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Reasonable pay for judges, state elected officials

Public service for elected and appointed officials should be just that: service. However, when public service becomes full-time or almost, we need to pay these people enough to somewhat offset the loss of income.
Public service for elected and appointed officials should be just that: service. However, when public service becomes full-time or almost, we need to pay these people enough to somewhat offset the loss of income.
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Public service for elected and appointed officials should be just that: service. And it wouldn’t be service if it weren’t a sacrifice. However, when public service becomes full-time or almost, we need to pay these people enough to somewhat offset the loss of income.

The Utah State Legislature updated its own compensation system in 2013 in accordance with the recommendations of the independent Legislative Compensation Commission. I commend it for that.

Legislators and their families make real sacrifices to serve. The general sessions last seven weeks. Many legislators live hours away from the Capitol and stay in hotels for those seven weeks. They leave their work during the session and spend much more time serving throughout the year. Most legislators give a great deal of time to their service, much of it uncompensated. Most employers won’t allow an employee time off to serve as a legislator, and if they do, few pay for the time off. Few self-employed contractors, insurance agents, Realtors, lawyers, doctors, accountants and other professionals can leave their clients and patients for weeks at a time and lose a third or more of their income. Serving in the Legislature is an honor, but it is also a sacrifice.

The Elected Official and Judicial Compensation Commission, which studies and recommends pay levels for judges and statewide elected positions, concluded in its recent annual report that we should boost their compensation fairly significantly.

Utah’s judicial compensation is far below what it should be. Utah ranks 30th in pay for judges.

A judgeship is a coveted job. It used to be the capstone of an attorney’s career. Today it is less so because many successful attorneys in private practice simply can’t or don’t want to take a major salary cut to serve.

A couple of years ago, Gov. Gary Herbert appointed a young, highly regarded lawyer to the bench. He was then a partner in a large law firm and making three or four times a judge’s pay. To prepare to become a judge, over time he paid down debt and modified his lifestyle so his family could live on what was for them a modest judicial salary.

However, fewer and fewer people are willing or able to do that. While the quality of our judicial appointees is good, the candidate pool has become more limited. Civil litigation cases have increased dramatically. But it is difficult to get lawyers with complex civil litigation experience, who make $400,000 or $500,000 and more a year, to apply for judgeships at $136,500. The average Joe will say he’d be glad to live on the $136,500 a judge makes. But we don’t want average Joes for our judges. We want the best and brightest legal minds.

Setting compensation for the governor and other statewide officials is a trickier proposition. We want outstanding people in these positions: wise, experienced and excellent leaders. Some have independent means and don’t worry about their salary. For others, the pay is a real hurdle. The average Utahn makes less than statewide elected officials, so citizens aren’t generally supportive of raising their pay. Some will say that candidates knew what the salary was when they ran for election. Still, this doesn’t obviate the necessity to update their compensation from time to time.

The commission strongly recommends increasing our state elected officials’ pay for “important public policy considerations.” They are the leaders of Utah state government, a $14 billion enterprise, yet they “are among the lower‐paid key professional positions in state government.” Most of their department directors and deputies make more than they do, as do many full-time mayors and county commissioners. The commission cautions that “there should not be an assumption that individuals holding these offices are either independently wealthy or … augment the position’s salary” with political or other funds.

The commission also strongly urges the Legislature to set up a procedure that automatically increases executive compensation from time to time to reflect inflation. To minimize the politics in this equation, the Legislature should make any pay increase effective only after the next general election in 2016.

Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.