Base pay just tip of legislative salary iceberg


State House News Service

Published: 02-01-2023 4:40 PM

BOSTON — The biennial increases in legislator pay always generate a hearty share of public attention and inevitable criticism of the automatic, inflation-adjusted raises required by state law. But it’s the supplemental pay on top of that where the bucks really start to flow.

Total pay for House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka is set to sail above $200,000 in 2023, even though the top Democrats — like their 198 colleagues — are both in line for $73,654 in base pay. They’ll cross that threshold thanks to a newly updated leadership stipend of $109,163 awarded to the top lawmaker in each chamber.

The legislative compensation system Democrats rammed into law over Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto six years ago attaches sizable stipends to better jobs in the House and Senate hierarchies. And so now, as House and Senate leaders prepare to roll out leadership and committee assignments for the budding 2023-2024 lawmaking term, the decisions they make will once again carry major financial implications.

Those start-of-session appointments do not always bring raises, either. Reps. Patricia Haddad, Paul Donato, Chris Markey and Kay Khan all served as committee chairs or top deputies to Speaker Robert DeLeo in 2019, then got reassigned to lower-ranked positions under Mariano two years later. As a result, each member of that quartet took a pay cut, even though their base salaries remained effectively unchanged.

As many as three different components can go into a legislator’s salary — base pay, an expenses stipend and a leadership stipend if the lawmaker holds one of the dozens of appointed positions that come with extra money attached.

In contrast to the slow start to the current session, Democrats kicked off the 2017-2018 lawmaking session by quickly rolling out and approving a pay raise package — so quickly, in fact, that it was the first bill to become law in that two-year term. Chapter 1 of the Acts of 2017 implemented an extensive network of stipends for lawmakers and boosted salaries for constitutional officers and judicial officials.

The 2017 law scrapped the old per diems system, which granted additional compensation to lawmakers to cover their travel to and from Beacon Hill based on the mileage of their commute. Per diems were replaced by a bolstered expenses stipend, which is higher for the legislators who travel more than 50 miles.

Under the law, all three salary components are scheduled to be adjusted every two years “to reflect the aggregate quarterly change in salaries and wages in the commonwealth for the most recent eight quarters as determined by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the United States Department of Commerce.” This month, that adjustment has led to big salary jumps across the board, including a $3,118 raise in base pay, up 4.42% over the 2021-2022 term.

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Lawmakers who travel less than 50 miles to the State House are now in line for expense stipends of $20,468.08 (up from $17,042.53), and the expenses allowance jumped to $27,290.77 for those who travel farther (up from $22,723.37), according to figures from Treasurer Deborah Goldberg’s office.

As required by law, the treasurer’s office also adjusted the so-called leadership stipends that get tacked onto paychecks for dozens of positions, from House speaker all the way down to the vice chair of the Tourism Committee.

Depending on their rank, lawmakers tapped for various posts, most likely this month, will be in line for leadership stipends that range from around $7,000 to nearly $90,000, as adjusted for the start of the new term, according to data from the treasurer’s office. These bonuses are divided into eight classes:

$109,163.07: House speaker and Senate president (up from $90,893.48 last session)

$88,694.99: Chairs of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees (up from $73,850.95)

$81,872.30: Majority leaders and minority leaders (up from $68,170.11)

$68,226.92: Senate president pro tempore and House speaker pro tempore (up from $56,808.42)

$47,758.84: Assistant, second assistant and third assistant leaders from the House and Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses (up from $39,765.90)

$40,936.15: The four House division chairs; chairs of the committees on Rules, Bonding, Post Audit, Third Reading, Steering, State Administration, Health Care Financing, Financial Services, Revenue, Economic Development, Judiciary, Education, Telecommunications and Transportation; vice chairs of the Ways and Means Committee; and ranking Republican members of Ways and Means (up from $34,085.05)

$20,468.08: All other committee chairs; the House vice chairs of Rules, Post Audit, Financial Services, Health Care Financing, Bonding, State Administration, Economic Development, Revenue, Third Reading, Steering, Education, Telecommunications, Judiciary and Transportation; assistant vice chairs of both Ways and Means committees; ranking House Republican members of Rules, Financial Services, Bonding, Judiciary, Economic Development and Health Care Financing; ranking Senate Republican on Health Care Financing; and the assistant ranking Republican on House Ways and Means (up from $17,042.53)

$7,095.60: Vice chairs of all other committees (up from $5,908.08)

Both branches have placed limits on how many stipends a member can claim on their paystub. The House’s internal rules cap representatives at one position-based stipend per person, while Senate rules allow its members to earn stipends from up to two leadership or committee posts.

