by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
In a year of state constitutional amendments for stem cell research, tobacco taxes and raising the minimum wage, Amendment 7 gets little attention.
In fact, I am starting to feel sorry for it. It doesn’t even have a catch phrase. Well, let’s fix that right now. How about we call it the “Fair Compensation Act” to more easily convey its purpose. How about a campaign slogan to go along with the new name? “Vote for 7 on the 7th” has a nice ring to it. Or “7 is Missouri’s lucky number.”
Frankly, Amendment 7 needs all the hype it can get because it provides several fixes for a severely broken part of our constitution: the way we compensate elected officials and judges.
First off, it bars officials who have been removed from office by impeachment, misconduct or felony arrest from receiving a state pension. Seems reasonable.
You shouldn’t get retirement benefits for a job you were so bad at that you were forcibly removed.
Second, it attempts to restore legitimacy to the Missouri Citizens Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials. Another constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1994 established this commission. Its purpose is to recommend pay raises for judges, members of the General Assembly and other statewide officials, such as the governor, lieutenant governor, etc. The idea was to remove politics from such decisions.
Unfortunately, the 1994 law allows the General Assembly to ignore the commission’s recommendations – or de-fund any increases approved – by a simple majority vote. In today’s political world of non-stop campaigning, every member of the House and Senate is scared to be seen as “voting for their own pay raise.”
Because the Commission on Compensation has no real authority, pay for state legislators has remained stagnant while the workload for legislators has increased. Any legislator worth his or her salt spends much of the time between sessions serving on interim committees, learning about issues, working on legislation for the next session or helping constituents navigate the state bureaucracy. Serving in today’s state legislature is a full-time job.
Elected officials don’t run for office because the salary is attractive. In fact, most make considerably less by serving. A low salary, however, can be a disincentive for good people who would consider serving in the General Assembly or on the bench. The annual pay of Missouri legislators, $31,351, lags well behind some other states: Pennsylvania pays $69,647; California pays $110,880; and Illinois pays $57,619. Heck, even Puerto Rico – which isn’t even a state – pays its lawmakers $60,000 a year.
Amendment 7 will make the recommendations of the Commission on Compensation binding, unless the General Assembly votes by a two-thirds majority to disapprove the recommendations.
Hopefully this will jump-start the Commission on Compensation and make it relevant again.
Some of my fellow business owners tell me they would be for the minimum wage amendment if it weren’t for one factor: The wage will automatically increase from now on based on a cost of living index. The nightmare scenario is that the minimum wage will rise to $10 an hour someday. Well, I imagine it will in 15 to 20 years, and appropriately so because we will be paying concomitantly more for everything.
Adjusted for inflation, today’s minimum wage is about at the same level as it was in 1955. It seems to me the real problem with the minimum wage is exactly what opponents object to: It doesn’t adjust for inflation. We already link increases in payments for Social Security to the cost of living, so why is it so unreasonable to link minimum wages to the cost of living?
A few other friends argue minimum wages – essentially price floors in the labor market – are not the best economic tool for raising the working poor out of poverty. I agree, but I can’t imagine any politician in today’s world would propose more economically effective methods, such as a reverse income tax. Richard Nixon was the last to seriously consider such an idea. So if we are to move the economy for the working poor forward, the minimum wage amendment is the best option.