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Pay Connecticut lawmakers more, but cut the pensions

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published April 03. 2013 4:00AM

You have to wonder what's going on when a Republican candidate for governor in Connecticut is advocating raising the pay for lawmakers in a General Assembly dominated by Democrats.

But that's what we heard last week in an op-ed essay by Tom Foley.

Foley, still wrapped in the reformer cloak he dramatically wore to a recent General Assembly hearing, advocating for a bill aimed at diminishing the money influence of lobbyists, suggested in the op-ed piece that lawmakers should not have to "supplement their income."

I think Foley has picked a good topic to open a campaign for governor. There are way too many cozy relationships in Hartford and too many powerful, entrenched interests with strings to the levers of power.

And paying lawmakers a real salary for what, in the 21st century, has become a full-time job, is totally appropriate.

Honestly, the days of a citizen legislature, when elected lawmakers put down the boots they were sewing or the reins to their plow horse, to go to the capitol for a few votes, are long over.

The notion of paying lawmakers not much more than minimum wage - annual pay starts at $28,000 - is not attracting the best and brightest to Hartford.

What you often get are people who are married to people with incomes that can support an entire household or people whose other employers are glad to have a piece of a seat in the General Assembly.

Here in eastern Connecticut, we had a lawmaker who for a long time was also on the Pfizer payroll. I say let these companies hire lobbyists, not their own lawmakers.

With the current system you also get a lot of lawyers, some of whom can leverage their work in Hartford against the interests of their clients.

Foley's reform attack, for instance, has already ensnared one possible opponent for governor, House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero, who is a partner, essentially one of the owners, in a law firm that lobbies in Hartford.

Another lawyer legislator in Hartford, Stephen Walko of Greenwich, a freshman representative, is already suggesting a plan by which lawmakers could telecommute. He wants to phone it in, presumably while he coddles the clients back at his firm in Greenwich.

While I think legislators in Hartford are woefully underpaid I question the wisdom of paying them for life, long after they've left the General Assembly.

I am quite sure the notion of a part-time General Assembly, when it was crafted for a state of farmers, did not envision a generous pension plan. And if it is supposed to be only a part-time job, why do they get pensions?

Lawmakers are vested in the state retirement plan after 10 years of service. It's true their salaries are low for the purposes of calculating pensions, but their expense allowances and even travel expenses count toward figuring the total pension amount. (This means, strangely, the farther you live from Hartford, the bigger your pension.)

A quick run of former Senate and House members' pensions on ctsunlight.org, the great state salary and pension database run by the Yankee Institute, shows a range of payments from a few thousand a year to $8,000 or more.

Retired lawmakers with or without pensions also often step into the lucrative full-time state employment revolving door, like former state Sen. Edith Prague who just accepted a six-figure administration job.

One of the largest of the current legislator pensions is the $8,658 a year paid to Thomas D. Ritter, former speaker of the House, one of many citizen lawmaker/lawyers who have served in the General Assembly.

When candidate Foley finishes his attack on the influence of money in Hartford, he may want to take on the problem of the state's exploding pension obligations, a ticking fiscal time bomb.

Certainly, the rules can't change mid-game. And lawmakers like former speaker Ritter, as well as all state workers who have signed on to the existing set of rules, are entitled to pensions they have earned. But the rules need to change for newcomers.

And what better place to start with pension reform than with the people who make the laws.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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