Measure could make raises easier for state officials

Sunday, October 29, 2006

By MARK BLISS

Southeast Missourian

Missouri's judges, legislators and statewide elected officials could find it easier to get pay raises under a provision of constitutional Amendment 7 on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The issue has sparked debate among lawmakers with some charging it's a sneaky way for colleagues in the legislature to vote themselves pay raises. Others say it's a way to fix a broken salary system.

Both Amendment 7 and Amendment 6 have received little attention prior to an election that showcases votes on stem-cell research, raising the minimum wage and increasing tobacco taxes.

Amendment 7 has the backing of a number of lawmakers, including state Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson.

Lipke, who proposed the measure, said the amendment doesn't just deal with pay raises. It would deny pensions to judges, legislators and statewide elected officials who have been convicted of felonies.

Lipke said he doesn't believe felons should receive such retirement benefits. "That just didn't make sense to me," he said.

Still, the measure also would make it easier to boost the pay for judges and other elected officials who haven't received pay increases for six years.

Lipke said the current salary commission system, set up in 1994 and first used in 1996, hasn't worked.

A citizens' commission proposes pay raises for judges, lawmakers and statewide elected officials. But the final decision rests with the legislature, which has to appropriate money for any raises to take effect.

Uneasy about raising their own pay, lawmakers routinely have rejected the pay recommendations. Under Amendment 7, the commission's recommendations automatically would take effect unless both the Missouri House and Senate reject them by a two-thirds vote.

Any pay increases, however, wouldn't apply to state lawmakers until Jan. 1, 2009.

Critics like state Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, and state Rep. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, say the constitutional amendment misleads voters.

"This is an attempt to hoodwink voters into setting in place an automatic mechanism for giving elected officials a pay raise," Callahan said. "It is a bait and switch."

He said Missouri's judges pushed for the measure. "The reality behind this whole thing is that the judges are just using their influence," Callahan said.

Requiring a two-thirds vote from the legislature to reject pay recommendations will make it almost impossible for lawmakers to reject them because it's difficult to get such a supermajority on any legislative issue, Callahan and Lager said.

Lipke, however, contends that lawmakers aren't likely to allow huge pay increases to take effect because it would become an issue in any re-election campaign. "I think that would be a big enough deterrent," he said.

Callahan disagrees, saying term-limited lawmakers wouldn't be reluctant to vote themselves pay raises.

Unlike Lipke, Callahan doesn't believe the legislature's rejection of pay commission recommendations is a sign of a failed system. "It is not a bad thing that the legislature has turned down pay raises. I am actually proud we have turned them down," he said.

Lager said lawmakers should be honest with voters. "If legislators believe they need a pay raise, then they should just be big enough to vote for it," he said.

As for the pension issue, Callahan and Lager said the amendment isn't necessary. "That is already in state law," Lager said. "We are not doing anything new here."

State law denies retirement benefits to legislators and statewide elected officials convicted of felonies in connection with their elected duties and to judges who have been impeached or removed from office for misconduct involving "moral turpitude."

But Lipke said Amendment 7 is broader because it would deny state pensions regardless of whether the conviction had any connection to the person's official duties.

Callahan, however, said lawmakers could have addressed that issue by simply passing a new law.

The state senator said he has talked to some voters who were shocked to discover that they voted for a new pay system when they cast their absentee ballots. "They thought it was something about felons, and they didn't read the last paragraph," Callahan said. The pay system provision is buried in the ballot language, he said.

Lager suggested Amendment 7 is counter to good government.

If voters approve it, the state in the future could face a situation of declining tax revenue in which lawmakers would have to make budget cuts while at the same time receiving automatic pay raises.

"I believe this is exactly why people should not trust government," Lager said. "I think it is very disappointing that people who should be held accountable and responsible for creating good government would be responsible for this."

Amendment 6

Amendment 6, which would tax exempt personal property and real estate of veterans organizations, has also been largely ignored. Most veterans organizations currently aren't taxed, state American Legion officials said. Locally, veterans groups don't pay such taxes. But such an exemption isn't specifically listed in the state constitution.

Amendment 6 would add the veterans exemption to the current list of churches, schools, colleges, charities, and agricultural and horticultural societies.

"It puts it in the constitution and that may protect us over the long term," said Richard Decker, commander of the American Legion post in Jackson.

The Missouri Tax Commission ruled in 1998 that Jackson County could require a Kansas City area American Legion post and other veterans organizations that weren't "purely charitable" to pay personal and real estate taxes.

If passed by voters, Amendment 6 would reverse that decision by adding a tax exemption to the constitution.

Decker said the amendment has received little discussion among veterans locally.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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