Legislative panel advances 70% wage increase. It might not pass, but it’s a discussion worth having.

The State Legislative Executive Board advanced a proposal yesterday to increase legislative salaries  by nearly 70% in the first serious proposal on the measure since 1998:

The Executive Board unanimously approved a resolution that would tie legislators’ salaries to the median household income in the state. And that would likely mean a 70 percent raise for the state’s 105 lawmakers.


The resolution’s supporters want to set legislator salaries at one-fifth of the most recent median household income. According to the 2015 U.S. Census, South Dakota’s median household income was $50,957 for that year, which would put lawmakers’ salaries around $10,191 annually.

Read it all here.

Is an increase in legislative salaries needed, and perhaps warranted based on the amount of time that legislators are taking time away from their primary jobs? Absolutely. At the very least, discussing it every 20 years may be warranted.

Everything is more expensive now than in 1998, and there are expenses people serving run into that aren’t compensated by salaries, as evidenced by this recent legislative complaint from Senator Stace Nelson:

Recently got back travel reimbursement for the hearings. $8 worth of parking meter expense (over 2 days) denied by the State Auditor… Wait for it… because of no receipts.

Read that here.

Legislative salaries in South Dakota have long been pointed to as a problem for our citizen legislature as a reason why you don’t see more active businessmen or others from a more varied walk of life serving in the office. Because for some odd reason, they don’t see the value in it costing them sometimes tens of thousands of dollars (or more) on an annual basis to serve a term as State Representative or State Senator.

As one State Legislator who departed in the past few years noted to me, “you only have so many productive years to provide for your family,” and serving in political office is sometimes more expensive than the personal or societal rewards.

I think most who study the issue agree that the current salary limits who might consider running. The problem is that the concept of ‘legislative salary increases’ is always a political hot potato, and that the headlines about it don’t really lay out the fact that it is less than a part-time salary for what in many cases is a full time job during the months they’re in session and for far beyond.

Now that the story has come out, the concept already seems to be the target of newspaper editors who write the story headlines as “South Dakota legislators want a pay raise” and “SD Legislators seek larger salaries.”   Well, not exactly.   That’s more than an over-simplification.

Newspapers are playing up the financial aspect for more sensationalized headlines, and there are politicians who are already playing it up for purposes of political grandstanding:

Yep. Senator “Where’s my eight dollars” is already protesting the proposal to put an increase to the voters.  What was I saying about ‘political grandstanding?’  Talking about how to get more people involved in the process deserves more than a knee jerk.

The reality is, the Legislature’s Executive board – which tries to look at the big picture – is offering a proposal to get more people to serve, or at least to consider running.  From here, it goes to the legislature to be further discussed and possibly amended by both the House and the Senate. And only then does it get sent to be considered for the ballot.

Do I think the measure is going to ultimately succeed? I’m a bit doubtful.  There are more working parts in getting something like this passed than just coming up with it, and the people proposing it are well aware of it, but you have to start somewhere.

First, is money. It’s going to be expensive to propose a bump in legislative salaries. And I believe both revenue may be down from projections, and what the federal government sends to South Dakota in several areas may be in a state of flux. That might be an impossible hurdle to get past among legislators to have the measure move forward in 2018.

Secondly, and more of an abstract concept, I think we’re in a time of hostility between the public and ‘the legislature’ as a broad concept, similar to how people feel about ‘Congress.’ They like and will vote to return their federal representatives, just as they like and will vote to return their state legislators.. but they just have a negative impression of the institution.    I think politically, that could make it a tough sell with the voters.

But tough sell or not, finding ways to make legislative service more accessible to a broader spectrum of the electorate is a discussion worth having. And amidst all the debate and testimony, we may find reasons which override and supersede any short term objections in the public’s eye, and bring more people into the process.

That’s not an ignoble goal.

And at the least, maybe someday Senator Nelson will get his $8 back.

34 Replies to “Legislative panel advances 70% wage increase. It might not pass, but it’s a discussion worth having.”

  1. Fred Deutsch

    The initiated measure to create a new government accountability board appropriates $389,000 per year indexed to inflation. If I’m doing my math right, an increase in a legislator’s salary from $6,000/yr to $10,191/yr yields an increase of $4,191/yr. Multiply that by 105 legislators and you get an additional expense of $440,055 per year.

    If there is concern about the ability to afford a pay increase to legislators, it seems to me there should be the same concern about paying a similar amount, indexed to inflation, to create yet another governmental board.

