By Niki Kelly
As parents, more than once, my husband and I told our then-teenage daughter, “It’s not the crime. It’s the cover-up.”
Looking back at the General Assembly’s decision to sneak pay raises for statewide elected officials into the budget on the last day, I will modify that sentiment to “It’s not the policy. It’s the process.”
I don’t have enough information to judge whether the secretary of state or governor or other officeholders are underpaid or a raise was necessary. But there was a good way to find out — a public vetting of the issue.
File a standalone bill, hold hearings, hear from Hoosiers.
Obviously, public servants are never going to make the same as they would in the private sector, but many Hoosiers could understand reasonable increases in pay to attract quality candidates.
That is how lawmakers handled the issue back in 2007, the last time significant movement on elected official pay occurred.
That year, legislators raised base legislative pay from $11,600 to nearly $21,000 in Senate Enrolled Act 401. That one-time jump was significant, but another key part of the bill was tying their salaries and that of the governor and other officeholders to raises given to other state employees.
Hearings were conducted, testimony taken, votes made. It passed the House 60-39 and Senate 39-9 — judged on its own merits.
And since that time, those salaries have risen. For instance, the governor had an annual pay of $95,000, but it has grown to about $134,000 this year. The new budget law will make gubernatorial pay equal to that of an Indiana Supreme Court justice, or about $198,500.
A story by Indiana Capital Chronicle Reporter Casey Smith found at today’s level of $134,000, Indiana’s gubernatorial salary ranked 34th in the nation. The Midwest average was $139,000.
A fair case can be made that an increase was needed. But did lawmakers go too far?
When it goes into effect in 2025 — after the next governor is chosen — the raise would make the Indiana chief executive’s salary the fifth-highest in the country. That is behind only New York, California, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. New York tops the nation at $250,000.
New York and California have among the highest costs of living in the nation, though, while Indiana is in the bottom 10.
Looking at a second office, the attorney general’s pay will rise from $113,600 to $164,700. By comparison, the average for the nation is $139,000.
No matter where you fall on the public policy debate, I think it’s clear Republicans committed an unforced error in how they handled this. It was Senate Republicans who insisted it was placed in the budget, but House Republicans didn’t fight it.
And put in context with lawmakers refusing to give a cost-of-living adjustment or 13th check to state retirees makes the changes even worse. I know several members who had no idea the salary hikes were in the budget they supported.
Republicans have a supermajority. They don’t need to be sneaky or shady to get their way.
Niki Kelly is editor-in-chief of indianacapitalchronicle.com, where this commentary first appeared. She has covered Indiana politics and the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 for publications including the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Send comments to [email protected]