Legislative Compensation Overview

7/19/2017

Overview

Illustration marked Legislative Salaries and Private Sector SalariesLegislative salaries in 2017 remained largely unchanged from recent years. The average base salary (excluding per-diem and expense payments) among the 41 states that pay their legislators an annual salary was $35,592, nearly identical to 2016’s average of $35,559.

California legislators remain on top of the compensation pile with a salary of $104, 118, an increase of approximately 4 percent from their 2016 salaries. New Hampshire brings up the rear as their legislators have been paid $100 per year since 1889.

While salaries in full-time legislatures like California, Pennsylvania ($86,478) and New York ($79,500), suggest that legislative salaries are at a healthy level, the vast majority of legislatures present a starkly different case. When considering rates of inflation, average state legislative pay has decreased over the past 30 years. In 1970, legislators were paid an inflation-adjusted average of $39,168, approximately 10 percent higher than legislators in 2017. Many states have not seen an increase in legislative wages for decades, highlighted in the table below.

Legislative Salaries
STATE SALARY LAST RAISE

New Hampshire

 $100

1889

Texas

 $7,200

1976

Mississippi

 $10,000

1986

Virginia (a)

 $18,000/ $17,640 

1988

Louisiana

 $16,800

1989

Nebraska

 $12,000

1989

South Carolina

 $10,400

1991

North Carolina

 $13,951

1995

Arizona

 $24,000

1999

Colorado

 $30,000

1999

Minnesota

 $31,140

1999

New York

 $79,500

1999

Oklahoma

 $38,400

1999

South Dakota

 $6,000

1999

Connecticut

 $28,000

2001

New Jersey

 $49,000

2001

Michigan

 $71,685

2004

Wyoming

 $150 per session day

2005

Georgia

 $17,342

2007

Iowa

 $25,000

2007

 

(a) Virginia Senators are paid $18,000 and House Members are paid $17,640

More information about 2017 legislative compensation can be found here

Defining the 'Pay Problem'

The term ‘pay problem’ refers to the inherent difficulty involved in raising legislative salaries. In most legislatures, it’s up to lawmakers to decide if they should raise their own salaries, making it almost impossible to do so. Many legislators agree that the political fallout from attempting to raise legislative salaries is simply not worth the trouble. However, by doing so, legislatures are potentially handicapped in their ability to recruit qualified and representative members.

“It’s clear that with higher salaries you get a broader range of people serving in the legislature that more accurately reflects the population as a whole,” says Peverill Squire of the University of Missouri, who has researched the demographic makeup of the nations’ legislatures. “Both Democrats and Republicans understand that, for people to run and be elected, they need to be fairly compensated. Salary increases also encourage people with higher educational attainment and professional expertise.”  

Louisiana Case Study

In 2009, Louisiana lawmakers decided it was time to raise their salaries. Legislators hadn’t received a salary increase since 1980. In those 30 years, the compensation of Louisiana legislators declined by 15 percent because of  inflation.

Lawmakers argued an increase was necessary to ensure all Louisianans could effectively serve in the Legislature regardless of age or wealth. Then-Representative Joe Harrison (R), who supported the bill, believes increasing legislative salaries is fundamental to democracy.

“In my district, I have experienced four hurricanes and an oil spill since I took office. That keeps me working 60 hours a week year- round,” he said. “I have colleagues in the Legislature who are leaving simply because they can no longer afford to serve. Eventually our Legislature will consist of only the very wealthy or retired people. We will have eliminated the citizen Legislature as we know it.”

The bill that ultimately passed the House and Senate and arrived on the governor’s desk increased Louisiana legislators’ pay from $16,800 to $37,500.

Throughout the process, lawmakers supporting the bill were the target of intense criticism in newspapers across the state. Angry constituents sent thousands of letters and emails demanding they kill the bill. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called the increases “greedy and shameless.” Opponents believed that a 123 percent increase in pay was excessive given the economic challenges facing the state. They also argued any salary increase should not apply to sitting members of the Legislature.

Bobby Jindal, who was governor at the time, indicated that while he did not agree with the proposed salary increase he would let the bill become law without his signature. Overnight the reformist image of the governor came under attack and the story received national media attention. Jindal ended up vetoing the bill to the dismay of many legislators who expended a good deal of political capital in the process.

“For all its bad press, it was the right thing to do,” then-House Speaker Jim Tucker, who managed the bill in his chamber, told the Times-Picayune. “We need everybody in this state to be able to serve in the Legislature.”  

Solutions

There has yet to be a definitive solution developed for addressing the legislative pay problem, however in recent years several states have attempted to implement institutions and practices that seek to alleviate pressure on the legislature. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, for example, have tied legislative salaries to median household income, allowing for automatic gradual increases. Other states have chosen to implement compensation commissions, to objectively study—and in some cases directly set —legislative pay.