Friday, November 17, 2006

What to pay....or not to pay?

One of the more sensitive-least politically helpful topics that Oregonians need to tackle is the compensation rate for our public servants.

A commentary this morning by Clastop County DA Josh Marquis pulls this topic into the light:

The Oregonian recently ran a story about the extraordinary number of trial judges leaving the bench. It's a tough job, but one reason they're leaving was barely mentioned:

The pay for our circuit (trial) and appellate judges is somewhere between 47th and 49th in the 50 states. A first-year associate lawyer at one of Portland's top law firms is paid more than the chief justice of our Supreme Court. That is beyond ridiculous, it is embarrassing.

Judges are only one example. We pay our legislators between $15,000 and $30,000 a year and yet are surprised that they don't take vows of poverty or that they hire their spouses as legislative aides. Oregon's attorney general is paid less than $80,000. The governor (who turned down a raise) makes more than $30,000 less than his chief of staff. The Oregon State Bar pins the median salary for all attorneys at about $95,000. The top prosecutor in most Oregon counties is paid about $77,000. (Some counties supplement that salary so that the elected DA doesn't make less than his or her deputies.)

What does that say about the value of the work done by lawyers entrusted with decisions -- including whether to seek the death penalty -- that affect the lives of Oregonians? It's fashionable to claim that money doesn't matter, and it's considered beyond rude for an elected official to complain about her salary. Naturally, when Oregon's median salary is less than $40,000 it may be difficult to feel sympathy towards someone who earns twice that amount. But it's simply denial to believe these low salaries don't affect our ability to attract and retain the best people. All too often we lose them to the private sector, which appropriately rewards those with the most experience and responsibility.

This same argument has been made for teacher salaries as well. While I understand that the private sector in education doesn't pays teachers more, there are other benefits such as smaller class sizes, much fewer special needs and behaviorally challenged kids, less bureacracy, etc. However, other areas of the private sector draw teachers out of teaching often times due to a more attractive compensation package.

For our legislators, the financial compensation is so low that its creating a number of problems. First there are the lobbyist paid trips and other expensed things that are forcing us to look more closely at ethics oversight for the legislature.

Additionally, the lack of reasonable legislative compensation forces legislators to either be fairly wealthy or find creative ways to bring in more income. One of the practices that's raised eyebrows for some Oregonians is the hiring of spouses or family members to work as legislative staff. Its evident that some of these legislators and their families NEED that income in order to financially survive. But it does raise ethical issues.

Don't we owe it to these representatives, judges, teachers and other public servants to appropriately and reasonably compensate them for their work?

Its certainly not a cachet topic of discussion..and its likely the rightwing blowhard machine will snidely snarl about the whining class of those who work for the State of Oregon. And we'll have to endure the hand wringing about "more taxes", too.

So what's the best way to provide political cover for the legislature to do this?