Baker slammed the new pay structure as “fiscally irresponsible” and vetoed the bill in 2017, but Democrats who wield supermajority margins in both chambers easily overrode his veto, awarding themselves — and top Republicans, who voted against the bill but have since accepted the higher pay — substantial raises.

At the time, legislative leaders defended the move by arguing that the supplemental pay top lawmakers receive had not changed in decades and that better compensation is an important tool to encourage work in government, where salaries often lag behind those available in the private sector. They pointed to the analysis done by a 2014 state commission, which recommended increasing pay for the House speaker and Senate president as well as the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state.

“Fair-minded people will consider the fact that stipends for presiding officers have not changed for 33 years. Who works for the same amount 33 years later? The Boston Globe cost 25 cents a day 33 years ago. It’s now $2 a day,” former Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said in 2017. “Obviously costs go up and they ought to be reflected in people’s salaries as well.”

Almost all representatives and senators earned the same base salary of $70,537.22 in 2022, according to public payroll records maintained by the state comptroller and published in the CTHRU online database. But thanks to the stipend to cover expenses and the availability of additional stipends for committee and leadership posts, most earn far more than that.

The median total pay for state representatives in 2022 was $99,168.67, nearly $10,000 more than the median household income across Massachusetts. Thirty of the chamber’s 160 members earned more than $120,000.

In the Senate — where open seats often attract representatives seeking to join the other chamber — every single lawmaker who served for the entirety of 2022 made at least $110,530 in total pay, and the top 10 each brought in $150,000 or more.

With the stipends set in state law, there’s a clear upside for any lawmaker who wins a higher committee post or a spot in their caucus’ leadership team.

Former Rep. Claire Cronin received about $115,000 in total annual pay in both 2019 and 2020, when she co-chaired the Judiciary Committee for the second straight term. Mariano then tapped Cronin as his majority leader, the No. 2 House Democrat position, in 2021, and her compensation that year jumped more than $40,000 to $155,552.

The trend cuts the other way, too. Donato, Markey and Khan all received base pay increases between 2019 and 2021, but their total compensation dropped by more than $10,000 each across that two-year period, when Donato exited the role of second assistant majority leader, and Mariano’s committee assignments replaced Markey atop the House Ethics Committee and Khan atop the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee.

One of the biggest drops in recent years impacted Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset, who served as speaker pro tempore under DeLeo. Haddad earned a total of about $142,000 in 2020, DeLeo’s final year as speaker. When Mariano took over, he elevated Rep. Kate Hogan from first division chair to the speaker pro tempore role, and Haddad — who was shifted from the central leadership pillar to a vice chair position — saw her total pay fall to $110,105 in 2021.

Mariano and Spilka are faced with shuffling some seats around when they dole out the new assignment lists, especially on the House side, where three top positions were vacant by the end of last session.

The House has been without a majority leader since Cronin departed in January 2022 to become the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and the position of Fourth Division chair was also left empty after Rep. Thomas Golden resigned to become city manager of Lowell. House Second Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner retired at the end of last term.

Committee chair positions that opened up on the House side, either during or at the end of last session include: Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity; Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture; and Municipalities and Regional Government.

On the Senate side, multiple committee chairs departed at or near the end of last session, including the chairs of Cannabis Policy; Economic Development and Emerging Technologies; Export Development; Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion; and Revenue.

States across the country have different systems in place for compensating their elected lawmakers, who work varying amounts of time over the course of the year. New York lawmakers rankled many last month by voting to increase their pay in 2023 from $110,000 to $142,000, which is now the highest in the country, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Massachusetts landed on the higher end with a base salary of $70,537 last year, though most legislators here earn tens of thousands of dollars more per year thanks to their stipends and many also supplement their pay with income from other jobs.

The House and Senate together consider themselves a full-time Legislature, but each branch often holds only one formal session per week during a good chunk of the two-year term, then meets in only lightly attended, light-on-business informal sessions for weeks or months at a time. For instance, the last significant lawmaking sessions occurred on Beacon Hill in July 2022. In addition to session and committee duties, legislators and their staff tend to an array of tasks in their districts and involving their constituents.