As unionized public workers take more painful pay cuts, state legislators made their own pay a focus of drama as they ended their 2011 session.
In a final act, legislators passed a two-year extension of a 5 percent pay cut and a freeze on step increases for themselves, administrators and judges.
But because of a breakdown in conference negotiations, the House passed a Senate version of HB 575 that many lawmakers say is constitutionally flawed, and some are urging Gov. Neil Abercrombie to veto the measure.
A veto would likely mean that on July 1 — the same day members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association start taking a 5 percent pay cut they accepted in response to the governor’s call for "shared sacrifice" — legislators would get 12 percent pay raises, administrators would get 17 percent and judges would get 28.5 percent.
Lawmakers say they’ll come back in special session to correct the flaws if Abercrombie vetoes, but the veto deadline isn’t until July 12 and they’ll have pocketed the unfrozen step increases by then.
Even if the 5 percent cut is restored in special session, the step increases would result in a net raise of 7 percent for legislators, 12 percent for administrators and 23.5 percent for judges.
The Legislature reluctantly passed the 5 percent pay cut in 2009 to blunt criticism of their 36 percent pay raise that year while other state employees were furloughed.
The 2009 bill didn’t face legal challenges, and if legislators wanted to cleanly extend the pay freeze two years past its June 30 expiration, all they had to do was change the expiration date.
Instead, they poisoned HB 575 with confusing amendments that created the constitutional questions.
The Senate didn’t pass its version until late in the session, and the House was slow to appoint conferees to work out differences. Time ran out and the conference committee collapsed, its last scheduled meeting canceled when a quorum didn’t show up.
Critics haven’t presented a convincing case that a veto of HB 575 is necessary or that legal fixes can’t wait until next year’s legislative session.
As the governor and legislators untangle this, they should realize the public contempt they’d face if top leaders finagle more pay of any amount after demanding sacrifices from rank-and-file workers and hitting constituents with $600 million in tax and fee increases to balance the budget. Incompetence in crafting the pay bill wouldn’t pass as an excuse.
Abercrombie chided lawmakers for leaving work undone because of procedural bickering, saying, “People are not interested in dugout lineups and personality clashes. … That’s not what we’re paid to do.”
It would be outrageous if they’re not only paid for it, but end up with raises.