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Panel urges 21% pay hike for judges

Deseret Morning News graphic

An independent panel recommended Monday that Utah lawmakers give state court judges a 21 percent pay increase over the next three years to help attract better candidates to the bench.

The Executive and Judicial Compensation Commission also proposed a 5.5 percent salary boost for state department heads as well as a significant hike for three of the state's five elected officials.

Judges have received special attention this year from the commission, which heard at its last meeting from the Citizen Committee on Judicial Compensation that the state is facing a crisis as more members of the bench retire.

The citizens group suggested a 19 percent pay increase was needed to make sure enough qualified applicants came forward to fill what is expected to be a loss of 44 percent of the state's sitting judges to retirement over the next five years.

Currently, state Supreme Court justices earn $122,150; appellate court judges, $116,600; and district and juvenile court judges, $111,050. That's compared to an average of $210,000 earned by a partner in a Utah law firm, according to the group.

Monday, the commission expressed sympathy for the concerns raised by the citizens group but decided asking for a double-digit hike for judges wasn't realistic — at least, not all at once.

"I have a hard time believing the Legislature is going to approve a 19 percent increase for anybody," said Dave Jones, a former state lawmaker and new member of the commission. "I think it's DOA (dead on arrival)."

Commission Chairman John T. Nielsen agreed, warning that it would be "difficult, and maybe even counterproductive, to overshoot the recommendations." He suggested spreading the increase out over several years.

Under the commission's proposal, judges would receive a 7 percent raise annually over the next three years, beginning next July at the start of the new budget year. The 2005 Legislature gave judges a 6 percent raise after four years of little or no increases.

The commission's recommendations will be reported to legislative leaders next week. It will be up to the 2006 Legislature to decide how much more money all state employees and officials will see in their paychecks.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has yet to announce what size pay increase his budget will include, although a representative of the state Department of Human Resources told the commission Monday that they are suggesting up to a 5.5 percent raise for state workers.

That raise, state human resources policy manager Debbie Price told the commission, includes 2.5 percent for merit and 2 percent for cost of living. The remaining 1 percent would be given at the discretion of state bosses, she said.

The price tag for that size of state employee raise is about $28 million, Price said, adding the department is also seeking a total of another $46 million to better adjust salaries to the market.

"We're just waiting to hear from the governor's office," she said. "We have not heard what direction they are going at all."

Last year, state workers saw a 2.5 percent pay increase plus 2 percent in benefits.

Commission members decided 5.5 percent would be enough for the state's top appointed officials, too. Huntsman had sought as much as a 30 percent pay hike for some of his department heads earlier this year by putting them all in the same pay range.

Lawmakers rejected the governor's plan but asked the commission to study it. Monday, the commission only said that there should continue to be various pay ranges for department heads, since they have different levels of required expertise and responsibility.

As for elected officials, only the lieutenant governor, auditor and treasurer would receive additional compensation under the commission's recommendations. No pay increase was proposed for the governor or the attorney general.

But after hearing at a past meeting from state auditor Auston Johnson's office that he was underpaid compared to his peers and made less than some of his staff, the commission voted to set the auditor's salary at 85 percent of the governor's.

The salaries of the lieutenant governor and the treasurer would also be set at 85 percent of what the governor makes, currently $104,100. That would jump all of those salaries to $88,500 — as much as a $7,500 increase. Lawmakers already agreed last session to set the attorney general's salary at 95 percent of the governor's after years of pressure from the commission.