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Romney may balk on lawmakers' raises

Waiting for action on gay marriage

Governor Mitt Romney told a crowd of several thousand gathered outside the State House last month that lawmakers have violated the state constitution by refusing to vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. (Chitose Suzuki/Associated Press)

Governor Mitt Romney may refuse to move ahead on automatic pay raises for lawmakers unless they vote next week on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, a top administration official said yesterday.

The state's 200 House and Senate members are entitled to a raise on Jan. 1, but it is up to the governor to decide the exact amount and give final approval. Romney could act on the pay raises before he leaves office on Jan. 4, or leave the responsibility to Governor-elect Deval Patrick.

Legislators have scheduled a vote on the same-sex marriage amendment for Jan. 2, but many opponents of gay marriage fear lawmakers will recess without taking action. According to a senior Romney administration official, the governor is seriously considering withholding his approval if the Legislature does not act on the amendment.

Two years ago, the last time lawmakers were due raises, Romney approved the increases in early December.

Pushing the decision off would have virtually no practical effect because a raise is guaranteed. But it could be symbolically significant for Romney, who is expected to announce soon that he is running for president.

Denying lawmakers their raises -- even if Patrick subsequently approved them -- would let Romney trumpet before key primary-state audiences his efforts to hold the line on spending and continue his outspoken opposition to gay marriage.

It would also signal his continuing displeasure with a Legislature he has railed against for not voting on the amendment. Romney, who asked the Supreme Judicial Court to override the Legislature and let voters decide whether to ban same-sex marriage, told a crowd of several thousand gathered outside the State House last month that lawmakers have violated the state constitution by refusing to vote on the amendment.

"The issue before us is not whether same-sex couples should marry," he told the crowd. "The issue before us today is whether 109 legislators will follow the constitution."

Opponents of same-sex marriage gathered 170,000 signatures on a petition to put the proposed ban on the 2008 ballot, but the measure also requires the support of at least 50 legislators in two consecutive sessions. On Nov. 9, a joint session voted 109 to 87 to go into recess rather than vote on the ban.

Several lawmakers yesterday expressed displeasure at any effort to use raises as leverage.

"I would be disappointed if it's true that because the governor didn't get his way on a particular issue he would attempt to punish the legislators," said Senator Richard Tisei, a Wakefield Republican who supports gay marriage. "I would think he would be bigger than that -- especially on his way out."

Romney aides could not be reached for comment yesterday. Patrick aides declined to discuss how they would handle legislative pay raises if Romney does not deal with them.

Under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998, legislators are entitled to a raise every two years. In 2004, the raise was 4.1 percent over two years, bringing lawmakers' base pay to $55,570.

Romney administration officials are estimating the new raise would equal 5 percent to 7 percent over two years -- bringing the base pay to between $58,349 and $59,460.

The lawmakers' raises are tied to changes in average incomes in Massachusetts, but the governor is given discretion to decide the exact amounts.

If Romney leaves the decision to Patrick, the size of the raises could change. With financial forecasts already gloomy for 2007, giving raises to the Legislature could become one of Patrick's first official acts.

Representative Jay R. Kaufman, Democrat of Lexington, said that if Romney fails to approve the raises, he will be violating his oath to uphold the constitution in the same way he is accusing the Legislature of failing to uphold its oath by refusing to vote on the same-sex marriage amendment.

"It's rather bizarre that at the same time the governor is asking us to meet what he understands to be our constitutional responsibility, he's refusing to meet his," said Kaufman.

Kaufman said he opposed the pay raise amendment when it originally came up for a vote because he didn't believe a legislative pay raise should be guaranteed by the state constitution. "I don't think legislative pay rises to the level of constitutional provisions like freedom of speech or freedom of the press," he said.

House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. of North Reading said there could be other motivations for Romney's delay in dealing with the raises.

"Is he doing the new governor a favor by letting him engender good will with the Legislature?" he said. "It's sort of a constitutional way to offer money to the Legislature -- one of the few voter-approved things that the Legislature hasn't tried to find a way around," said Jones, who is pushing for a vote on the same-sex marriage amendment.

When the automatic raise was first approved -- billed as a way to take politics out of the process -- some legislators refused to accept the increases in pay under pressure from constituents in a time of fiscal crisis.

But several lawmakers said they no longer feel uncomfortable about accepting the increase.

"I don't have any problem accepting it now," Tisei said. "I think given some of the shenanigans that have taken place in the past when it comes to legislative pay raises, the system we have is a good system. "

Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, said she believes voters misunderstood the nature of the amendment when they approved it in 1998.

"The voters created it, and there's nothing you can do about it ever," said Anderson, who tried unsuccessfully to get the automatic pay raise reversed. "They'll be getting pay raises long after the earth has fallen into the sun. It's one of the few mistakes voters have ever made."

In 2002, then-Acting Governor Jane Swift declined to act on the raise before leaving office, forcing Romney to make the decision.

Beyond their base pay, all state senators and many House members also receive stipends ranging from $7,500 to $15,000 for committee chairman ships and other leadership positions.

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