How are legislative salaries set?
Legislatures take several different approaches to set legislator salary. Three methods are most frequently used: pay set by legislative measures, pay tied to external factors like rate scales or pay indexes, or pay set by compensation commissions.
In 2022, nineteen states and three territories set legislator salaries via legislation or legislatively referred ballot measures put before voters. However, there are nuances in how pay is set via this method. Some states, such as Nebraska, require any legislative salary changes to go before voters. In other states, like North Dakota, Virginia, and Nevada, legislators directly set their salaries using legislation. Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio stipulate salary changes will not take effect until the next legislative term. When legislators set their own salaries, they might run into what NCSL has called the pay problem, or the idea that there are inherent, political risks to raising one’s own salary.
In 10 states, Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands, legislator salaries are tied to external factors such as other state employee’s salaries, median income, or cost of living. This can allow for automatic increases and decreases without legislation. For example, in Alabama, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, legislator compensation is tied to median household income and adjusted accordingly every two years. In Florida, legislative salaries are adjusted by average percentage increase in the salaries of career service employees. These methods for setting legislator salaryare ways to address the pay problem.
Finally, in 21 states and the Northern Mariana Islands commissions are used to study, recommend, and in some cases, directly set legislator compensation. The responsibilities and powers of commissions vary across states, as illustrated by the following examples. In California, the commission directly sets the salary. In Connecticut, the commission offers recommendations, but the General Assembly votes to enact the recommendations. In West Virginia the legislature is required to vote to approve commission’s recommendations. Similarly, in other states, like Alaska and Washington, state legislatures retain the right to vote on commission recommendations, or they can choose not to and after 90 days the commission recommendation has the force of law. Finally, in Texas, an Ethics Commission can give salary recommendations but changes to legislative salary must be approved by a ballot initiative.
Methods for setting compensation also may overlap. For example, the legislature may have authority to change the external factors linked to legislator pay via legislation. For example, Colorado sets legislator pay to 25% of a county judge’s salary via a statute, which the legislature has the power to amend or change. As mentioned, in some states with compensation commissions, legislatures still must vote to approve the commission’s recommendation.
Comparing Different Methods for Setting Legislator Salary
There are potential benefits and disadvantages to each compensation setting method. When legislators set their own salary, one potential benefit is that the power to set salaries stays within the legislative branch even if the pay problem impacts decision making. Independent comissions can help offset the pay problem but must be carefully constructed so that no seperation of powers issues arise. When legislators’ salaries are tied to external factors, it protects legislators from the pay problem because salary increases and decreases are automatic. However, raises can still result in negative perceptions. For example, if legislator pay is tied to median pay in a prior year it may lead to an increase during a recession or tight budget year.