Column: Public servants deserve pay raise

Joe Smalley

Michigan’s constitution creates the State Officers Compensation Commission to independently recommend changes to state elected officials’ pay. The commission’s recommendations have no effect without the Legislature’s approval.

This week, the commission issued its recommendations for 2019 and 2020. If adopted, they would increase elected officials’ pay for the first time in 17 years. The commission recommends increasing supreme court justices’ pay 10 percent and restoring pay for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state to 2002 levels by reversing a 10 percent cut made in 2010. The recommendations do not include increases for legislators — in part because they are comparably well paid and in part to remove any perceived conflict of interest that might prevent consideration of the recommendations.

While public sentiments about politicians may lead some to question or deride these recommendations, as the commission’s chairman I wanted to explain our rationale and the importance of legislative action.

At public hearings every two years, the commission reviews testimony and evidence on the health of Michigan’s budget and pay for similar officers in other states. Since the financial crisis, Michigan’s economy and budget have improved with growth in jobs, incomes, tax revenues and the rainy-day fund. But the data show that Michigan’s elected officials’ pay has fallen behind. Of similar states reviewed, only Michigan has seen this pattern of pay freezes and cuts since 2002. During that same period, the Consumer Price Index went up 35 percent, so the actual value of their pay has been even less.

While public servants do not typically serve just for the salary, compensation should be enough to attract those with the education and experience required to perform the duties well. The pay increases are for the offices and not the current occupants. Because of term limits, no current executive-branch officeholders can be in their positions in 2019 if the increases are adopted.

The failure to raise pay since 2002 has created illogical results. Michigan’s justices, who already receive less than justices in comparable states, will likely earn less than many lower-level state judges in Michigan in 2020 if their pay remains frozen. First-year attorneys at some Michigan law firms and 100 assistant attorneys general earn more than the attorney general.

The total annual increase recommended for salaries is under $180,000, which is less than some professional athletes in Michigan make for one game. This is not a budget issue. $180,000 is 0.00036 percent of the state’s budget.

The commission is charged to look impartially at the data. In doing so, it unanimously found that attracting the best leaders to serve in our state government called for increasing officers’ pay back to pre-crisis levels.

We all experience frustration toward elected officials, but to not consider increases for almost two decades while inflation and cuts have further decreased these salaries’ values creates taller barriers to attracting the most qualified, innovative, and desirable candidates to public service. The commission strongly encourages our legislature to approve the commission’s recommendations.

Joe Smalley is chairman of the State Officers Compensation Commission.