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by Alan S. Chartock                                                                    Saturday, November 13, 1999
Worthy Salaries
There are people who believe that Gov. Paul Cellucci doesn't deserve a 61 percent pay raise, taking him from $90,000 to $145,000 per year. They will say the same for Attorney General Tom Reilly's proposed increase from $47,500 to $127,500 -- and ditto for Lt. Gov. Jane Swift from $75,000 to $122,000. 

They will insist that our elected leaders ran for and accepted their jobs knowing full well what they were going to earn. Cynics will say that no state or city or town workers, including the teachers who really work for a living, are getting anything like these raises. 

The nasty critics will also say that the Legislature, which just ran its own pay scam, is only too happy to give out these raises since it makes their greed look better. Some naysayers will even say that many of these people have state troopers to drive them and expense accounts so great that much of their salary is actually bankable.

The critics will also point out the governor has hardly been distinguishing himself lately and almost everyone knows it. This is the same governor who is insisting that teachers take tests to maintain their jobs. If merit standards are appropriate for the teachers and the town and city workers, the critics ask, why aren't they appropriate for governors? Why, it might be asked, are we raising the pay of a governor who is going to have serious problems getting re-elected? Are we actually rewarding incompetence? 

I have a different take. Each of the state offices has tremendous responsibilities. The attorney general, for example, is the head of a massive state law firm. If he were a practicing attorney running a small law firm in the sticks, you had better believe that he would be making at least his new proposed salary of $127,500. In fact, if that was all he was making, his wife would probably be reminding him that the kids needed braces and music lessons and there isn't enough money in the checking account to cover it all. Put another way, would you have a lot of confidence in a lawyer you thought was only making $80,000 a year? 

As it stands now, people who run for public office either have to be rich (as most U.S. senators are) or have to take some pretty curious routes to get meat and potatoes on the table -- like Jane Swift has been doing with her questionable and incredibly lucrative teaching sideline at a university that may ask for something from the government. As we raise the pay of these folks, we are entitled to put more and more ethical constraints on them in terms of outside employment.

There was once a TV commercial that put it this way: "You can pay me now or you can pay me later." Either we pay these people what they are worth or they have to find other ways to make ends meet. I believe we can't possibly make an assessment on an individual basis. If we have a huge corporation, we know that we can't buy the talent to run it unless we pay in the millions of dollars plus stock options. I know one man, a lifelong public servant, who would have made a great U.S. senator from New York. I have no doubt that he would have won the office. However, a Senate seat pays about $133,000 and brings with it all kinds of ethical restrictions about not making anything else on the outside. 

Many people who are making far less than the proposed new salaries will think this is all a bunch of nonsense. But when you look at the salaries of some of our union workers -- or union leaders -- or of some doctors who don't have nearly the responsibility of the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, a dispassionate, reasoned look at the proposed new salaries dictates that we can do little else but pay them what they are worth. We will be able to recruit better talent, we will be able to avoid the "rich boy syndrome" in which only the very well-heeled can run for our top offices and, frankly, we'll still be paying these folks just a fraction of what a similar job in industry might pay.

I share the frustrations of those who have little patience or understanding about this, but we both want and deserve the best government we can find. Paying people a small part of what they are worth makes an awful lot of sense. 

Alan Chartock is chairman and executive director of WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network in Albany, N.Y., and a SUNY professor of political science and communications. He makes his home in Great Barrington.

© 1999, 2000 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and Pittsfield Publications, Inc. Reproduced  here without permission.

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