Among the many decisions Gov.-elect Charlie Baker and the next Legislature could face is a potentially awkward one: Whether to back a salary hike for the state's chief executive and other top elected officials.
The Special Advisory Commission on Public Compensation is scheduled to make recommendations on Dec. 1. The panel has been meeting for several weeks and already has sent strong signals that it will recommend bumping up the current $151,800 salary for the governor, and possibly other offices such as attorney general ($130,582); treasurer ($127,917); and House Speaker and Senate President ($102,279).
The panel's chairman says he wants to ensure top government jobs attract highly qualified candidates and questions whether it makes practical sense for hundreds of state employees to earn more than governor.
But commission members know how politically volatile the issue can be.
"This is always a hot potato," said Ira Jackson, the panel's chairman and dean of the McCormack graduate school at University of Massachusetts-Boston. "We are painfully aware ... that while the economy is seemingly doing better most people haven't received a pay raise in a long time and their earnings are flat."
Timing is also problematic. The recent announcement of a $329 million state budget shortfall could make any salary proposal even more unpopular with the public and diminish chances of quick action by lawmakers or the new Republican governor.
"It becomes a scapegoat for the public's resentment of government and taxes," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and one of seven members of the commission.
Still, the bipartisan panel hopes at a minimum to start a discussion of what constitutes an appropriate wage for Beacon Hill leaders.
While $151,800 is hardly something to sneeze at for most workers, Jackson contends the governor is, in effect, the CEO of the largest institution in Massachusetts - state government - with a $36.5 billion operating budget and 136,000 employees.
Comparable private sector CEOs could earn 20 times what the governor makes - before stock options - and the panel also notes that more than 1,250 state employees have salaries higher than that of the chief executive, a figure that doesn't account for hundreds of state workers who earned more than the governor after overtime last year.
Members of the governor's own inner circle, including chief-of-staff and cabinet secretaries, have bigger paychecks than their boss. The presidents of all state public colleges and universities make more. So do all trial judges.
Other examples include the state comptroller; the chief and deputy medical examiners; and both the chairman and executive director of the state gambling commission. And district attorneys earn more than the attorney general, the state's top law enforcement officer.
Jackson worries about a system that could discourage individuals other than the very wealthy from pursuing elected office, or invite the temptation for corruption.
"These are serious issues in a democracy that we have to deliberate, and every once and a while suck it up and do the right thing," he said.
The Legislature would be under no obligation to act on recommendations in the two-year session beginning in January, and lawmakers of both parties have already suggested delaying any consideration until the current budget woes are addressed.
Baker recently told The Boston Globe in an interview that state government should be "focused on other things."
The salary dilemma was recently on display in Boston, where Mayor Marty Walsh vetoed $20,000 increases city councilors approved for themselves, and appointed his own special commission to determine what raises were appropriate.
Some at the Statehouse still recall the infamous "Halloween" pay raise, when legislators voted themselves an increase on Oct. 31, 1980. The raises were later repealed by voters, leading eventually to a constitutional amendment that tied increases or decreases in the base pay for legislators to the state's median household income.