U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz dinged U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in a Democratic primary debate Tuesday night for taking a 36 percent pay raise when she was state Senate president and the state was struggling through the recession.
"What do you have to say to the people of Hawaii regarding your choices?" Schatz asked.
Hanabusa said the pay raise was brought up during her 2010 and 2012 elections to Congress by "people like (national Republican strategist) Karl Rove and (former congressman) Charles Djou and the Republican Party. And I'm surprised that you raised it, because you were in the Legislature when we established that salary commission that set it. They set that. And you voted for it."
The 36 percent pay raise has been a tempting weapon for lawmakers of both political parties over the years, and Hanabusa -- perhaps more so than any other lawmaker -- has suffered over the issue.
Hanabusa pulled a campaign commercial during a special election for Congress in 2010 that was considered deceptive on the issue of legislative salaries.
But even Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican who was ready to skewer Democrats over the pay raise, had backed off when she realized the circumstances and urged smaller rollbacks.
Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 creating a salary commission to set pay for lawmakers, the governor and other executive branch officials, and judges because of the predictable caterwaul every time a pay raise for politicians is proposed. The raises automatically take effect unless blocked by the Legislature, and lawmakers can only reject the pay recommendations in their entirety to discourage political gamesmanship.
The 36 percent pay raises that took effect for lawmakers in January 2009 came after Lingle, state directors and judges all had gotten raises. But the timing of the raises for lawmakers was unfortunate, since the state was preparing to make budget cuts in response to the recession.
Rejecting the pay raises, as Hanabusa pointed out at the time, would likely have been unconstitutional. But she also argued that lawmakers deserved the raise, a comment that will likely make the pay raise a debate point for her opponents for the rest of her political career.