The Politically Perilous Pay Problem: Legislators in states with independent salary commissions have seen their pay stay on par with--or even ahead of--inflation.

Author:Mahoney, John
Position:LEGISLATORS
 
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Whether it's debating a long-overdue budget bill, traveling to every corner of a district to raise money for ever-more expensive campaigns or holding impromptu town hall meetings with constituents in the local library, the job of a state legislator has changed significantly over the past 50 years.

A position that once required legislators to travel to the state capitol for just a few weeks a year before returning to their careers and families back home is increasingly becoming full time. Yet, as legislatures have evolved into significantly more professional, year-round institutions, most legislators' pay has not kept up.

In fact, when average legislator salaries are adjusted for inflation, pay has dropped about 11 percent since 1970, from $39,200 to $34,750.

The Saga of Sinking Salaries

The inability of legislators to garner public support for initiatives that increase their pay is a perennial problem. Some worry that if salaries fall too low, only the wealthy and the retired will fill our legislative chambers.

"This is a centuries-old dynamic," says Peverill Squire, political science professor at the University of Missouri and an expert on state legislatures. "Both Democrats and Republicans understand that, for people to run and be elected, they need to be fairly compensated." Salary increases also encourage a broader range of people to serve, which more accurately reflects the population as a whole, he says.

But the problem remains: It's just too hard to give yourself a raise when your income comes from taxpayers' wallets.

"On one hand, we are trying to attract qualified legislators, yet at the same time we have a public reluctant to pay their lawmakers," Squire says.

Cautionary tales from recent years high-light the political risk of raising legislative pay. In Louisiana, in 2009, then-Governor Bobby Jindal (R) initially told lawmakers he would support a bill raising their annual salaries from $16,800 (set in 1980) to $37,500.

Angry constituents sent thousands of critical letters and emails to him and lawmakers, demanding they kill the bill. The press attacked the action, too. New Orleans Times-Picayune called the increases "greedy and shameless." The outcry forced Jindal to change course and veto the legislation.

In Pennsylvania, after the Legislature raised salaries 16 percent in 2005, voters ousted 17 incumbents in the next election.

Legislators in Colorado. Iowa and Texas (where legislative salaries have not changed since 1999. 2007 and 1972, respectively) have experienced similar public backlash...

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