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Adam Thompson on February 15, 2007 - 9:55am
One of the most politically challenging, and politically assailable, decisions a legislator can make is a vote increasing legislative pay. Yet, with legislative pay a mere pittance in most states, increasing it is necessary to prevent wealth from becoming a prerequisite to hold public office.
A new report by the Council of State Governments shows that legislator pay in 28 states has actually declined in the past 20 years when adjusted for inflation, and $9,230 is the median income for so called "part-time" legislators in 18 states. In New Hampshire, $100 a year is all you get for spending more than half of your time writing laws. New Hampshire may be the extreme, but 27 states pay legislators less than $20,000 a year.
Inadequate pay prevents good people without means from running for office. But addressing this problem requires a delicate political dance. Some legislators are coming up with creative ideas to increase pay and avoid the political pitfalls.
- Tie legislative compensation to personal income and financial need - A bill in Maine, LD 226, where legislators earn less than $11,500 each year, would develop a salary plan for legislators to ensure they can afford a "basic needs budget." The goal is to ensure legislators are paid enough to cover household expenses including transportation, child care, health care insurance and other health expenses, clothing, food, personal care and recreation. Legislators with incomes that meet the "basic needs budget" would not be entitled to a legislative salary.
- Increase the pay of those that follow you - Many proposals, including the Maine bill, would not increase the pay for legislators that enacted the pay increase. This can help address the political challenge of legislative pay increases.
- Create an independent panel to set pay rates - A proposal in Oregon would put 6 registered voters on an existing panel to set pay rates for state elected officials and judges. The voters would be placed on the Public Officials Compensation Commission through a lottery conducted by the Secretary of State. At least 17 bills have been introduced in Indiana to increase legislative pay, including Senate Bill 401 which would require a similar commission to set pay rates and other benefit levels.
- Put it to the voters - Voters in Missouri passed Amendment 7 which requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly to reject pay increases recommended by the Missouri Citizens' Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials. The State Constitution requires this commission to set pay rates every two years. Despite the voter approval, some lawmakers are opposing pay increases.
According to a 2003 NCSL report, legislators in 37 states reported spending more than 60% of their time on legislative work. Yet only nine states are full-time legislatures. The rest are part-time and many are referred to as "citizen" legislatures. To ensure a truly representative legislative body, pay must be in step with the times.