Democratic State Sen. Julie Lassa has a $3,000 headache on her hands.
Lassa, seeking the 7th District congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, is on the defensive about a pay raise for legislators that took effect in January 2009.
How lawmakers handled that raise is turning up as a campaign issue in several races this fall. Sean Duffy, the Republican candidate for the northwest Wisconsin seat, calls Lassa a "Madison insider" and uses the pay issue to support his position.
An Aug. 25, 2010 Duffy news release noted that some state lawmakers refused their pay raise, given budget constraints, but that Lassa took the annual $2,530 increase -- even as "the state was hemorrhaging more than 100,000 jobs."
It went on to quote Duffy campaign manager Matt Seaholm: "Lassa willingly took a hefty pay raise at a time when people throughout her district and the state were losing their jobs."
So, is the charge on the money?
We asked Duffy campaign spokeswoman Wendy Riemann for evidence to back up the attack on Lassa. She cited a January 13, 2009 editorial in the Stevens Point Journal, printed shortly after the raises took effect.
Said Riemann: "All of the legislators got that raise, and many of the legislators said they were going to give it back and she’s on record as saying, ‘I’m keeping that money.’"
Let’s look at how legislators are paid:
Members of the state Assembly and Senate are paid $49,943. They received a $2,530 (5.06 percent) pay raise, which took effect in January of 2009 and lasts for the next two-year legislative term. Lawmakers also receive $88 for each day they spend in Madison.
In the editorial cited by the Duffy campaign, Lassa defended the raise, saying it was only the second increase for legislators in six years, and less than the rate of inflation.
Legislators don’t vote on their salaries; pay is set by a panel in the state Department of Employment Relations and then voted on by a joint committee of the Legislature. The full bodies don’t vote on their salaries. Lassa is not a member of the committee.
In the latest tally, 31 of 33 state senators are giving back some portion of their raises, using a variety of methods. According to Senate Chief Clerk Robert Marchant, here’s how Lassa is handling her raise:
- Lassa took the pay raise, starting in January 2009. She received the higher pay for 13 months.
- In February of 2010, three months before she announced her congressional bid, Lassa notified Marchant she wanted to take lesser pay. By law, legislators can’t simply receive a smaller paycheck; they need to use another mechanism to return money they don’t want. Lassa is using furlough days that extend through June 2011.
- Lassa’s pay raise was worth a total of $6,325 from January 2009 through June 2011. By the end of the fiscal year, Lassa will have returned $3,062, or a little less than half of her raise.
So, where does that leave us?
The Duffy campaign is partially right: Lassa took the pay raise -- for about 13 months. But long before they launched the attack and before she announced her congressional campaign, Lassa had already started to give some back. With her approach, she will give 48.41 percent of her raise back, or about half. That’s where we rate Duffy’s statement as well: Half True.