By Morgan Cullen
NCSL recently completed its annual legislator compensation study and found only nine states that have increased salaries over the past 12 months. Perhaps the most interesting take away from the study revealed that the only legislatures that witnessed a pay change were in states where the primary responsibility for determining lawmaker’s salaries did not reside with the legislature.
The two states with the largest increases were California and Hawaii, which have compensation commissions that determine legislator pay. North Dakota, where legislative salaries increased by $5 per legislative day this year, has a nonpartisan staff agency that sets its salaries. All of the other states with a salary increase this year tie lawmaker salaries to an index that automatically adjusts to changes in the cost of living.
Hawaii saw the largest increase of the year at $11,579, increasing salaries for their legislators to $57,852 per year. California—the country’s highest paid legislature—came in second, with a $4,765 increase giving members a total salary of 95,291 a year. While California voters are sure to assume their legislators have been screaming Eureka since receiving the recent pay bump, the full story deserves some context.
Before the Great Recession, California legislators earned $116,208 a year. With the state’s economy in a tailspin and annual state budget gaps in excess of 20 percent of the general fund, the state’s compensation commission cut salaries by $21,000 in 2009 to $95,291 per year. “California legislators were reducing staff salaries and issuing mandatory furloughs in an effort to reduce costs,” says Charles Murray, a member of the commission. “They didn’t have the authority to lower salaries on their own but we realized it needed to be done.” The trend continued again last year when salaries were cut even further to $90,526 a year. So while lawmakers are receiving a sizeable increase in 2014, California legislators are still receiving nearly 18 percent less in compensation than they did before the recession.
The pay increases that occurred in other states this year were only marginal adjustments to account for cost of living increases. For example, Indiana lawmaker’s salaries are exactly 18 percent of the annual salary of a judge, so when judges salaries were increased this year, legislators in the state also received a pay raise of $1,523.70. In Pennsylvania, legislative salaries are tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and automatically adjust for account for inflation so legislators in the keystone state received a $211 pay bump. The other states that saw increases this year were Oregon ($336/year), Rhode Island ($307.44/year), Tennessee ($1,194/year) and Vermont ($12.88/session week).
The data do raise an interesting question as to why states with the legislative authority to increase their own salaries didn’t see a raise this year. In fact, legislative salaries as a whole have not kept pace with inflation over the past 25-years and some states haven’t seen an increase in decades. Louisiana legislators make $16,800 a year and haven’t had a raise since 1980. Lawmakers in Arizona are paid $24,000 per year and haven’t received a raise since 1999. That was also the last time legislators in Colorado, Minnesota, New York and South Dakota saw their salaries increase.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the downward pressure on legislator compensation is the inevitable political fallout that happens anytime legislators try to give themselves an increase. Legislators are all too aware of the political consequences even if it is the right thing to do.
To help take the politics out of the issue, commissions may offer legislatures an opportunity for independent and impartial recommendations on fair compensation. Maintaining adequate compensation levels can help promote diversity among elected officials so the entire population is adequately represented. And just maybe it could even lead to a raise in compensation that has eluded some state legislatures for decades.
Morgan Cullen is a senior policy specialist with NCSL.