Speaker Steele, Minority Leader Inman lead charge to stop pay hike for state officials, judges
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Published: 15-Feb-2012

The top Republican and Democrat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives will disagree on many issues this legislative session, but they have joined forces on House Joint Resolution 1093. 

That measure will, if passed by both chambers, prevent a pay increase for state judges and many elected officials. The measure begins its legislative journey with support from Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, and Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Del City Democrat. 

This morning (Wednesday, February 15), the House Rules Committee voted 11-0 to send the measure to the full House. That vote came after brief discussion, during which Steele and Inman stood side by side to address the substance of the measure with members of the powerful committee. 

In an exchange with state Rep. David Dank, an Oklahoma City Republican, Steele said the measure was not directed at any current judges or state officials. 

“If the state is in a better financial position in some future year, this sort of proposal might in that circumstance be possible. But that is not the case, this year. This is not a matter of the worth or dedication of anyone covered by the proposed increase,” Steele said.

Inman had in prior remarks been especially critical of a possible pay hike for statewide elected officials, saying that could have cost taxpayers $350,000 more a year. He said his staff would be drafting separate legislation to detach state officials from the judiciary for possible future increases.

In an exchange with Rep. Weldon Watson of Tulsa, Inman said he believed it might be best to leave executive branch compensation decisions to the Legislature. Under current state law, pay cannot be increased for state officials while in their current terms; therefore all state officials would have to win another term before compensation could be increased. 

The proposal advanced on an 11-0 vote, gaining support from Representatives Don Armes of Faxon, Gary Banz of Midwest City (the Rules chairman), Dank, Joe Dorman of Rush Springs, Larry Glenn of Miami, Dennis Johnson of Duncan, Guy Liebmann of Oklahoma City, Randy McDaniel of Oklahoma City, Glenn Mulready of Tulsa, Marty Quinn of Claremore, and Watson. Rep. Cory T. Williams of Stillwater took constitutional privilege on the issue.

After the committee vote, Speaker Steele said, “Revenues are rebounding as we come out of the recession, but not to a level that makes it possible to raise the salaries of elected officials. While we appreciate the service our judges and statewide elected officials provide to our state, we cannot in good faith allow these raises to occur at this time.”
 
The alliance of Steele and Inman seems almost certain to put a stop to the 6 percent pay increase for judges approved in September by the Board on Judicial Compensation, a panel that meets every other year to recommend changes in judicial compensation. The salaries of statewide elected officials are linked to judicial compensation.

Authority for the pay board’s recommendations comes from Title 20, section 3.2 in state law. The board had approved the hike. If allowed to go into effect it would allow the salary of the chief justice to rise from $147,000 a year to $155,820 (with another $2,130 in increased benefits). The governor’s salary, under law, mirrors that of the chief justice. 

Steele and Inman had made their sentiments about the pay hike clear for months, but have now formalized what has to be considered a powerful alliance against the increased pay.  

Last month, Inman spoke specifically about the possible increase for statewide elected officials, saying in a House press release, “At a time when average Oklahoma families are struggling to put food on the table, haven’t had a pay increase in years, and are suffering through rising costs in medical care, it would be unconscionable for the Republican leadership and the Governor to stand by and allow over $350,000 in pay increases for elected state officials.”

On February 1, Steele and Inman joined forces. The speaker then commented, “I said it in October and I say it now: This is not the time for raises. Once session starts, we’re putting a stop to it. Oklahoma is still coming out of a recession. State revenues are rebounding, but certainly not enough to justify raising the salaries of elected officials. As good stewards of the taxpayer dollar, we cannot in good faith allow these raises to occur.”

Debate over the possible pay hike for elected officials and judges was linked, late last month, to the cumulative $1.4 million in pay increases given to a majority of local public school superintendents in the past year. The pay increases came even though state general appropriation spending on public education has been trimmed roughly 10 percent. 

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