Pay raises for state’s top officials?

 

DOVER — Delaware’s governor, lawmakers and top judges all make more than the national average for their positions — but a pay raise could be coming nonetheless.

As a whole, Delaware’s elected officials, cabinet secretaries and judges earn 6 percent more than the national median.

While they already receive the salary increases that go to all state workers, they also benefit from a little-known group that has the authority to dole out special raises that are not given to the vast majority of state employees.

Every four years, the Delaware Compensation Commission meets to examine pay for judges, cabinet secretaries and elected officials, including the governor and legislators. The commission convened last week and will meet several times before the end of the year. It is due to produce a report to the General Assembly by Jan. 10.

Recommendations made by the group, which is composed of five members of the private sector and one government official, are binding unless the General Assembly explicitly rejects them.

The object of the commission, as stated in its 2013 report, is to ensure the state can “attract and retain the best.” Those recommendations have led to large raises at times.

Just look at the governor. The 2001 commission bumped the governor’s salary from $114,000 to $132,500, while the 2005 meetings raised it to $171,000, where it currently stands.

The mean annual salary for a Delawarean is $50,300, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Former Chief Justice Myron Steele, who held the top position in the state’s judicial branch from 2004 to 2013, has said regular pay raises are necessary to ensure Delaware can draw the best lawyers to the bench.

The 2005 commission gave judges a 13 percent pay raise, with the top judges on each court — chief justice, chancellor, president judge and chief judge — also receiving another $10,000 or so.

The past two commissions either did not recommend increases or had their proposal rejected by lawmakers.

“If we stay where we don’t give judges a raise for eight years, what’s the incentive to come on the bench?” Mr. Steele, who retired from the bench, said in a 2015 interview.

While they may make less than lawyers at the most prestigious firms, every one of the 57 judges on the state’s top five courts is paid at least $177,066, putting them among the 100 highest paid state employees.

In 2015, just nine people on the state payroll made more than Chief Justice Leo Strine, who pulled in $201,106.

“Relative to what I would call majority of state employees, judges’ salaries look high so politically it’s a hard sell,” Mr. Steele said.

While he acknowledges higher salaries for judges may not be popular, he stands by his stance they are needed to pull in to the top talent.

“The difference between what I’m paid now and what I was paid when I was chief justice is ridiculous. It’s just ridiculous,” he said.

Past and future

Salary growth for Delaware’s top officials has slowed over the past decade, although judges, cabinet secretaries, lawmakers and other elected officials continue to receive general pay increases that go to all state worker. The governor, who is prohibited by law from having his or her salary raised during a four-year term in office, is an exception.

The commission did not recommend changes in 2009 in light of the recession, which created “the unpleasant reality that financially the state would not likely be able to implement any recommendations to increase salaries of positions covered by the commission,” according to the group’s report.

In 2013, the group proposed minor raises for select cabinet secretaries and all members of the judiciary, although the Delaware Bar Association called for large pay hikes for judges.

The General Assembly unanimously voted down the commission’s proposal.

Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, has fought against the commission process and unsuccessfully co-sponsored legislation to make the committee’s recommendations non-binding.

“I think given the reality of the last couple of compensation committee reports and the entire General Assembly’s reaction to them, the better to put that recommendation in the budget process as opposed to sort of this default vote,” he said.

While he is not inherently opposed to pay increases for top state officials, especially members of the judiciary, he has a problem with the method.

“There’s nothing else we don’t vote on that goes into law,” he said.

Created in 1984 under Gov. Pete du Pont, the commission has reached different conclusions over the years. The 2005 version, for instance, said the governor should be the highest paid member of the executive branch, while the 2013 group concluded that did not have to be the case.

Prior commissions also based the secretary of education’s pay on the salary of the three highest paid superintendents in the state, a practice the 2013 group judged was no longer needed.

Gov.-elect John Carney, a Democrat who will take office in January, indicated he may be willing to support a proposal that calls for pay raises for some offices.

“I intend to let the commission do its work and take a look at what they recommend,” he said in a statement. “That said, I do not want nor will I accept a pay increase, so I certainly hope the commission recommends leaving the governor’s salary as is.”

Should commission recommend raises, and should the legislature not reject them, pay increases for 221 individuals will go into effect July 1.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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