Posted: Feb. 1, 2005
FOOLS AND THEIR MONEY ARE SOON IN POLITICS
By Celia Cohen
How much people forgot in the hysteria over state officials' pay raises.
Mostly lost in the free-for-all was the reason the Delaware Compensation Commission was set up in the first place 20 years ago.
Salaries were being used as a weapon. A rambunctious legislature kept Gov. Pierre S. du Pont's pay at $35,000 a year for eight years because he was a du Pont. It slashed the salary for Secretary of State Glenn C. Kenton in half, from $38,000 to $19,000, pontificating that the position really was a part-time job, and forcing him to do some legal work on the side to make up for it.
Other posts were seriously pinched. "We had real problems filling the Cabinet," said William E. Manning, who was one of du Pont's chiefs of staff during the Republican administration that lasted from 1977 to 1985.
As du Pont's governorship wound down, the compensation commission was invented. It was modeled after other innovations of the day, like the Judicial Nominating Commission and the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council -- independent panels with professional outsiders on them to blunt the raw-edged politics of choosing judges or estimating the state's revenue or, in this case, setting salaries.
The compensation commission was designed as a way to come up with fair pay for the governor, other statewide elected officials, the Cabinet and judges and to revisit it every four years to coincide with a new gubernatorial term.
Of necessity, the General Assembly was put in there, too. Legislators being legislators, they have never been known for giving something to others for nothing for themselves.
The idea of having the commission's recommendations go into effect unless the legislature rejected them in their entirety was a "pressure valve," according to Robert W. Perkins, who was du Pont's chief of staff at the time.
It took the pressure off the legislators. Voting for raises, especially with most of the salaries today already in the six-figure range, is about as difficult a vote as there is.
Sure enough, in the anti-government heyday of H. Ross Perot's "United We Stand" movement, with the legislative galleries filled with Perotistas chanting, "We voted you in, and we can vote you out," lawmakers rejected the 1993 pay hikes. It was the only time the commission's recommendations went down.
In the 2005 incarnation, legislators gulped as the state Republican Party stirred the pot. It set up a cartoonish Web site called RejectTheRaise.com, recruited a couple of backbench Republican senators to hold press conferences and zeroed in on the salaries for governor and lieutenant governor. Both offices were conveniently in Democratic possession, as they have been since 1993 and will be until at least 2009.
The commission wanted Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's annual paycheck to go from $132,500 to $165,700, giving her the highest salary in the executive branch, and it wanted to pay the lieutenant governor as full time, instead of part time, jumping Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. from $64,900 to $101,600, in line with the insurance commissioner and auditor.
The issue of the governor went away when Minner took her second oath of office on Jan. 18. The state constitution prohibits raises for governors during their four-year terms, and the enhanced salary was not due to take effect until Feb. 1.
The issue of the lieutenant governor went away when Carney said he did not want such a pop, because Delawareans are not ready for a full-time lieutenant governor. The commission backed off and recommended an increase that would bring him to $73,000.
Still, once the pot is stirred, it is dicey to get the lid back on. Legislators knew what they had to do. They had to vote in favor of killing the pay raises while figuring out a way to get them, anyway. They did it, too.
In a shell game of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't votes, the state Senate and the House of Representatives managed to send legislation back and forth between the chambers without effect. With astoundingly perfect timing, too perfect for coincidence, the legislators got out of town last Thursday for the customary six-week break for budget hearings, leaving the legislation still hanging in the balance and those fatter paychecks ready to materialize five days later, as of today.
It was an unseemly week. It included some serious behind-the-scenes lobbying by judges beseeching or berating legislators to give them their money, not that judges ever get involved in politics, of course.
It also did not do much for the state Republican Party, which forgot the political rule about not getting out front without knowing in advance whether anyone will follow. It was left twisting in the wind by its own legislators.
People do not go into public life for the salary, or at least no one admits it, but they tend to think they are worth their money, if not more. As George Washington Plunkitt, the unapologetic philosopher-politician of Tammany Hall, said a century ago, "When a man works in politics, he should get something out of it."
In Dover, man or woman, they all did.