MONTPELIER — Members of the Vermont House of Representatives on Friday decided state lawmakers shouldn't take a pay cut.
After debating the question for more than 90 minutes, the House voted 88-50 against an across-the-board 5 percent cut in legislative pay. Dozens of lawmakers have already asked to have their own pay cut. The Legislative Council, which manages lawmakers' pay, has honored those requests.
Backers of the pay cut proposal, mostly Republicans, pointed out that non-unionized state workers making more than $60,000 a year already have been asked to take a 5 percent pay cut.
"This amendment is more symbol than substance," said Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town. "The symbolism is, however, important. I believe in a principle of leadership that you don't ask somebody else to do something that you're not willing to do."
Vermont residents are being squeezed by the tough economy, and lawmakers should share the pain, Koch and other backers argued.
Majority Democrats dismissed the pay cut proposal, which was attached to a budget adjustment bill, as political grandstanding. They argued that lawmakers already have agreed to trim their session by two weeks, which amounts to an 11 percent pay cut since they get paid only when they meet.
Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said if lawmakers worked year-round their weekly pay of $625.36 would add up to about $32,000 a year, far below the $60,000 threshold at which other state employees have been asked to take cuts. She noted that legislators don't get state health insurance, vacation, retirement or other benefits.
They do get a $54 daily meal allowance and a $93 daily room allowance and are reimbursed for driving to and from Montpelier, the capital.
Legislative pay clearly was a hot political potato. During the lengthy debate on the pay cut proposal, offered by Rep. David Ainsworth, R-Royalton, members frequently raised points of order — a parliamentary maneuver in which one member complains about the debating tactics of another.
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, issued copies of an Associated Press story from January that estimated Vermont lawmakers work about 1,420 hours a year — including when the Legislature isn't in session — and that their pay for an 18-week session works out to $11,256.
That means they make an hourly wage of about $7.93, 13 cents less than Vermont's current minimum wage of $8.06.
Ainsworth, who keeps 45 dairy cows and grows sweet corn, hothouse tomatoes and cucumbers, said in an interview after the debate that he wasn't sympathetic.
"I'm a farmer, so I don't make minimum wage to begin with," he said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the debate insisted they weren't in it for the money.
"If anyone did it for the pay they were sadly disappointed on their first paycheck day," said Rep. Margaret Flory, R-Pittsford.
The House also briefly considered a proposal by Rep. Richard Marek, D-Newfane, to cut top executive branch officials' pay by the same amount lawmakers' pay would have been reduced. Marek ended up withdrawing that proposal.MORE IN Central Vermont
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