Should legislators get a raise?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Let’s start by emphasizing that I was the one who brought up the subject with Rep.-elect Ron McNair, R-Alpena. He did not approach me to complain in print.

The subject is pay for state legislators.

McNair owns an auto shop in Alpena in north Arkansas. He is his only employee. He’s been an unpaid school board member almost 30 years. He narrowly won the Republican primary in May and didn’t face a Democratic opponent, so he’s been driving back and forth to Little Rock at his own expense to get his feet wet before his term actually starts. He will close his shop’s doors at least three months next year while the Legislature is in session. He says he has loyal customers, and he’s worked out arrangements, but that can’t be good for business. He did not know what his legislative salary would be before the election, and he’s still not sure.

That’s because the pay varies member to member. The base pay for House members is $15,869, but legislators also can take advantage of up to $14,000 per year for office expenses they are required to itemize. Some pay themselves rent or pay family members a salary. They also are reimbursed for per diem expenses (lodging and meals) each day they are in Little Rock – $150 per day if they live 50 miles outside the Capitol and $61 if they are closer. They also are reimbursed 56 cents per mile driven. They can be vested in the state’s retirement system if they serve long enough, and they can purchase health insurance like other state employees.

Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, being a legislator is a pretty demanding part-time job involving regular sessions, fiscal sessions, special sessions, interim committee meetings, constituent phone calls and interrupted grocery trips. Many legislators actually do have legitimate office expenses, such as phones. Mileage reimbursements feel like an extra paycheck until you have to replace your worn out tires. Legislators also must stay somewhere when they are in Little Rock. Some pay about $400 a month for rent at the Capitol Hill apartments beside the Capitol.

Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, isn’t sure how much money he makes, either, and he’s been in the Legislature since 2007. During a phone interview, he figured up that his actual take-home pay after expenses is roughly $1,900 a month, but that was kind of a back-of-the-envelope estimate. Being a legislator is his only job; he decided couldn’t serve an employer effectively while also driving back and forth to Little Rock.

Legislators likely are about to get a raise thanks to Amendment 3, passed by voters in November, which included a number of ethics-related provisions. In the past, legislators were responsible for voting for their own pay raises, so they didn’t do it very often. That duty now falls to a citizens commission appointed by legislators, the governor, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It will be easier for the commission to raise salaries than it was for the legislators to do so.

Woods, one of Amendment 3’s sponsors, says the current salary structure creates an unnecessary strain on legislators and encourages bad behavior. One behavior, having individual legislators’ meals bought by lobbyists, has been ended by another provision of Amendment 3. Now that legislators are buying their own meals – and they eat out a lot – they’ve effectively received a pay cut.

If legislators were getting rich, there’d be a lot more candidates for office. If they were going broke, they wouldn’t run for re-election. We have in Arkansas a citizen Legislature composed of people who have to pay the bills. It would be best if the salary commission raised base pay while reducing the perks that make it hard to tell who’s making how much. And yeah, legislators should make more money than they do now.

There is the argument that they should be paid nothing, that serving in the Legislature should be just that – a service.

That argument makes sense if all we want in the Legislature are the independently wealthy, the retired, and the dishonest. Which would mean no more laws would be passed by people who own small businesses and fix cars for a living.

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