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CT’s Unpaid Legislator Wants To Champion Push For Lawmaker Pay Reform

CT’s Unpaid Legislator Wants To Champion Push For Lawmaker Pay Reform

CT Mirror, January 20, 2020

By Keith Phaneuf

He doesn’t need the money, and the issue can be toxic. But a Democratic freshman senator from Essex plans to work this election year on building support for the first state legislative pay raise in 20 years. And it’s a raise he wouldn’t benefit from personally because he doesn’t accept a salary from the state.

Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, is a wealthy businessman who spent more than $500,000 of his own money in 2018 to flip a Republican seat and win an office with a base pay of $28,000, a sum he says limits who can serve in the Connecticut General Assembly.

“I hate to be as crass as to say ‘You get what you pay for,’ but we’re paying people $30,000 — they get a little bit of money to chair a committee, they get a little bit of money for mileage — and believe it or not, there are many people in that legislature who have to live on that,” Needleman told the CT Mirror.

He announced at Monday’s Economic Summit Outlook in Hartford that he would try to champion a push for legislative pay reform over the next year. “I personally know of legislators who’ve had to leave because of the money. They couldn’t support their family, living in basement apartments.” Needleman, 68, doesn’t fit the mold of many lawmakers. He founded a drug manufacturing company 40 years ago and has built Tower Laboratories into a leader in over-the-counter medicines, supplies and supplements.

He also has a job as a public-sector chief executive: He is serving his fifth term as the first selectman of Essex. Needleman doesn’t accept a salary or benefits from the state. He also accepts no benefits from Essex. He does receive a modified salary from the town — $10,000 of the $90,000 approved for the position — just enough to keep the line item open in the local budget.

Despite the lack of compensation, Needleman has a full schedule. Besides co-chairing the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, he also serves on four other high-profile panels: the Banking, Commerce, Transportation and Finance committees. Keeping busy is nothing new for Needleman.

Many decades ago, while still in school, he worked at his family-owned neighborhood grocery store in Brooklyn, N.Y., and then drove a New York City taxi while studying for a college degree in mathematics. And while the job description for a Connecticut legislator, technically, is a part-time post, Needleman said most lawmakers’ duties at the Capitol, coupled with constituent work, amount to a full-time job.

“You’re going to be working an enormous amount of time to do this job properly,” he said. In odd-numbered years, legislators are in regular session for five months. In even-numbered years it’s three months. But many committees routinely meet off-season. Lawmakers also participate on various other state panels, study groups and workshops.

And since the last recession ended a decade ago, lawmakers have routinely returned to the Capitol in most years for at least one special session. The base pay is $28,000 per year for legislators, though most hold leadership titles that raise their wages. Compensation for leaders ranges from $30,403 to $38,889. Legislators also receive mileage reimbursement for their travel. In addition, the state provides $5,500 yearly to senators and $4,500 to representatives for expenses they don’t have to document.

Inflation erodes pay back to top

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, $28,000 in 2019 has the same buying power at $19,062 did in 2001 — when the last pay hike took effect.

“I’m fortunate that I don’t have to worry about that money, but everyone else in that room is scrounging to do mileage,” he said. “It’s very, very hard, unless you own your business or are in a unique situation, to survive on that kind of money.”

Yet these legislators are expected to help craft a state budget in excess of $21 billion, participate in policy debates on dozens of subjects, and perform constituent work.

How many people would do this for roughly $35,000 per year? Needleman asked.

“I have no data on the numbers, but it’s just intuitively obvious that we’re excluding a large percentage of the population because we don’t pay a reasonable wage,” Needleman said. “Getting people to $50,000 or $60,000 a year seems to be kind of a minimum amount that you would expect [if you are] delegating somebody the responsibility of running your state.”

Ideally, Needleman added, legislative pay also would be linked to an inflation index, allowing for modest, periodic adjustments without requiring a new vote.

The Commission on Compensation for Elected State Officers, which generally meets once every two years, voted unanimously last March to retain the current salary structure.

“Certainly they are deserving of it,” former House Speaker Richard J. Balducci, who chairs the commission, said of a potential pay hike. “But they’ve been influenced by the fact that the economy hasn’t been good.”

Balducci, who was House speaker from 1989 through 1993, made similar points last March. Legislative leaders, have steered away from recommending pay increases since the last recession ended one decade ago.

The compensation commission recommended a 10 percent pay hike for legislators in 2015, and the General Assembly opted not to act on the recommendation.

The compensation commission’s sole power is to make recommendations. Only the legislature can approve pay increases for itself and for constitutional officers — and those pay hikes cannot begin until the following term.

Republicans in the legislature generally have opposed pay hikes since 2001. Democrats also have shied away as the economy has struggled.

Excluding an economic surge in 2018 and 2019, Connecticut’s recovery lagged the nation’s for most of the past decade.

That, coupled with surging pension costs, combined to produce major state budget deficits and frequent tax hikes. Legislators increased income tax rates in 2009, 2011 and 2015, and also raised hundreds of millions in additional income tax receipts by scaling back a tax credit designed to offset municipal property tax burdens.

Equally important, the past decade has been marked by shrinking state services and flat aid to municipalities and to nonprofit social services.

And as frustration with the cost of state government intensified, talk of increasing legislative pay — politically risky even in good economic times — basically stopped.

“I talk about it amongst other legislators,” Needleman said. “They’re all afraid. I mean, that’s the bottom line. They’re afraid of being perceived of wanting more money. But the public needs to know how poorly compensated these folks are.”

Other states also have eschewed legislative pay raises. As a result, Connecticut’s wages are comparable to those in many states.

A 2018 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures examined 39 states that set an annual or biennial compensation rate. It found 21 exceeded Connecticut’s $28,000-per-year base pay for senators and representatives, while 18 paid less. In addition, New Mexico provides no salary for its legislators.

Nine other states pay their legislators on a daily, weekly or sessional basis, rather than on a set annual amount.

The issue in Connecticut is dominated by perceptions and not by fiscal realities, Needleman said.

Though he hasn’t proposed a specific raise, he noted that even adding $25,000 per year to the salaries of the state’s  151 representatives and 36 senators would total less than $4.7 million per year.

In other words, that’s 1/45th of 1% of this fiscal year’s $21.3 billion overall state budget.

Needleman acknowledged there’s little chance of securing even a debate on raising legislative pay in 2020, with state elections set for November. But he said he hopes to bring the issue before lawmakers in 2021. If raises were approved then, they would not take effect until the next term starts in January 2023.

Needleman’s fellow Democrats in the Senate majority haven’t taken any position on raises.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said he agrees that compensation should be adjusted given the time and effort lawmakers provide. The best way to initiate pay reform, he said, would be for both parties to develop a bipartisan plan.

“State legislatures around the country have become much more relevant,” Duff added, “and are, in fact busier over the last 20 years as there is more gridlock in Washington.”