Management & Labor

Why It's a Lot Better to Be a State Legislator in California Than New Hampshire

by | May 20, 2014

By Jake Grovum

While he was trying to get hired at his current job, Bryan Taylor had one very clear message for those he was trying to convince to hire him: Pay me less than the other guy. Please.

As part of his campaign for the Alabama legislature in 2010, Taylor, now a Republican state senator, tapped into still-raging voter discontent over a 2007 vote by the Democratic-controlled legislature to increase members’ annual pay by 62 percent, to more than $50,000. Taylor and many other candidates in 2010 campaigned aggressively on the issue, pledging to undo the pay increases passed over the veto of then-Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican.

This year, legislative critics of the pay raise finally succeeded, passing a bill that will peg lawmakers’ salaries to Alabama’s median household income, which was about $41,000 last year. The Alabama experience illustrates the political risks of tackling the legislative pay issue.

Lawmakers’ salaries vary widely across the states, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. One major factor is whether the job is full-time or only part-time. Just 10 states have legislatures considered full-time or nearly full-time, according to NCSL. A handful of states don’t even hold annual sessions.

Those serving in California’s full-time legislature earn nearly $91,000 each year, higher than in any other state in 2014. New Hampshire’s part-time lawmakers, meanwhile, make just $200 per two-year term.

Nonsalary benefits, such as expense reimbursement and per diem allowances, also vary greatly from state to state. In New Mexico, a part-time legislature where lawmakers earn no salary at all, they can claim a $159 per diem during their 30- or 60-day sessions (the length alternates year to year). In some states, however, these payments can total thousands of dollars for individual lawmakers.

The paltry pay for legislators in some states has gotten more attention recently, particularly in places where lawmakers have gone years without a raise. In the past 12 months, nine states have increased pay for lawmakers — all thanks to automatic increases or independent commissions rather than a vote by lawmakers. In most cases, it is politically perilous, if not impossible, for lawmakers to approve a pay increase for themselves.

And even if lawmakers approve an increase, public outcry can bite back, as happened in Louisiana. In 2008, lawmakers there increased their salaries to $37,500 from $16,800, their first raise since 1980. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal initially said he’d let the bill become law without his signature, but eventually he gave in to public pressure and vetoed the measure.

The story was similar in Alabama, said Taylor, who sponsored the bill that would cut lawmaker pay by at least $10,000 starting next year after accounting for expense reimbursements and other compensation.

“While taxpayers’ income was going down, lawmakers’ pay was going up,” he said. “Not very popular.”

Taylor described the new system as “almost like performance pay.”

“If Alabamians are doing better and their incomes are going up, then lawmakers can share in that success,” he said.

Public Service for the Wealthy?

But for all the political outrage and populist fervor surrounding legislative pay, some say that denigrating legislators as fat cats and keeping their pay low can backfire by making it more difficult those who aren’t wealthy to serve in government.

“If you have a wage that’s so low that all members of the public can’t run for the state legislature and serve, then I think you have a problem,” said Morgan Cullen, who tracks the issue for NCSL. “It’s very difficult for lawmakers to go through the legislative process and introduce a bill giving themselves a raise.”

In Alabama, Taylor said, lawmakers opted to tie legislative salaries to the state’s median income for just that reason. “We do have to make sure that that person who works at the Hyundai plant, they can give up that job and serve,” he said. “I think setting it to median household income accomplishes that.”

Other states have commissions that make recommendations lawmakers can either accept or reject. In those states, and in ones where there is no set process for enacting an increase, legislative pay tends to stagnate since no lawmaker wants to broach the issue, Cullen said.Some states leave the question of legislators’ compensation to independent commissions, or tie salaries to inflation or other measures. Eight states use an index, according to NCSL, while nine rely on a commission to set salaries.

Amending the Constitution

That has been the story in Minnesota, where a commission makes salary recommendations to the legislature for approval before they can take effect. Minnesota lawmakers’ annual salaries, about $31,000 now, haven’t increased since 1999.

But this year, lawmakers agreed to put a constitutional amendment before voters in 2016 that would establish an independent commission — with two members from each of the state’s congressional districts — that would set legislative salaries.

The rationale, said Rep. Jason Metsa, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as Democrats are known in Minnesota, was twofold: to remove the conflict of interest when lawmakers vote on their own salaries and to put an end to the partisan debates over pay at the statehouse.

“It’s become a political issue every time it’s brought up,” Metsa said. “You want to make sure you’re working on the issues that are most important to the state, and I don't think legislator pay falls into that category.”

The House and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, have passed slightly different versions of the measure, so it seems destined for the ballot in November.

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