Emily Humphrey, a teacher at Orchards Elementary School in Vancouver, isn’t opposed to legislators receiving a raise.
But when she recently heard a lawmaker justify the need for a pay increase as crucial to “attracting the best and brightest” to the Statehouse, she grew frustrated, she said.
“It’s not that we don’t think they deserve it,” Humphrey said, adding she agrees with the argument that not only the wealthy should be able to run for public office.
“I know they aren’t giving it to themselves, but it is a raise they are getting,” she said. “There’s a disconnect. Teachers are being told from the Washington state Supreme Court they deserve a cost-of-living adjustment and yet there is still a fight … We have to fight tooth and nail.”
Across the state, teachers are staging one-day walkouts to increase pressure on lawmakers, in part, to approve cost-of-living raises for educators. Wednesday, the same day many of the local walkouts are scheduled, an independent commission is expected to vote on increasing lawmakers’ salary by 11 percent.
Although the two aren’t tied together, many have decried lawmakers receiving a pay boost before approving one for educators.
Humphrey estimates she spends about $1,000 a year of her salary on school supplies for her students.
She has received a step increase, but not a cost-of-living adjustment in the five years she’s been a teacher at the school.
“The best and brightest are not being drawn to education anymore,” she said. “And if we want to get the best and brightest lawmakers, they have to come from somewhere. They have to come from schools.”
For the past several months, the Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials has taken public testimony on the idea of raising lawmakers’ pay.
“I would say the overarching sentiment is one of frustration and anger that state employees … aren’t getting the pay they need and deserve,” said Justine Winnie, who is a member of the board and lives in Seattle.
The state’s independent salary commission, which was created by voter approval in 1986, is made up of 17 unpaid members.
About half of the members are selected by the speaker of the House and president of the Senate based on their background, such as higher education, organized labor or business. The remaining members are chosen randomly from a pool of registered voters in different congressional districts.
The commission sets the salaries for 479 elected officials, including the governor, Supreme Court justices and lawmakers.
When setting salaries, the commission considers what legislators make in comparable states and takes into consideration the duties of the job. There is also a personnel formula the commission relies upon.
“There’s a framework we’re legally obliged to use to evaluate salary setting,” Winnie said.
Under the current proposal, most lawmakers’ annual salaries would go from $42,106 to $46,839 by 2016. This does not include mileage reimbursements or a per diem, a daily stipend they can receive while in session. Those in leadership positions make more. Washington has a part-time, citizen Legislature.
Dick Walter, who chairs the salary commission, said that lawmakers, who haven’t received a pay boost since 2008, are below the midpoint level for comparable duties.
The commission’s goal is to evaluate the job based on the duties it involves. It’s the taxpayers and voters, Walter said, who decide if an individual deserves those wages.
Lawmakers were unable to agree on a two-year operating budget during this year’s regular legislative session.
Now, budget leaders are back in Olympia, mainly behind closed doors, presumably negotiating a budget.
There have been several proposals, but Democrats have generally been in favor of honoring collective-bargaining contracts already agreed upon between teachers unions and the governor. Democrats have called for increasing cost-of-living adjustments to 3 percent in the 2015-16 school year and 1.8 percent for the 2016-17 year.
Republicans, who are pushing a “no new tax” operating budget, also call for cost-of-living raises, but at a lower amount, with 1.8 percent in the 2015-16 school year and 1.2 percent for the 2016-17 year.
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said teachers will receive a cost-of-living raise this year and both budget proposals put at least $1.2 billion more into education.
Teachers from the Evergreen, Washougal and Camas school districts recently voted to join more than 20 other school districts across the state and stage a one-day walkout May 13. Unions considering joining the walkout include the Battle Ground Education Association, Vancouver Education Association and the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals. Teachers from the La Center and Ridgefield districts will not participate.