By Morgan Cullen
Illinois House and Senate Leaders have sued Governor Pat Quinn, demanding that the state’s legislative salaries be immediately reinstated. Upset with the legislature’s inability to resolve the state’s pension crisis, Governor Quinn exercised his line item veto authority and eliminated the $13.8 million in the state budget reserved for legislator pay. While the current legal fight raises a number of constitutional questions in Illinois, it has also publicized the politically thorny issue of legislative pay in general.
In most legislatures, it’s up to lawmakers to decide if they should raise their own salaries, making it almost impossible to do so. The issue is often too politically charged to touch. Over the last five years, only 17 states have raised legislative pay and most of these were only modest increases.
During the 2013 legislative session, only eight states raised pay for state legislators, mostly small incremental increases that barely kept pace with inflation. The Vermont legislature increased legislator salaries by $42.33. North Dakota lawmakers saw their salaries increase by $5 per calendar day. And Oregon raised legislator pay by $324 annually.
The only legislators that saw a significant increase in their salary came from states where the primary authority to increase pay doesn’t actually reside in the legislature. In Idaho, the Citizen’s Commission on Legislative Compensation recommended an increase of $322 per year. Delaware’s Commission, which previously reduced salaries by 2 percent for all state employees and elected officials to help balance the state’s budget, adjusted their salaries back up by $1,291 per year.
In Pennsylvania, legislator salaries (one of the highest paid in the country) are actually tied to the consumer price index that adjusts automatically when the cost of living increases. Lawmakers there saw their salaries increase over the past year from $82,026 to $83,801. In Florida, legislator salaries are tied to the salary adjustments of state employees and they received a $10 increase.
In Utah, lawmakers salaries actually doubled from $117/day to $273/day during legislative session. The justification for the salary increase was due to a change in how their per diem was allocated, moving from an unvouchered to a vouchered system. Legislators there will now have to submit receipts for the business expenses they incur during legislative session. By moving to a vouchered system, the salary increase is not expected to place an additional burden on the state budget.
In two states legislator salaries were actually reduced this year. In Massachusetts, lawmakers salaries are tied to the state’s median household income which reduced salaries by $1,081. In California, the Citizens Compensation Commission voted to reduce salaries for all elected officials last December by 5 percent. California has the highest paid legislature in the country at $90,526 per year but they have also seen the largest salary reductions in recent years. In 2009, the commission reduced salaries by 18 percent. Over the last five years, California legislators have seen their salaries cut by $25,682.
To help take the politics out of the issue, 19 states have created compensation commissions to provide independent and impartial recommendations. While a commission’s level of influence varies from state to state, they do provide a regular opportunity to review legislative salaries every couple of years to see if current salary levels should be raised or lowered. The type of legislative compensation methods in place in each state are illustrated on the map.
See NCSL’s 50 state table on legislature salary and per diem available here.