Legislators’ Pay Falls Behind
By Eric Kelderman
Legislators in Alabama, New Hampshire and Texas are paid the same today as when Gerald Ford was president in 1975. In Indiana, lawmakers’ base pay has been stuck at $11,600 for 22 years. Nebraska has awarded only four legislative pay raises since 1934 – the most recent in 1988. In 28 states, state lawmakers’ salaries have declined when adjusted for inflation, according to a first-of-its-kind study of legislative pay from 1975 to 2005 by the nonprofit Council of State Governments (CSG).
In the 22 other states, elected representatives’ paychecks surpassed inflation by as little as 0.8 percent in Missouri over the 30-year period, to as much as 745 percent in Idaho, where lawmakers earned $15,646 in 2005. Even in states where legislative pay improved, it often failed to keep up with wages in other jobs, according to CSG, which researches trends in state government.
Nationwide, while the median income of their constituents rose 50 percent between 1975 and 2005, the nation’s 7,382 elected state representatives saw their average salaries fall more than 6 percent when adjusted for inflation. In Massachusetts, for example, legislators make 18 percent more than they did in 1975, adjusted for inflation, but the Bay State’s per-capita income increased more than 85 percent. “If legislators are not paid adequately, then candidates are drawn from a smaller pool. … You can’t expect to attract good candidates with pay that is lower when compared to other jobs and professions,” concluded Keon Chi, author of the report and editor in chief of CSG’s Book of the States. By comparison, federal salaries for rank-and-file members of Congress has increased from $44,600 in 1975 to $162,100 in 2005.
The study details how state legislative pay varies enormously, depending on the length of the lawmaking session and the region of the country. States are ranked by the basic amount they pay legislators, but the study separately looks at other forms of compensation, such as per-diem, expense allowances and retirement benefits, but not other perks like car allowances.
Not surprisingly, full-time lawmakers in nine states earn the most. The highest paid are in California, where the session runs all year and legislators earn $110,880 annually. The lowest salary in that group is in Wisconsin, where elected representatives earn $45,569 a year. The median income for the nine full-time legislatures is $57,619. At the other end of the scale, the 424 part-time legislators in New Hampshire — the largest state legislature — get $100 a year for their annual 45-day legislative session. New Hampshire is one of 18 states where state lawmaking is mostly a second job for legislators. The median income for those elected officials is $9,230.
In between are legislatures in 22 states, where members earn part-time pay but work about two-thirds of the year for their constituents. Legislators in those states earned a median income of $24,000 in 2005.
Geographically, the East Coast pays its elected state representatives the most. Legislators in 11 eastern states earn a median salary of $33,892. Southern lawmakers in 10 states are paid the least on average, with a median income of $15,750. Raising politicians’ pay is politically difficult. In the 2006 primary, angry voters ousted 17 incumbents from the Pennsylvania Legislature after lawmakers voted to increase their nearly $70,000 salary up to 54 percent. More than 30 other legislators chose to retire last year rather than face voters’ wrath. The outrage led legislators to rescind the pay raise. Even modest raises for lesser-paid lawmakers can be problematic. Indiana legislators are hoping to increase their base pay of $11,600 for the first time since 1985. But an increase in legislators’ health benefits approved last year contributed to the defeat of a longtime state Senate leader in the 2006 primary. Lawmakers are promising to repeal the health perk as part of their current pay-raise proposal. In 2006, Arizona voters turned down a 50 percent pay increase, to $36,000, for state legislators recommended by that state’s Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers. The commission’s decisions are automatically put on the ballot. Another pay raise is being considered for the 2008 ballot. Nebraska voters also must approve any pay raises for the 49 state senators of its unicameral Legislature. They rejected an opportunity to raise legislators’ pay from $12,000 to $21,000 in May 2006. The state Senate currently is considering a proposal to increase salaries to $22,100, with an automatic adjustment for inflation every two years.
For a chart on legislative pay levels, click here.