What’s Good for the Goose…

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The current brouhaha between Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes and many of the state’s judges over the latter’s financial compensation finds all of our political leaders tiptoeing around a fundamental hypocrisy underlying the debate. Article 6, Section 14 of the Illinois Constitution begins, “Judges shall receive salaries provided by law which shall not be diminished…” The judges argue that by not paying a regularly scheduled COLA (cost of living adjustment), Mr. Hynes is violating this provision of our constitution. The Comptroller and the Governor have never denied the merit of this claim, but say that in tight fiscal times, everyone has to tighten their belts, including the judiciary.
It certainly makes sense to adjust income levels annually and automatically with a COLA. Even at the relatively low levels we’ve seen in the past decade, inflation eats away slowly but surely at the purchasing power of a dollar. Funny, then, how this common sense principle is discarded when laws affecting taxpayers, and not just politicians, are considered in Springfield. In May, many a public servant took credit for raising the minimum wage from the federally-mandated minimum of $5.15/hour to $6.50/hour with all the usual palaver about how this act puts more money in the pockets of hard-working citizens and don’t forget who took care of the little  guy at the next election. The original version of that bill in the General Assembly also included an annual COLA, but in the labryinth of committees and corridors that is the State Capitol, that provision was eliminated from the final product.
Unfortunately, that watered down law leaves us in the same place we were before, where the minimum wage never catches up with inflation. It’s likethe Looney Tunes, where Wile E. Coyote gets a package from the Acme Company that gives him almost but not quite the boost he needs to catch that darn Road Runner. When the real value of the federal minimum wage over the past 40 years in today’s dollars is graphed, it falls from a high of $8.25/hour in 1969 to a low of just under $5.00/hour in 1989. Though the line occasionally spikes back up when an increase is passed, the trend is ever downward.
The most basic principle of fairness is that what holds for one should hold for all.
When the judges argue that their salaries are diminished without an annual COLA, I completely agree with them, because inflation affects everybody. The minimum wage acts as a floor to ensure that every worker has at least a minimal standard of living. Without an automatic annual adjustment, not just a booster whenever the politicians get around to it, the already too low floor is falling out from underneath the poorest among us in slow motion.
[All statistics contained in this essay come from a wonderful summary of the case for minimum wage increases indexed to inflation by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois, which can be accessed at http://www.uic.edu/cuppa/uicued.]
– Michael Feltes

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