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Bay State pay-raise proposal: too much for taxpayers to handle

THANKS, but no thanks. Those are the sentiments, although not the exact words, of Gov. Michael Dukakis in response to the package of pay raises recommended for him and other state officials by a special blue-ribbon panel. The five-member Advisory Board on Legislative Judicial, and Constitutional Officers' Compensation could hardly have been more generous.

But as disappointed as Mr. Dukakis may be with the recommendations, it is questionable how far he will go to prevent them from being cast in concrete.

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Since returning to the executive chair in January 1983, he has used his veto powers more sparingly than any governor in decades. And at this stage in his quest for the presidential nomination, he might think thrice before jeopardizing his relations with legislators.

If House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett and Senate President William Bulger (D) of Boston throw their weight behind the advisory board's recommendations, or even a set of slightly more modest raises, Dukakis could find himself on the political spot.

While the governor has made it clear that he supports an increase for state legislators and officials, he would prefer adjustments tied to the rise in living costs since current pay levels took effect in January 1983.

There is little doubt, however, that legislative leaders are looking for considerably more than a 14 percent hike, which is what they would get if held to the cost-of-living rise in Massachusetts over the past nearly 4 years.

What the commonwealth can perhaps least afford is another inflationary wage spiral, and that's what implementation of the advisory board's recommendations could set off.

If the annual salary base for senators and representatives were raised from the current $30,000 to $45,000, that would be a 50 percent increase.

There is no way the state and its long-suffering taxpayers will be able to afford boosts of 50 percent for other workers on the commonwealth's payroll, most of whom earn a lot less than lawmakers do.

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And, of course, any increases provided for senators and representatives, the governor, and other elected officials would undoubtedly strengthen the bargaining position of public-employee unions in their negotiations with the commonwealth.

Similarly demanding, and hardly less entitled to more money, would be state retirees and those on welfare, many of whom are barely getting by on current benefits and are no less deserving of a raise than the lawmakers and others recommended for whopping boosts by the advisory board.

That compensation commission, appointed by Dukakis 2 months ago, in its zeal to carry out its assignment appears to have overlooked the implications of its recommendations and their possible effects.

Among the recommendations are: a $50,000 boost from $75,000 to $125,000 for the governor; a $30,000 raise from $60,000 to $90,000 for the lieutenant governor; and $25,000 increases from $65,000 to $90,000 for the House speaker and Senate president These seem to be out of bounds when compared with what most other states pay.

These and the other compensation proposals of the special panel add up to a lot of dollars but perhaps not all that much sense, unless the state is awash in funds and really stumped on how to spend it. As well intentioned as the commission surely was, its recommendations, on balance, seem to reflect an impressive naivet'e.

Although the dimensions of the increase proposed for the governor was, by most standards, out of line, a strong case can be made for paying him at least a bit more.

After all, the Bay State chief executive is head of a large corporation with more than 70,000 employees and an annual budget in excess of $11 billion.

The current salary of $75,000 a year is less than the average among governors of the dozen most populous states. Thus a less generous gubernatorial pay boost could hardly be criticized.

But what justification can there be for making the lieutenant governor the second-highest paid in the nation? Seven states don't even have a lieutenant governor, and the commonwealth got along without one for two years before last January.

No less baffling is why the advisory board felt the eight members of the Executive Council merit what amounts to a 40 percent increase. The present $10,400 compensation seems more than adequate for these government part-timers. Councilor responsibilities rarely require more than a couple hours of work a week. Presumably this was fully considered, along with the fact the councilor salary was more than doubled by lawmakers last year.

Clearly the state's limited resources, especially at a time when the Dukakis administration is seeking a $220 million increase in annual revenues might be better used on programs for the homeless and disadvantaged.

Obviously it is too late to send the compensation commission back to the drawing board.

In the future, however, it might be a good idea to include on such panels at least one member who can relate to the humble taxpayer and perhaps argue for restraint.

The three corporate executives, academician, and union chief who made up the 1987 advisory board are hardly representative of a genuine cross section of public interests.

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