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MO lawmakers still to discuss their own pay this week

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By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – One of the remaining pieces of business for Missouri lawmakers this year is a proposal affecting their own pay.

They're moving to put a proposed constitutional amendment to voters this fall that would make it easier for them, judges and other officials to get pay raises. They have until 6 p.m. Friday to do that.

Voters would be asked to revise a 12-year-old amendment that set up a commission with authority to recommend raises for elected officials and judges.

Many lawmakers say their concern is not for their own wallets, but rather for those of Missouri's judges, who also stand to benefit. The fast-moving proposal, which passed the House last week and was endorsed Monday night by a Senate committee, would ask voters this November to rewrite a constitutional amendment they approved in 1994.

The 1994 amendment created the Missouri Citizen's Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials, a 22-member panel given the authority to recommend pay raises for judges, lawmakers and statewide elected officials such as the governor. The intent was to remove politics from decisions about politicians' salaries.

But the amendment has simply been ignored. That's because it includes a provision allowing legislators to vote to reject the biannual recommendations. It also contains language allowing lawmakers to refuse to fund the salary increases, even if they allow the recommendations to take effect.

Politically speaking, lawmakers ever hesitant to be seen granting themselves pay raises have either rejected or not funded most of the recommended raises. The recommendations became so futile that Democratic Gov. Bob Holden decided not to appoint any members to the commission in 2004, and Republican Gov. Matt Blunt is taking a similar line this year.

Still, Missouri Chief Justice Michael Wolff and other members of the judiciary contend it is essential for Missouri judges to get pay raises. He says judges are increasingly leaving for more lucrative private-sector jobs or simply choosing not to apply for state judgeships.

The proposed constitutional amendment would make raises for judges and elected officials more likely by deleting the ability of lawmakers to reject the recommendations or not fund them. The only caveat it imposes is that any raises granted to lawmakers would not kick in until after Jan. 1, 2009 relieving many current lawmakers from having a direct interest in the amendment.

State Rep. Scott Lipke (R-Jackson) sponsored the bill, saying his concern is not so much for legislators, most of whom make $31,351 annually. He says it's for judges: Associate circuit judges make $96,000, circuit judges $108,000, appeals judges $115,000 and Supreme Court judges $123,000. "We want to make sure something as important as another branch of government is adequately taken care of," said Lipke, an attorney.

The measure also is backed by Sen. Matt Bartle (R-Lee's Summit), a fellow attorney. They both contend the amendment would better reflect the intent of the 1994 proposal. "The salary commission has become a joke it's an utter joke," Bartle said. "This is an attempt to take a flat tire, and swap it out."

But that viewpoint may not carry with some lawmakers. Bartle and some other senators who are lawyers argued unsuccessfully last week for judges to be granted the same 4% pay raise included in next year's budget for most state employees.

In Illinois, lawmakers finished their session last week by not taking action on a proposal for pay raises that a similar commission had recommended. In not doing anything, lawmakers stand to get that pay raise automatically.

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