These 17 people will decide raises for elected officials

Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield

OLYMPIA — Are the 147 members of the state Legislature in line for a raise?

Should the salaries of judges in Washington state be on par with the pay of those serving on the federal bench?

Does the person overseeing the state’s public school system deserve a boost in the post-McCleary era?

This week, 17 men and women are tackling those questions and more when they begin the biennial rite of setting the level of pay for each position in the state’s executive, legislative and judicial branches.

They make up the Washington Citizens Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. They include residents randomly selected from the state’s 10 congressional districts, plus others from business, organized labor and higher education. Also represented are the legal and human-resources professions.

Voters established the commission in 1987 to stop politicians from deciding their own pay. Commissioners are supposed to base decisions on the duties of the job — not the man or woman doing it at the time. They can check out what other states pay for similar posts. They don’t have to give any raises, but they cannot lower the salary of anyone in office.

This cycle of salary-setting got underway this week in Olympia. Commissioners are hearing from several elected officials, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Mary Fairhurst.

No Democratic or Republican state lawmaker is addressing them. The last time around, lawmakers got 2 percent raises in 2017 and 2018, the most recent taking effect Sept. 1. Legislators now earn an annual salary of $48,731.

Gov. Jay Inslee isn’t making an appearance, either. Two years ago, the commission agreed on annual increases of 1 percent to push his salary to $177,107.

This could be an interesting dialogue. Governing the state doesn’t seem to be getting easier, but Inslee has shown he can do it by cell phone while traveling to other states in his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. If he enters the 2020 presidential race, Inslee likely would be traveling a lot more in the next two years. That is not supposed to influence commissioners, but it is a hard reality to ignore.

Whether to hike the pay of the superintendent of public instruction will be a challenging decision.

Reykdal submitted 10 pages of information on the job’s duties. It cites new chores under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. It lists new responsibilities that resulted from the state Supreme Court ruling in the so-called McCleary case. That litigation transformed public school funding statewide, giving the state superintendent a bigger role.

The job now pays $136,910 a year, which is 33rd among 50 states, according to commission data. Within Washington state, that salary is roughly $40,000 less than the average earnings of school district superintendents with between 350 and 450 students, according to materials Reykdal provided the commission.

Reykdal stressed this week that he’s not walking in with a request for a pay increase.

“I’ll be there to answer questions,” he said.

The commissioners’ toughest decision might be what adjustments to make to the salary scale of the state’s 430 jurists, from district courts up to the state Supreme Court.

A report provided by judges to the commission in August cited the challenge of an aging judicial branch and a salary scale too low to get attorneys to abandon lucrative private sector jobs.

“Half of all judges in our state are 60 years of age or older,” the judges wrote. “With so many judges retiring and getting close to retirement age, we need to be able to attract a large number of high-caliber individuals to serve.”

The report also iterated the judicial branch’s continuing push to achieve parity with the pay scale of federal judges. Those private-sector lawyers are being recruited for the federal bench, too.

Before adjourning, the commission will make recommendations for every position. They will then spend four months gathering responses and maybe other ideas from the public.

Final decisions will be made in February, with any salary changes taking effect July 1. 2019.

And by the design of voters, there’s nothing any elected official can do to change them.

Jerry Cornfield is a political reporter for The Daily Herald in Everett. He can be reached at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@herald net.com.