Thursday, the Vermont House voted 129-16 against a proposed amendment to strip state employees of the wage increases that were to go into effect for the next two years, beginning in July. Fair enough. These were negotiated increases before the Covid-19 crisis and in a time of sky high unemployment an argument can be made that economic security is a high priority, which explains why only a handful of legislators supported the amendment.
It’s the job of legislators to sift among the countless constituents asking for help, asking for the economic support to help them survive. At a time when the state’s coffers are to run over $300 million short, it’s even more difficult to choose who is most deserving, or who is at the highest risk. The list is a long one. Every dollar counts.
But legislators should not include themselves as among those most at risk. They are not. Yet, when the Legislature adjourns they will have managed to pass legislation to give themselves raises.
It was not a high profile debate. In fact, there was little to no discussion. It was outlined in the last paragraph of the bill passed. It read: “[c] Legislative Branch. For the period of July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021, the General Assembly pay changes shall be funded in fiscal year 2021. In fiscal year 2021 there is appropriated to the Legislature from the General Fund: $241,000.”
That’s not a lot of money. We’ve also made the argument that Vermont gets what it pays more. It’s difficult for people with jobs to serve in the Legislature. Raise the pay and the chances improve that talented people with good experience will choose to serve.
But the pandemic changed the rules. At least for the moment. We’ve not had an economic crisis of this magnitude since the Great Depression. A short four months ago it would have unimaginable to consider the state loosing $300 million plus in revenue, placing most of our programs at risk and our citizens openly questioning their economic futures.
That’s the position we’re in. Legislators should understand just how poor the optics are for them to pay themselves more while the majority of Vermonters are seriously worried about the security of their jobs, and what might happen should a second wave sweep through the state in the fall.
The wage increase for legislators won’t happen until next July and critics of the pay increase have noted it’s something that should be reconsidered before being implemented next July.
But the chances of that happening are about the same as President Trump dropping his Twitter account. Zip. When the Legislature convenes in January it will be the first year of the new biennium. If Gov. Phill Scott signs the bill, the pay raises for legislators is a done deal.
We don’t begrude legislators the tiny bit of additional money involved. It’s the timing. It’s putting their needs above the needs of their constituents when times are darkest and needs are most acute.
by Emerson Lynn