State salary commission recommends pay raises for judges, legislators, others

Thursday, November 30, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A state salary commission called Wednesday for pay raises for judges, statewide elected officials and legislators.

The panel of citizens approved a plan to give officeholders a $1,200 raise, plus a 4 percent raise, essentially restoring the same pay increase that other state employees received in the past few years.

Facing a Friday deadline to offer recommendations, the commission held five meetings in 10 days while developing its plan.

The higher salaries would begin for judges and statewide elected officials with the 2008 fiscal year that starts July 1. For legislators, however, the pay raises would not kick in until 2009.

The salary for legislators would rise from $31,351 to $33,853 annually.

For a Supreme Court judge, the salary would rise from $123,000 to $129,168 a year.

The proposal also would give an additional $2,000 to associate circuit judges to narrow the gap in salary compared with circuit judges. Commissioners said associate circuit judges have many administrative duties and required travel and should be better compensated. They currently make $12,000 less than circuit judges.

The commission also recommended that judges and elected officials receive whatever pay increase other state employees are given going forward.

The plan takes effect unless rejected before Feb. 1 by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

Before voters passed a constitutional change earlier this month, a simple legislative majority could reject the plan.

If legislators don't reject the plan, The Associated Press calculated the raises would cost about $3.15 million, once legislators' increases are included. Part of that figure includes increases for probate commissioners, family and drug court commissioners, whose pay is tied to what judges earn.

Some lawmakers questioned whether including them in the plan harms its chances.

Before the recommendations came out, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the group would be wise to limit raises to the court system. Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, also said going beyond judges hurts the plan's prospects with legislators.

But Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said it's critical to improve judges' salaries and he would support the plan, though he would have preferred one limited to judges.

"The judges are in desperate need of a pay increase. It's going to affect the quality of our court system if we don't do something," said Bartle, an attorney.

Commission chairman Jack Pohrer, who recommended the pay plan, said he tried to be fair while keeping in mind political realities.

The commission approved the plan on a voice vote, with none expressing opposition. Ten members attended the meeting, with three more joining in by phone, out of 19 appointees.

Some commission members said they wanted to do even more for judges, but Pohrer said he feared higher raises would make lawmakers more likely to reject the plan.

Commission member David Henke noted that for a circuit judge, the pay raise amounts to less than 1 percent a year for the past six years when they got none.

"We're going to go back to try to make it even, but we're not doing anything going forward," he argued.

Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, a critic of raising judges' pay last year, said the proposal was better than he expected.

"In the past the commissions have come up with unreasonable amounts," he said. "The amount of this does not appear to be unreasonable to me, but reaching into the past to catch up is a bit troubling."

When Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff spoke at the commission's first public hearing last week, he said it would be fair for Missouri judicial salaries to fall between Iowa and Arkansas' levels. But the salary plan doesn't go that far, as judges on the highest court in Iowa make $144,000, while their peers in Arkansas earn $134,000, according to Wolff's figures.

But Paul Simon, a retired judge on the commission, said he planned to recommend the same levels for judges as what was approved and that the pay raise was sufficient.

"We tried to gear it in the reasonable, responsible manner," he said.

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