Commission recommends raises for Mo. judges, officials

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Most of its members were never appointed, but a citizens' salary commission went ahead Tuesday and recommended giving Missouri's elected officials and judges a pay raise if lawmakers approve one for state employees.

Associate circuit judges also would receive a $1,500 pay boost in each of the next two years under the plan approved by the Missouri Citizens' Commission on Compensation. Commission members said they wanted to close the pay gap between circuit and associate circuit judges, who share many of the same duties.

Currently circuit judges make $120,484, and associate circuit judges earn $109,366.

In other words, if lawmakers include cost-of-living increases for state employees in next year's budget, every judge and politician holding a state office would receive the same salary bump with an extra $1,500 increase for associate circuit judges. If state employees' wages are held flat, associate circuit judges would still receive $1,500 more each year.

Salary commission chairman Tim Hufker, a Fenton businessman, said it's important to weigh how a slumping economy is affecting the state's budget while also increasing compensation levels, particularly for associate circuit judges.

"We need to take a stand, and this is the right [thing] to do," Hufker said.

The recommendations also call for giving judges who attend the Missouri Judicial Conference meetings the same per diem that lawmakers get for attending legislative sessions. Currently judges are not reimbursed for expenses, while the per diem for lawmakers is $87.20.

It's not known exactly how much the proposed salary increases would cost the state, although costs for the guaranteed spending items are known.

Guaranteed raise for associate circuit judge is expected to cost about $300,000 for the first year and $600,000 for the second. The per diems for the three-day judicial conference would cost about $65,000 if just over half Missouri's judges attend as had been the norm.

The salary commission, which is supposed to have 22 members, approved its salary recommendations 9-0 with one member absent. More than half the commission was vacant because Gov. Matt Blunt didn't make any appointments this year.

The governor selects 12 members, the secretary of state randomly names nine from among the state's registered voters and the Missouri Supreme Court picks a retired judge.

The state constitution requires the salary commission to meet every two years and to hold at least four public hearings around the state.

Blunt appointed commission members in 2006 to fill terms that expired earlier this year. He said Tuesday that the constitutional provisions give the governor latitude in deciding when to make appointments.

"I don't think now is the time to consider a pay increase for elected officials," Blunt said.

Even though the salary commission voted to approve the recommendations, the plan will not be formalized until a report is submitted to the secretary of state's office. That proposal is due by Dec. 1, and will be effective for two years.

Lawmakers can veto the proposals with a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate. If the Legislature doesn't take action, the wage proposal automatically takes effect.

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