As of yesterday, just fewer than a third of the General Assembly had declined their annual 3.2-percent pay raise. The raise was put into place as a type of cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 1996. The 36 members who have declined this year’s wage increase include 20 Representatives and 16 Senators.
Reps. Frank Ferri and Patricia Serpa, as well as Senators Michael McCaffrey and William Walaska were the four* local General Assembly members to formally decline their raises.
Rep. Patricia Serpa declined this year’s pay raise, as she said she has done in the past. She also declines the health care provided through the state, as well as the cash stipend that would replace the health care benefits.
“I declined because I’m sensitive to the fact that Rhode Islanders are still struggling,” she said. “I am there to serve the people, not take from them.”
Senator McCaffrey echoed Serpa’s sentiments.
“Other people in the state are suffering,” he said, noting that those in the private sector are not seeing pay raises. “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”
McCaffrey does accept the health care provided by the state, as does Sen. Walaska. Both noted that they contribute to their benefits, McCaffrey paying the co-pay and Walaska paying at least 20 percent of the costs.
Walaska said he has chosen to decline this year’s raise because his own employees have not seen one in several years.
“When we can give raises then that’s when I’ll accept mine,” he said.
Walaska said he does not recall if he declined the raise in the past but remembers that the General Assembly’s pay decreased in the past.
In 1996, the base rate of pay for those in the General Assembly was established as $10,000, an amount that is adjusted every first of July. According to Larry Berman, spokesman for the Rhode Island House of Representatives, the COLA for July 1, 2011 was a 1.6-percent increase. In 2010, members received a 0.4-percent decrease and in 2009, a 0.1-percent increase. July 2008 showed a pay raise of 4.1-percent.
This year’s 3.2-percent hike is based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index, and raised General Assembly members’ pay from $14,186 to $14,640. Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Theresa Paiva-Weed make double that amount.
Rep. Frank Ferri said he believes he’s still making less now than he did when he started. He declined this year’s raise because of tough decisions the General Assembly made regarding pensions and COLAs.
“I understand the sacrifices [retirees] had to make,” he said, a sentiment he hopes is echoed by his refusal of the raise.
Because the pay raise is a Constitutional matter, it does not have to go to vote, and General Assembly members are automatically entitled to it. The Constitution is silent on whether or not General Assembly members are required to accept the COLA, and therefore, members may decline the raise with a written letter to the Joint Committee on Legislative Services. Those who decline will continue to be compensated at the previous year’s rate, and the refused pay ends up as surplus in the legislature's budget.
Next year’s budget will reflect the lower amount required for the raises; the 2014 budget will subsequently be adjusted to reflect the change. The funds will then become available for other state uses.
Local Reps who have not declined the raise this year include David Bennett, Robert Flaherty, Joseph McNamara, Eileen Naughton and Joseph Trillo; Senators include Erin Lynch and Joshua Miller.
Sen. Lynch said she is unsure if she will accept, and is looking into the possibility of donating the money to charity or declining it.
Rep. Joseph McNamara said he would accept the raise but donate the additional funds to charity. McNamara would not disclose which charity he would be donating to, though he did say he had a particular one in mind.
Rep. David Bennett said last week that he wasn’t sure if he would accept or decline his raise, though he leaned toward the former option.
“I might keep it,” he said. “Legislators should be compensated.”
Bennett feels the money he spends on gas alone would be reason enough for his raise. Factoring in the time he spends on matters of the General Assembly, coupled with hours away from family, and Bennett said the small increase in pay is fair.
“I don’t expect to get a lot [of money],” he said. “But I don’t expect not to get anything.”
As far as donating the money, Bennett feels that would just be “shuffling it around.”
“I’m probably going to accept it,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
The money he receives, said Bennett, will help put his daughter through college.
Although Walaska will not accept his raise, he doesn’t plan to stop accepting his pay altogether.
“I never gave it a thought,” he said. “We do put an awful lot of time in there.”
Walaska noted that when he started in the General Assembly, pay was roughly $500, but members did receive pensions. He also said a lot of the money makes its way back to charities.
The only member of the General Assembly who refuses all compensation is Rep. Scott Guthrie, a Democrat from Coventry. So if Walaska (and those like him) feels it’s unfair to accept a raise, why doesn’t he decline his entire salary?
“Why doesn’t anyone decline their pay?” he asked.
Berman said there is no deadline for the lawmakers to decline their raises, which they have been receiving since July 1. If and when they choose to decline, the amount will be deducted from their next paycheck.
*Note: Rep. Patricia Morgan and Senators Glenford Shibley and Dawson Hodgson, all of whom represent small areas of Warwick in addition to other cities, declined their raises as well.