Work first, then we’ll talk pay

If the state Supreme Court’s contempt of court ruling against the Legislature is the stick, then a state commission’s plan to give lawmakers and other state officials a raise must be the carrot. And a juicy one at that.

The state’s independent Citizens Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials, established by the Legislature in 1986 to set salaries for elected officials, proposes increasing lawmakers’ pay from $42,106 to $46,839 by 2016, more than an 11 percent boost, Vancouver’s Columbian newspaper reported Monday.

The proposal comes at the same time that the Legislature is operating under the state high court’s threat of sanctions after it found lawmakers in contempt of court last year for dragging their feet in meeting the state’s obligation to fully fund education as mandated by the state constitution. The Supreme Court suspended any potential penalties until after the current legislative session to give lawmakers an opportunity to show sufficient progress.

Likewise, the salary commission isn’t expected to make a final vote on its plan until its May 13 meeting, well after the Legislature’s regular session is scheduled to wrap up April 26. That does make the assumption, perhaps optimistic, that it can finish by late April.

Any decision on a pay increase for legislators — and let’s include the governor in this, too, as he stands to see his salary increased from $166,891 to $173,617 — ought to be heavily weighted on the Legislature’s performance in the current session, not just regarding education funding, but also on passage of a transportation package and other responsibilities, such as setting salaries for state employees and restoring cost-of-living adjustments for teachers that have been denied for six straight years.

One argument for higher pay for legislators is that it encourages a Legislature with a better representation of the state’s population rather than one of upper-income earners who can afford to vacate their jobs during the session.

Washington’s lawmakers are neither on the high end or low end of the compensation scale for state lawmakers. New Hampshire only pays its legislators $200 for a two-year term, while California pays $90,526 a year and a $141-a-day per diem for expenses. Oregon’s lawmakers are paid $22,596 a year with a $129 per diem; Idaho, $16,438 with a $122 per diem; and Alaska $50,400 with a $234 per diem.

Washington’s House and Senate each approved their own per diem increases to $120 from the previous $90 level last year, which might as well be counted as a pay raise.

More than a few legislators probably wish the salary commission had waited until later this year to discuss their pay. But, assuming the panel waits on its decision until after the session, now is actually the perfect time to consider it because it allows a clear line to be drawn between job performance and compensation.

Neither carrot nor stick should be required to motivate action and deal-making from our lawmakers, but those are the tools now at hand. We can hope to keep the pitchforks and torches stowed away.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial gave an incorrect figure for Washington state legislators’ per diem prior to last year’s increase. The figure is now correct.

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