By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
The toughest job in state government belongs not to the governor-elect or to the 134 legislators preparing to spend three months considering thousands of bills. It doesn’t belong to the Arkansas Supreme Court justices – a majority of them female for the first time, by the way.
It belongs to the seven people who must soon decide what to pay these folks.
That’s the appointed task of the Independent Citizens Commission, which we voters in November created through Issue 3, now known as Amendment 94. That’s the same amendment that, among other provisions, extended term limits and banned lobbyists’ gifts to individual legislators.
The amendment removed from the Legislature the decision-making authority for salaries for constitutional officers, legislators, and judges. The seven commission members can decide to pay those officials whatever they want to pay them, so long as the initial proposal is presented by Feb. 2, and then after a public comment period, their decision is final. In the future, they can adjust salaries up or down as much as 15 percent.
Most other dollars spent by state government are appropriated by the Legislature. The commission’s decisions, in contrast, come off the top of the budget. That’s why veteran journalist Ernie Dumas told the commission on Dec. 30, “This is the most powerful commission in many ways in the history of the state.”
So far, the commission has had a tough time getting a handle on its responsibilities. This past Wednesday, it began receiving the information it needs most – a comparison of Arkansas salaries with other states. For some positions, it’s fairly straightforward. The governor’s salary of $86,890 is the country’s second lowest, above Maine. The attorney general’s salary of $72,408 is dead last. The chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court ranks 27th among his peers with a salary of $160,001.
But with legislators, it’s much harder to make a comparison. Some legislatures are full-time, and some are very part-time. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Arkansas is one of 23 states where being a legislator is about two-thirds of a full-time job, but that’s a rough estimate.
Determining how much legislators earn in a given year is tricky, too. Their salary is $15,869, they’re paid extra for leadership positions, and they’re paid per diem expenses of $150, plus mileage, when they travel to the Capitol if they live 50 miles or more from it. That’s supposed to cover meals and lodging, but most of us could get by on less than that or just commute. Those who live closer are paid $61 a day for meals, which is far more than I would spend. They also receive $1,200 a month for office expenses, they get $410 monthly for their state health insurance, and they eventually can become eligible for retirement benefits, though those will be small unless they also work elsewhere in state government.
In other words, those who work the system right do OK, but it’s really not enough to make a living for a job that takes a lot of time and comes with a lot of expenses.
Legislators in most surrounding states supposedly spend a comparable amount of time on their jobs, and Arkansas is in the middle when it comes to salaries, apparently. The commission was given information Wednesday from the National Conference of State Legislatures that those in Missouri ($35,915) and Oklahoma ($38,500) make more than twice as much in annual salary. Tennessee’s lawmakers make $20,203. Louisiana’s make $16,800 but receive less in office expenses. Mississippi’s make less, $10,000, but supposedly work less. Texas legislators make only $7,200.
I’ve sat through three long meetings, and the commission is acting in good faith. It ultimately will vote to raise salaries, which, frankly, is why it was created. It was just too politically awkward for lawmakers to do it on their own. Ideally, salaries will increase while legislative expense reimbursements are reduced, but the commission can only recommend changes to those. Legislators still control those dollars, though legislative leaders say the commission’s recommendations will carry a lot of weight.
Really, here’s what commission members are wrestling with regarding legislative salaries: Pay too little, and good people can’t run because they can’t afford it. Pay too much, and lawmaking stops being an act of service.
They don’t have much time to decide how to strike that balance. Feb. 2 will be here soon.