Targeting the pay raisers
by Jeff Jacoby
NOTE: This column is available through the New York Times Syndicate. For permission to reprint it, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-535-4425.
THE HEROES OF THE PEOPLE -- Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation, Chip Ford of No Means No, Dorothea Vitrac of Limits II, and the loyalists who have slogged with them through ballot campaigns to cut taxes, limit terms, and restrain government power -- are of one mind on last December's legislative pay raise. They all agree it stinks. What they don't agree on is what to do about it: Repeal the pay raise? Or repeal the pay raisers?
It was eight months ago that Gov. William Weld -- a few days after falsely telling reporters that a State House pay raise was "not something we're considering" -- filed a bill to inflate the salaries of legislators by more than $16,400. That represented a raise of 55 percent from the $30,000 they had been receiving (not including their $2,400 expense allotment, the mileage per diem of up to $50 a day, the "leadership" bonus of at least $7,500 and the annual federal tax write-off of $50,735 for those living beyond Greater Boston).
It took less than 48 hours for the bill, decked out with an "emergency preamble" so it would take effect instantly, to be heard, debated, passed, and sent to the governor for signing. The public was appalled. The politicians were smug.
"If people don't like it," jeered the state Democratic chairwoman, Rep. Joan Menard of Somerset, "let them be mad at us for now and let it . . . go away."
Snotty comments like Menard's drove voter fury off the scale. The Heroes of the People were flooded with calls. After they (and the local chapter of United We Stand, the Ross Perot group) joined forces in a Coalition for Pay-Raise Repeal, more than 1,200 citizens phoned to register their wrath.
Quickened by that reaction, the coalition laid the foundation for an initiative petition to undo the Legislature's gluttony. Tomorrow, the wording of a proposed 1996 ballot question will be formally filed with the secretary of state by Ford, the coalition's chairman. Nobody doubts that if the measure goes to the voters next year, it will win easily. The last time a Beacon Hill pay raise landed on the ballot, in 1988, the vote to repeal it was 83 percent.
But should it go to the voters? Or will that simply allow the public to once again vent its disgust at what the Legislature did -- while doing nothing to change the Legislature?
This is the question coalition members have split over, with the result that Anderson and Citizens for Limited Taxation have pulled out of the ballot campaign, even though it was CLT that actually drafted the language being filed tomorrow.
"Here," says Anderson, "is the debate: What is the most effective way to deal with an outrageous act?
"In the past, we've always alleviated the voters' anger by giving them a ballot question. They were mad about property taxes, so we gave them Proposition 2 1/2. They were mad about the surtax, and we made the Legislature repeal it. They were mad over the last pay raise, so we put it on the ballot. I'm glad we did these things. But sooner or later, we have to get the voters to stop and say: This guy is the problem. Vote against him."
In other words, conservatives should be trying to defeat incumbents, not just defeating what the incumbents vote for. But is that a winning strategy in Massachusetts?
Under Weld and Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci, after all, the state's Republican infrastructure has fallen into almost total disrepair. The Republicans didn't bother to run candidates for 96 of the 200 legislative seats that were up for grabs last year. The great conservative/Republican hurricane of 1994 blew right past Massachusetts. Nationwide the GOP picked up nearly 500 state legislative seats on Nov. 8; in Massachusetts the Republicans' gain was exactly -- zero. When one conservative activist (a scientist and engineer by training) urged Republican leaders to adopt a Contract with Massachusetts akin to Newt Gingrich's spectacularly successful Contract with America, he was mocked and dismissed. Weld himself is so contemptuous of his party that he spent last election day campaigning for Billy Bulger.
That's the bleak reality of it. What's going to change between now and next year? Who honestly imagines it's possible to elect enough Republicans and conservative Democrats to wash out the muck that befouls the Legislature?
"I don't know," Anderson says. "But it's time to find out. Gov. Weld said if we paid them 46,000 bucks, we could recruit a better class of legislator. OK, Governor, show us. You have your recruitment tool. Let's see you do it. Do it now."
But Weld won't. Recruit candidates to run against the pay raise he proposed? Recruit Republicans who would dilute the clout of his chums, the Senate president and the House speaker? Spend time repairing Massachusetts politics instead of playing Pete-Wilson-for-President? It's to laugh.
There isn't going to be a slate of reform candidates in Massachusetts next year. Because there isn't anyone brave enough, dogged enough, unflinching enough to bring the revolution to Beacon Hill. If Chip Ford and his coalition go forward as planned, that brazen and dishonest pay raise will be repealed in November 1996. And on that day, the sneering politicians who voted for it will be reelected once again.