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Why Some Politicians Turn Down Free Money

The salary for Duluth, Minn., mayors hadn't been raised for a decade, but last year Don Ness decided 25 percent was too much at once.
Julia Cheng
The salary for Duluth, Minn., mayors hadn't been raised for a decade, but last year Don Ness decided 25 percent was too much at once.

All politicians are crooks, right?

Not really. Sometimes, elected officials will surprise you by being genuinely self-sacrificing when it comes to compensation.

Steve Novick, a city commissioner in Portland, Ore., just refused a $7,280 cost-of-living increase. He told The Oregonian accepting the raise "doesn't feel right."

He'll continue to earn $103,522, while his colleagues will pull in $110,802.

Turning down salary bumps has become something of a tradition among Portland officials — two of his fellow commissioners declined to accept raises for several years.

Accepting big raises is always politically dicey. In some cases, public officials believe it's in their best interest — at least in terms of public relations — to turn down cash.

Congress, for example, has passed language forgoing a pay raise in every year since 2009. Last year, it was common for members to refuse their salaries, donate the money or put it in escrow, until after the government shutdown was resolved.

Some local elected officials turned down cost of living increases they were due during recent bad budget cycles. It would look bad, after all, to get a raise while the rank-and-file face furlough days.

In Novick's case, he might have been uncomfortable getting a pay bump because he oversees the city's transportation department and wants to ask homeowners and businesses to pay higher fees.

Independently wealthy officials can afford to look magnanimous by turning down salaries altogether — among them former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But sometimes politicians simply assert that their cities need the money more than they do. Earlier this year, Mayor Regan Murphy of Robbinsdale, Minn., donated his entire $10,000 salary (after taxes) to help pay for a park pavilion in his town.

"At least for me, there wasn't anything deeply philosophical, thinking that public officials shouldn't receive raises," says Don Ness, the mayor of Duluth, Minn., who turned down a 25 percent pay increase approved by his city council last year. "For me, it was a consideration of how accepting what was a very large wage increase would impact my ability to lead and to move an agenda forward for the city."

All of this is not to suggest that there aren't plenty of greedy crooks involved in politics. But if occasional public officials make clear their main motivation isn't money by turning down raises, others pull this off simply by showing up, says James Brooks, research director of the National League of Cities.

What he means is most politicians at the local level receive a meager salary at best, sometimes receiving only reimbursement for expenses involved in attending meetings.

"With most local officials, there is no real salary to speak of, a salary that you could live on," Brooks says. "Compensation seems to be somewhat incidental to the job, in most places."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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