Some leading lawmakers are supporting new recommendations by the state Salary Commission that would grant all members of the Legislature raises of 10 percent in 2021 and would further boost lawmakers’ salaries in additional steps over the following three years.
In all, 74 members of the state House and Senate would see their pay increase in steps from $62,604 today to $74,160 starting Jan. 1, 2024. The Senate president and House speaker would receive somewhat heftier increases that would bump their pay from $70,104 today up to $83,052 starting in 2024.
The commission also recommended the governor’s salary be increased in a series of steps from $158,700 today to $189,480 in 2024, and recommended a series of raises for Circuit, Family and District Court judges as well as the members of the state Supreme Court and Intermediate Court of Appeals.
In all, the raises would cost the state more than $485,000 extra next fiscal year when they first take effect, and the cost of the package would increase as additional pay steps kick in each year leading up to 2024.
Lawmakers will almost certainly accept the proposal, which the commission submitted to Gov. David Ige last week. Under a law passed in 2006, the raises automatically take effect unless the Legislature rejects them, and lawmakers have not rejected any of the commission’s proposed pay increases so far.
The average annual pay increases over the next six years for members of the state House and Senate work out to somewhat more than 2.5 percent a year from 2023 to 2025, and Senate President Ron Kouchi said that is basically in line with the raises public workers have won during contract negotiations in recent years.
People often argue state lawmakers only work part time because the Legislature meets from January to May, but “with smartphones and laptops, email and other forms of communication, we receive requests all year round from our constituents, who expect to have immediate answers,” said Kouchi (D, Kauai-Niihau).
“The job has really changed a lot in the last five decades, since this (Capitol) building has been opened up, as to how you are able to be in touch with your legislator, and the level of expectation on follow-up and communication that they expect,” he said.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said he also supports the commission recommendation, describing it as “a matter of parity.”
Lawmakers received no increases or only nominal increases for a number of years, and “I view this year’s recommendation as a step toward creating some more parity between the three, between the Legislature and the executive and Judiciary,” Saiki said.
“Technically the Legislature is a part-time body, but when you look at the legislators who take the job seriously, it really becomes a full-time job, a full-time position,” he said. Many lawmakers do have outside jobs, but the House and Senate were deliberately structured that way to provide Hawaii with a diverse “citizen’s legislature,” Saiki said.
Sam Slom, a longtime small-business advocate who served in the state Senate for 20 years, said he voted against creation of the salary commission when he was in the Senate, and warned his colleagues at the time that “all it’s going to do is make sure that we get nothing but increases in salaries.” The commission has never said there should be no raises, he said.
As for the new package, “do I think it’s justified? No,” Slom said. “It’s outrageous for a part-time legislature, for one thing, and the perks, the perks are tremendous.” Slom cited per diem payments for lawmakers who travel as well as the annual office allowance that is provided to lawmakers, which Slom said he never accepted.
“All of this is supposed to be public service, and I think we’ve long ago forgotten that,” Slom said.
State Rep. Cynthia Thielen, one of five Republicans in the House, said she thinks lawmakers are already paid adequately but said she was disappointed the commission did not give “meaningful” raises to state judges.
For lawyers who are considering becoming judges, “there’s competition against very highly paid private-sector jobs, so if we want to continue to get the best and the brightest, we need to at least give a pay raise that … at least will be adequate for that person to be able to do public service for a period of time,” she said.
The salary commission package arrives in the governor’s office at a time when all of the state’s public worker unions are bargaining for new contracts, and those negotiations have been moving slowly.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association has warned its members it may not be able to reach a settlement with the state and counties in time for the Legislature to appropriate money for raises for HGEA members this spring. That would mean any raises won under a new contract would be delayed at least until sometime next year.
Randy Perreira, executive director of HGEA, said the salary commission apparently felt “large pay increases” were necessary to attract and retain executive branch appointees and legislators.
“We would hope and expect that the same thought would be put into retaining capable people in government jobs — many of whom are struggling paycheck to paycheck,” Perreira said in a written statement Tuesday. “The state is facing hundreds, possibly thousands of vacant positions that legislators recognize are not being paid enough to attract and retain the most qualified people.”
“A significant number of government workers are not making a living wage, including approximately 1,600 that we know of that don’t make $15 an hour. Many work two jobs or more just to make ends meet,” Perreira said. “So far the state and counties have not addressed these issues, and there is no attempt to reach agreement on our 2019-21 contract — in fact the employers are not even meeting with our leaders.”
“While we understand the rationale that went into recommending increases for the bosses and electeds, there is seemingly no consideration for addressing the needs of those who are doing the government’s work every day,” he said. “We certainly hope and expect that in the coming weeks, before the legislative session ends, that our employers will step up and offer a fair wage that improves the ability of their workforce to continue living in Hawaii.”
Ige declined to comment on the commission package Monday, saying through a spokeswoman that he hasn’t seen the recommendations and wants to wait until the official commission report is released.
Ige is currently the 12th-highest-paid governor in the nation, according to a recent ranking by MSN.com, but the governor told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 2015 shortly after he took office that it was difficult to recruit Cabinet members because jobs in the private sector paid considerably more.
Kouchi said in “quite a few” cases, civil servants are being paid more than department heads even though the department heads and their deputies have decision-making authority and heavy responsibilities.
“If you’re trying to get good people to come in and be those decision-makers, then you need a fair compensation,” he said. Kouchi said positions in the executive branch are the hardest to fill.
“When you look at what the attorney general is paid versus the top litigators in the state, there is disparity there,” he said, and other executives and professionals can also make considerably more in the private sector.
The proposed raises hopefully will make state recruitment efforts a little more successful, “but we’re not in a position to really raise it up by a large amount,” he said.