How Lawmakers Can Raise Their Own Pay in a Less Controversial Way

There are lessons to be learned from New York and Pennsylvania.
by | February 2019
After furious opposition, Pennsylvania lawmakers repealed a pay raise they had given themselves. (AP)

In policy circles, there’s often a desire to come up with grand schemes to address intractable issues. But sometimes things work out better, or at least change is more sustainable, when lawmakers take an incremental approach. Nowhere is that more true than in matters of legislative pay.

Taxpayers are eternally suspicious that elected officials are using government to enrich themselves. For that reason, it’s politically thorny for legislators to raise their own salaries, particularly in the majority of states where legislating is at least nominally a part-time business. But it’s no easy task even for legislators who work full time.

For that reason, lawmakers often put off raises for themselves. After a number of years have passed, their compensation ends up looking ridiculously low. But closing the gap with private-sector pay in one fell swoop makes voters especially angry. Large percentage increases are portrayed by critics as a form of theft.

About a dozen years ago, Pennsylvania legislators voted themselves an increase of 16 percent or more in their base salaries, rising to 34 percent for top leaders. The political fallout was swift and severe. Amidst furious opposition, the pay raise was repealed by near-unanimous votes. More than 20 legislators were defeated in the ensuing election, including the top leaders in the state Senate.

At the end of last year, Pennsylvania lawmakers received a raise that was much more modest -- 1.6 percent -- which kicked in automatically, based on increases in the regional cost of living. “There has been no controversy at all about the pay hike,” says Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “It’s the modest amount, more likely than not, that is responsible for the lack of any controversy.”

Meanwhile, in New York, lawmakers engineered a pay increase for themselves in a more roundabout way. As part of last year’s budget, they gave authority over their pay scale to an appointed state commission. New York legislators hadn’t received a raise since 1999. The commission decided they deserved a big one: 63 percent over three years, lifting salaries from $79,500 to $130,000.

There are a couple of important strings attached. To earn the raise, the legislature must approve the state budget on time. Also, outside income will be restricted. Legal and consulting fees paid to lawmakers from private interests have been major sources of the corruption scandals that are part and parcel of the Albany landscape.

Media coverage of the raise has been negative, and at least one group has sued to stop it from going through. There’s a sense that legislators haven’t exactly earned themselves a big raise, since they’ve done so little to clean up their own ethical messes, suggests Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. But punting the decision to a separate commission was a good way to distance themselves from the increase. In a low-paying legislature like the ones in South Dakota or Texas, such an increase would be shocking, but in New York, no one seems especially surprised that lawmakers are getting a big boost in salary.

They also were lucky in their timing. “Having it drop after the election and before the holidays,” Horner says, “is sort of the sweet spot when you get a pay raise.” Maybe even sweeter after two decades without one.