Commission recommends raises for judges, cabinet

Schwartzkopf: Difficult to extend taxes and give raises
January 11, 2013
Delaware judges would receive higher pay under a recommendation from the Delaware Compensation Commission. SOURCE FILE PHOTO

Salaries for elected officials in Delaware will remain largely the same over the next four years.  But annual pay for some of the state’s highest paid employees could steadily increase if the General Assembly does not vote to stop it.

A state commission is recommending no adjustments to the base salary, expense allowance or pension benefits for legislators, except general salary increases given to all state employees.  Under the proposal, salaries for judges and some cabinet secretaries would increase 6 percent or more over the next three years.

Delaware Compensation Commission issued its Jan. 8 report after a series of meetings and public hearings to evaluate legislative, executive and judicial salaries; it then recommended how much government officials should be paid.

The entire General Assembly can reject the commission’s recommendation only by joint resolution, and it must be voted on by Thursday, Jan. 24; otherwise, the recommendation will be automatically adopted Monday, July 1.

For legislators, a base salary of $44,000 will likely remain unchanged. Legislators in leadership positions and members of certain committees receive additional salary. Members of the General Assembly will also continue to receive an expense allowance of $7,300 per year.

“The 2013 commission does not recommend any salary changes for the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the state auditor, the state treasurer and the insurance commissioner,” the report states.

Base salaries for these elected offices range from $78,500, for the lieutenant governor, up to $145,200, for the attorney general.

The Jan. 8 report finds salaries should be held steady because of the struggling economy.  The commission says the economy has improved somewhat, but recovery has been slow.  State revenues are anticipated to be $73.4 million less in fiscal year 2014 than fiscal year 2013, the report states.

“If it were not for flat state revenues and the inability of the state to more modestly increase salaries for all state employees, the 2013 commission would wholeheartedly endorse moderate salary increases for all positions covered by this report,” the commission wrote.

The commission endorses salary increases for some positions.  The report states 20 percent to 30 percent of the state’s revenues can be attributed to the judiciary.  “Therefore, recruiting and retaining outstanding, diverse and high caliber judges is essential to the quality of life and economic well being of the people of Delaware,” the commission wrote.

The commission says Supreme Court justices should receive a salary that is $500 more than the chief judges of Delaware Court of Chancery, Superior Court and Family Court. All members of the judiciary will receive a 3 percent salary increase in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016, the report states.

The highest paid judge in the state, Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron Steele, will see his current base salary of $200,600 go up to $212,850 by fiscal year 2016.  Other Supreme Court justices will see their base salary of $190,600 jump to $203,500 in the next two years.

A first term Justice of the Peace, the lowest paid judges in the state, will see a base salary of $77,300 by fiscal year 2016.

For cabinet members, the commission recommended no salary increases for 2013. But secretaries of Department of Health and Social Services, Department of State, Department of Transportation and Department of Services for Children, Youth and Families should receive 3 percent salary increases in fiscal year 2015 – next year – and fiscal year 2016, the commission says.  The Secretary of State would also receive a 3 percent increase in fiscal year 2017 under the proposal, resulting in a base salary of $139,400.

The commission recommended salary increases only for four cabinet secretaries due to increased responsibility in those departments.

Secretaries of Agriculture, Labor and Housing Authority will receive 2.36 percent salary increases – $2,780 – in only fiscal year 2015.

According to the report, the governor can pay cabinet officials a salary 10 percent above or below the salary recommended in the report.

Delaware Compensation Commission was created in 1984 to make salaries for Delaware officials more competitive with neighboring states.

In 2009, the commission recommended no salary increase for any position in its report, although positions evaluated by the commission still received the same yearly salary increases as other state employees.  “The exception to this rule is the governor, whose position is restricted by law from receiving these increases,” the report states.

Per the 2005 commission recommendation, Gov. Jack Markell took office in 2009 with a salary of $171,000, the report says.

The 2013 commission report says the governor should be the highest paid elected official in the state.  “In order to maintain such, this commission recommends that when the governor takes office in 2017, the salary should reflect the current base salary of $171,000 plus the sum totally of the amount of general salary increases provided to state employees over the next four years,” the report states.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said the commission did well to recommend holding off raises in fiscal year 2014.  But, he said, it is difficult to predict whether the economy in 2015 will support raises.  “We don’t know from year to year where our budget is,” he said.

In 2009, the General Assembly increased a series of taxes to help boost the state economy; the taxes are scheduled to sunset in 2013.  “Right now, it doesn’t look very good financially for the sunsets,” Schwartzkopf said.

Schwartzkopf said it would be difficult to ask his caucus to support extending taxes if the state approves raises for the judiciary and cabinet secretaries.  “And these are people that make pretty good money,” he said.

Delaware has one of the top judiciaries in the country, and judges could command far higher salaries in the private sector, Schwartzkopf said.  “I’m not saying they don’t deserve it,” he said.  “A lot of corporations do incorporate in Delaware because of our Chancery Court.”

“I’m not taking this lightly,” Schwartzkopf said.  The majority caucus was given the compensation report to review Jan. 9; Schwartzkopf said it would be discussed Jan. 10.  “I know basically where I am.  I need to know where my caucus is,” he said.

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