 1, Hawaii’s judges will have received raises over three years totaling between $30,000 and $36,500. These raises would bring their pay to between $148,548 for a District Family Court judge and $181,476 for the Chief Justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Given those increases and the rates of pay provided to the Executive and Judicial branches, asking legislators to forgo their pay raise places an undue and inequitable burden on the Legislative branch.

In response to the governor’s suggestion that we suspend future raises for elected officials and top administrators, the challenge we face is how to meet the constitution’s requirement of a general law for raises that became effective in 2007. It is a matter of fairness and fulfilling our oath — shared by all elected officials, including the governor — to uphold and protect Hawaii’s constitution.

The governor is asking the Legislature to step in and reconfigure all salaries for the next three years, disregarding the work of the Salary Commission and placing us in exactly the situation the constitutional amendment was intended to avoid. We know that any decreases in salaries will have to affect all salaried employees. What we do not know—because the governor has not provided adequate details—is how much money can be saved, and whether the Legislature’s stepping into the shoes of the Salary Commission will have any significant impact on our budget challenges.

We appreciate that reducing the salaries of top state officials would reassure Hawaii workers; we welcome all proposals on how to do so fairly. As we address these issues, all concerned have a duty to understand the true facts behind our deliberations, to work within the spirit and letter of our laws, and to avoid creating distracting political conflicts where none exist.

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