It was 1996 when Rhode Island voters approved Article VI, Section 3 in the Rhode Island Constitution. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s the part of the state’s Constitution that provides cost of living adjustments to the salaries of General Assembly members.
At a time when COLA freezes abound, it might be hard to imagine what it was like 16 years ago when voters altered the Constitution to accommodate the wages of lawmakers.
Sure, there have been years in the past when the COLA has resulted in a decreased wage for our Senators and Representatives, but this year it means a 3.2-percent increase.
So while the rest of Rhode Island wrestles with an 11-percent unemployment rate and prays for their stagnant salaries to climb upwards, those at the State House are getting a bump in pay.
So what does a 3.2-percent increase amount to? Lawmakers’ annual wage increased from $14,186 to $14,640, a difference of $454. (It may not seem huge, but multiplied out by the 113 lawmakers in the General Assembly, it’s an additional $51,302.)
Making the COLA a Constitutional matter bypasses the need for a vote. It automatically entitles local lawmakers to the raise. However, the Constitution is silent on whether or not lawmakers are required to accept it, and this year, 36 members of the General Assembly have already declined their raise.
The consensus among those who have written formal letters to the Joint Committee on Legislative Services stating they do not want their raise is that it’s not fair to take it. With COLA and wage freezes for those in the private and public sectors, about a third of the General Assembly feels it’s unfair to accept the additional $454 – though only one member feels compelled to decline his salary entirely.
But what about those that have chosen to keep it? Does it reflect badly on them?
The entire purpose of pay for the General Assembly is to ensure that all socioeconomic classes can be represented at the State House. Those that leave their jobs to serve their constituents need to make up the difference somehow, and the $14,640 they receive helps make ends meet. Without the extra cash, we could have a State House filled with only those who can financially afford to serve.
Plus, who is to say they won’t take the money and do something charitable with it?
When examined through the lens of an election year, everything candidates do is magnified: Are they declining the raise simply to garner public favor and more votes? Are candidates who accept the raise during such a dire financial time sabotaging their campaigns for $454?
It’s hard for us to say.
It’s one more thing for voters to consider when they go to the polls this November.