01/23/04 12:00AM By Dick Mallary
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(Host) Commentator Dick Mallary thinks that a recent study of the compensation of public officials in Vermont will stimulate lively debate in this legislative session.
(Mallary) There are few things that stir up public emotions more than government officials getting a pay raise. And the angriest public reaction is usually when the legislators vote to raise their own pay.
Last year, the legislature asked the Snelling Center for Government to undertake a study of the compensation of all high level Vermont officials in the executive, judicial and legislative branches. Recently, the Snelling Center delivered its report.
The Vermont Constitution establishes the basis for compensation of public officials. Section 33 says in part: "...if any man is called to public service to the prejudice of his private affairs, he has a right to a reasonable compensation; and whenever an office through increase of fees or otherwise, becomes so profitable as to occasion many to apply for it, the profit ought to be lessened by the Legislature."
The challenge, then, is to decide what is "reasonable compensation".
The study found the determination of executive and judicial branch positions to be less controversial. These are full time positions that individuals accept instead of whatever had been their previous employment.
Most of the people accepting such high executive and judicial positions do not do so for the money, but the salaries paid must be at a level that will permit them to serve without undue hardship. And they must be high enough so that highly competent people can be attracted or persuaded to serve.
The study concluded that the current level of salary and benefits for most executive and judicial positions meets that general test but that continued annual adjustments in the salary levels or base pay are and will be required to maintain equity and comparability with similar positions in comparable states or non-public entities.
The issue that arouses the most controversy is the pay of legislators. The study reached the following conclusions:
We should seek to maintain a citizen legislature where legislative service is not a primary occupation.
Total legislative compensation should be high enough so that Vermonters from all walks of life are not unreasonably deterred from legislative service.
Legislative pay levels should be comparable to the average salary of Vermonters working in the private sector.
Legislative pay and expenses should be regularly and automatically adjusted, and
Legislators should be compensated for time and effort devoted to legislative duties when the legislature is not in session.
To achieve these goals, the study recommended that the state increase weekly legislative pay to current private pay levels, establish a fixed period of time for which the legislature will be paid, regardless of the length of session, adjust expense and mileage reimbursements automatically to match Federal levels, and provide reasonable support for the health insurance costs of legislators during the session.
I hope that the legislature will have the courage to adopt this package of recommendations so that now and in the future all public spirited citizens will be able to aspire to serve in Vermont's citizen legislature.
This is Dick Mallary in Brookfield.
Dick Mallary has served extensively in state government and is a former US Congressman from Vermont. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.