State Legislators Want a Raise. Do They Deserve One?

by | Jan 21, 2024 | Progress & Solutions

Colorado State Capitol. Photo by Noah Sandoval, Unsplash

State Legislators Want a Raise. Do They Deserve One?

by | Jan 21, 2024 | Progress & Solutions

Colorado State Capitol. Photo by Noah Sandoval, Unsplash

Better pay for legislators is on the table in several states. It’s a sticky subject, even when their work is compensated below the minimum wage.

Republished with permission from Governing, by Carl Smith

In Brief:

  • Several states are considering pay raises for state legislators.
  • Aside from questions of fair compensation, low pay is seen as a barrier to increasing diversity in legislative bodies.
  • It’s not clear that better pay can address this problem, but it could make life easier for legislators in states where legislatures are not considered to operate on a full-time basis.

Raising salaries for public officials is always politically dicey, but some legislators believe the time has finally come. Because raising their own pay is so unpopular, legislators shy away from doing it, until their pay becomes laughably low. Trying to drag their pay scale into the current century, however, means seeking big raises that are even harder to sell.

Last week, New Jersey lawmakers passed a bill that would increase their salaries from $49,000 to $82,000. It would be their first raise since 2002. It’s a jump of almost 70 percent, but wouldn’t go into effect until 2026—after legislators next face voters in 2025.

Democrat Richard Codey, a longtime leader in the state Senate (and former governor), was a sponsor of the bill and said it’s clear at this point that a raise is long overdue. But GOP state Rep. Brian Bergen complained that raising salaries is “crazy,” calling it “an absolute insult to the people you represent.” It was not a good look that they passed the bill in a lame-duck session in which they failed to address issues such as paid family leave, housing and even smoking in casinos.

New Jersey lawmakers aren’t alone, however, in seeking better compensation. A bill passed last year by the Kansas Legislature created a commission to consider the question of compensation. If its recommendations are accepted, legislator salaries would nearly double in 2025. They’ve been stagnant since 2009.

A bill that would have doubled the pay of Vermont legislators, however, was vetoed last year by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who said it was unfair for legislators “to insulate themselves from the very costs they are imposing on their constituents.”

Nationwide, the average annual base salary for legislators in 2023 was $43,494, which was 6 percent higher than in 2022, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). This average smooths out a landscape of peaks and valleys, however. Those elected to the New York Legislature earned $142,000, while those in New Mexico are not paid at all (although they do get per diem and travel money).

These pay disparities have to do with the differences between legislatures themselves, says Natalie Wood, vice president of policy and research at NCSL. Obviously, full-time legislators tend to make more than those whose service is at least nominally part time, which is the case in most states. Other factors can play a role, such as the length of legislative sessions or the number of constituents a lawmaker serves.

But raising salaries to something resembling a professional level is about more than satisfying the wishes of legislators. Studies indicate that the demographics of legislatures do not reflect the population as a whole. Mediocre pay is one reason why.

Half the state legislators in Florida, another state currently contemplating a pay increase, have a net worth of $1 million or more. A bill this year would create a council to study compensation and benefits. The current salary, just under $30,000, hasn’t changed in decades. Florida GOP state Rep. Spencer Roach told a local newspaper that his colleagues all agree a pay raise is needed.

However, he added, the prevailing political sentiment is, “It’s a great idea … and I would never vote for it.”

Right Proposal, Wrong Time

In 2023, Joseph Marino, an independent, was serving his last year in the Louisiana House of Representatives. He introduced a bill that would increase the pay of members, not for personal benefit but because of what he had experienced. A lawyer, Marino knew the pay was low when he ran for office. Louisiana is not one of the 10 states considered to have “full-time” legislatures, and he imagined that he could balance both jobs if elected.

He soon discovered that meetings, forums and constituent services placed year-round demands on his time. Marino proposed an increase from the $16,800, which had been the level since 1980, to $60,000. The Federal Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator shows this still to be slightly less than the 1980 salary when adjusted to 2023 dollars.

Joe Marino: “If we don’t raise the legislative salary, we are severely limiting who can be a representative or senator, because if you’re not independently wealthy, you can’t afford this job,”

Marino went to newspapers and spoke on radio and TV to plead his case. His constituents, who had no real idea what he earned, agreed that being paid at a 43-year-old rate didn’t seem right. He had been warned that the bill would never make it out of committee, but it did.

That was as far as things went, however, because 2023 was an election year. Marino didn’t have to worry about pushback over his advocacy for pay hikes since he wasn’t running. But it was not palatable for those who were seeking re-election—especially since the Legislature had failed to enact permanent raises for teachers.

Marino is convinced his bill would have passed if it hadn’t been an election year. He believes a future effort will succeed. “If we don’t raise the legislative salary, we are severely limiting who can be a representative or senator, because if you’re not independently wealthy, you can’t afford this job,” he says.

Pay, Diversity and Politics

The concept of a citizen legislature made up of individuals who aren’t full-time politicians has had enormous staying power, especially in states where the job doesn’t officially include year-round obligations. “You want the person here to be a full-time citizen, and to go back and live under the laws that we pass,” Georgia GOP state Rep. Barry Fleming said when the subject of raises came up last year.

This ideal of laws made by a representative sample of the population runs up against reality, though. Working-class people account for half of the population and two-thirds of the workforce. Almost half are people of color. Eric Hansen, a political scientist and researcher at Loyola University Chicago, says that working-class individuals currently make up just 1.6 percent of state legislators.

New American Leaders, a nonprofit working to help more immigrants and refugees win elective office, published a report in 2021 offering evidence that increasing pay could enable more of the type of people most impacted by state legislative policies to run for office, and stay there.

Higher salaries are not a panacea. Maybe because the job becomes more desirable, higher salaries were associated with more time spent fundraising, and less time working on legislation, in a 2016 study. Hansen's research, meanwhile, suggests that legislatures with higher pay, such as California, don't have increased working-class representation.

But, while better pay might not increase diversity, that doesn’t mean it would have no impact. There is an association between pay and professionalism, Hansen says. The less time legislators have to spend working other jobs to enhance their income, the more time they can devote to constituents.

Governing Magazine

Governing Magazine

Governing: The Future of States and Localities takes on the question of what state and local government looks like in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Governing is a resource for elected and appointed officials and other public leaders who are looking for smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change.

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