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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Lawmakers Take Heat After Commission Approves 11 Percent Pay Raise

Colin Fogarty
Northwest News Network files
Washington lawmakers are set to receive an 11 percent pay increase.

Washington lawmakers are taking heat for an 11 percent pay raise they didn’t ask for.

The state’s Citizens’ Commission on Salaries voted Wednesday to approve the double-digit pay increase for legislators. Thursday lawmakers were distancing themselves from that vote after their email inboxes filled up with angry comments.

On TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program, Republican State Senator Bruce Dammeier called it ironic.

“There’s a system that’s supposed to insulate legislators, we don’t vote on this issue, we don’t make a decision,” he said. “It’s an independent salary commission, but their timing couldn’t be worse.”

Washington lawmakers are currently meeting in an overtime session to try to hammer out a budget deal.

Dammeier said he won’t accept the higher pay until the issue of state employee and teacher pay is resolved in the budget.

Theoretically, a budget deal will come long before the salary hikes begin to phase in. Lawmakers need to have a budget in place by July 1 to avoid a government shutdown. The pay increases phase-in over two years beginning September 1, unless a citizen referendum is filed and the sponsor gathers 123,186 valid voter signatures by that date to put the question on the November ballot.

State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap, said she received dozens of angry emails after news broke of the salary hike. Most of the comments were from public school employees, “saying, ‘what are you doing, you’re getting an 11 percent pay raise and we haven’t seen a COLA in six years’ and that’s a justifiable anger,” Rolfes said.

Washington lawmakers are considered part-time legislators. They currently make $42,106 a year. Over the next two years they will get a 4 percent general wage adjustment, plus a 7 percent “catch-up” raise for a salary of nearly $46,839 by September of 2016.

It’s the first pay hike for legislators since 2008.

Washington lawmakers currently rank 14th in the nation when it comes to legislator pay and sixth out of the 14 states deemed most comparable to Washington. This new pay raise would move Washington lawmakers to 12th in the nation.

Gov. Jay Inslee and other statewide elected officials will also get pay increases beginning in September, as will the justices of the Washington Supreme Court and judges at the Court of Appeals, Superior Court and District Court. Those raises are 4 percent over two years with a few exceptions.

Inslee, a Democrat, said he will donate his extra pay to charity.

The Commission says it decides salaries based not on job performance, but on job equivalency benchmarks adopted decades ago.

Thus, even though State Auditor Troy Kelley has been indicted and is on leave from office and not drawing his salary, the position of state auditor is in line to get a pay raise from the current $116,950 a year to $121,663 by 2016.

The Citizens’ Commission on Salaries was created in 1986 and is comprised of 17 members. Ten are chosen at random from the voter rolls in each congressional district. The remaining seven members are selected by the speaker of the House and the Senate president.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."