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Lesser-known ballot question targets lawmaker salaries


Jefferson City, MO – Amidst all the attention being put on ballot questions for a tobacco tax, minimum wage and stem cell research, voters in Missouri might not realize that they'll also vote next month on a question that would make it easier to raise the salaries of lawmakers, other elected officials and judges.

Amendment Seven would prohibit officials from receiving a state pension if they've been convicted of a felony while in office, impeached or removed for misconduct. Similar provisions are already in state law, but the ballot question would add that language to the state's Constitution.

The other part of the ballot question tinkers with a citizens' commission that voters approved in 1994 that recommends salary levels for various officials.

Pay hikes automatically take effect unless lawmakers vote to reject them. Right now, a simple majority vote is enough; Amendment Seven would change that to a two-thirds vote to, essentially, make it harder to reject those pay hikes.

But the measure is raising eyebrows.

The measure's title, the part most people study in the voting booth, focuses on the first part of the amendment, one that constitutionally prohibits officials convicted of a felony while in office, impeached or removed for misconduct from receiving their state pension. Similar provisions are already in state law. Only at the end does the title mention the salary commission, and it doesn't spell out what would change.

Some political observers say the language is misleading to the public. "Nobody's going to look at the last part," said Richard Fulton, a political science professor at Northwest Missouri State University.

"It's not a huge part of the budget, and it doesn't cost a huge amount of money, but it is kind of sleazy to just slip it in there."

Chief Justice Michael Wolff has argued that a judicial pay raise is necessary to prevent good judges from leaving for more lucrative private-sector jobs and to attract more candidates to the bench. Wolff said the last time a vacancy needed to be filled on the Court of Appeals in St. Louis, the panel had 15 applicants to choose from, and half were already judges. "The pool was very, very thin in the St. Louis area," he said. "The comparisons with private practice are fairly pathetic."

Wolff also said he doesn't believe the measure is deceptive because the full text will be posted at polling sites.

The idea behind the salary commission was to remove decisions about pay raises from politics, but many think it hasn't worked as planned. The panel's recommendations take effect unless rejected by the Legislature. So that's what has happened most of the time, as lawmakers saw the salary proposals as going too far, too fast.

In 2001, a House-Senate disagreement led to lawmakers failing to reject the plan. So instead, they simply didn't fund it, and the 2000 plan remains on the books. The commission's suggestions were so disregarded that governors haven't appointed members in 2004 or this year.

The current state budget included a 4% pay raise for state employees but excluded judges, lawmakers and other elected officials. The proposed amendment would raise the standard for rejecting the salary plan from a simple majority vote by legislators to a two-thirds vote.

The measure also would remove language that made the salary recommendations "subject to appropriation," so presumably if lawmakers don't refuse the plan, it's supposed to be funded.

Former Sen. Wayne Goode (D-St. Louis) helped craft the original citizens' salary commission but said it hasn't worked well. He also has concerns about removing budget decisions from the legislative process and said the language doesn't fairly inform people about the measure.

"Unfortunately, voters are uninformed enough, are less than prepared to vote, particularly on ballot issues," he said. "That's bad enough without trying to mislead, and I think this does mislead what the vote is. It's pretty hard for anybody to say anything different with a straight face."

Some also wonder whether voter approval would cause the salary schedule that's in place, but not funded, to automatically take effect. That plan recommended raises of 5.5% in one year and another 5.5% the following year. But others don't think it would, because elsewhere in the constitution items that require no legislative spending authority state that they "stand appropriated," phrasing missing in this case. "It's kind of in a gray area," Goode said. "Somebody could make the argument. But I don't think that's really what the constitution says."

It's also unclear whether the commission's recommendations stand any greater chance of becoming reality if voters adopt the changes. Although the number of votes needed to reject their plan is higher, legislators have overwhelmingly turned them down in recent years, nearly always by far more than a two-thirds vote.

Particularly in election years, most are reluctant to be seen as voting to increase their own salaries. That's why some have advocated creating a panel that deals with judges separately, so legislators could provide them more money without being viewed by critics as self-serving.

The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that everyone in the recommended salary schedule must be treated equally, so lawmakers can't just provide the commission's pay raise for judges while denying them for the Legislature or statewide officeholders.