    1. We need to expand the pool of candidates

      There is a serious lack of quality legislators in Pierre these days. Many of us wonder why. I’m not going to put it all on pay.

      1. Term limits – there used to be longterm leaders who served their region for decades. There might be turnover from one of the house seats or the senate seat in a district but often times there was some stability and a statesman or woman serving long term. A community leader who was respected and carried influence.
      2. Lack of competitive races with Democrats means Democrats are sending very few competent leaders. Good Democrat candidates who live in Miller or Rapid City or many parts of Sioux Falls no longer want to even try to get elected because the odds are so stacked against them. That means the burden falls on Republicans to fill the gap with more skilled and qualified people. That is a hard thing to do. Yes Republicans send many good people but the bottom rung is getting so much worse than it used to be and I often wonder if it’s not because there are just so many Republicans serving in pierre now that it’s bound to have a higher number of people serving that just aren’t the cream of the crop. (and I consider Stace Nelson to be a good legislator. I’m talking about the people who are disengaged and only there to have a title. There are many of these people serving now. Stace is loud and brash but at least he brings his point of view and wants to accomplish his goals.)
      3. Pay or pay given up by serving
      4. Those giving up time working with high achieving individuals do not want to give that up to go work in the legislature with a bunch of unqualified zealots who are not leaders at anything in their communities. (there are some great legislators but there are also some people who are not the cream of the crop and there are becoming more and more of these people on a yearly basis)
      5. Winter time session in Pierre. We could look at changing when session is to a different time of year now that most legislators are not farmers.

  2. Chplraj

    First of all county chairs of the parties draw or deflect possible candidates for state legislature. One would then have to pass an informal “vetting” by party bosses who play the candidates off some unseen chess board only they have access to. Very clandestine stuff. It would be almost impossible to gauge whether a big pay raise would ever attract or cause the election of someone who should serve when most serving are rubber stamps of Governor in charge. Just sayin…Lame….

  3. BG

    Chplraj – Your argument is not even close to sensical. it in fact is very nonsensical. No county party has any say in who runs or doesn’t. In fact the Pennington county republicans are a complete non-participant in candidate selection or campaign (they are borderline irrelevant). You are right, the data would be very hard to legitimize. However, $6,000 for people to protect, preserve and advance the cause of South Dakota is laughable.

    1. Chplraj

      Agreed. All of it can become laughable. Each person’s perspective is their reality. Name calling is sensible by majority party.

  4. Anon

    BOTH political parties try to fill all slots for the 105 legislative seats. To say their is a vetting process is BS. The people that run for legislature are either (1) wealthy enough that losing money isn’t a big deal, or (2) stupid enough that they don’t know they are losing money, or they think serving is such an honor they don’t care they’re going broke.

    1. Chplraj

      To deny that “side meetings” of county party longtime buddies and leaders long-term doesn’t happen ahead of petitions and that names aren’t thrown out for consideration to appeal, yes to a person’s ego air their patriotic duty, is B.S.

  5. Anonymous

    Is it a matter of money or a matter of time that discourages people from serving….I know 3 months from Jan through March would be very difficult for me to do.

  6. El Rayo X

    I have no problem bumping legislative compensation…as long as it’s in the form of food stamps, rent vouchers and heating assistance.

    1. Anon

      Not such a bad idea Xel Rayo. For the faction that want to change our constitution so every nickel spent on buying a legislator a cup of coffee is tracked, give legislators a bank card with a defined amount that they can use to buy meals, pay their rent, buy coffee, etc.

  7. Chplraj

    For the record, we will vote AGAINST any such pay raise until there becomes a trickle down affect from legislation passed that will help bring down costs of living for middle class and seniors in SD.

    1. MC

      …help bring down costs of living for middle class and seniors in SD.

      Do you have any idea? Why are you focused on just the middle class seniors? Why should the cost of living be lowered for young families just starting out? or maybe college students?

      This change would tie legislative pay to the economy. Economy does good pay goes up, Economy tanks pay goes down. it takes legislative pay out of the hand of the legislature.

      1. Anonymous

        I think Chplraj thinks the legislature has a magic wand and can bring down the cost of living but they just don’t want to. I wonder if Chplraj is smoking something while posting; either that or it’s a case of progressivitis.

  8. been there

    It’s not just legislator pay that SD does on the cheap, it’s the entire legislative structure. Every wonder around the Capitol building in another state? What do you see that we don’t have here? ANSWER: lots and lots of offices for legislators, and lots and lots of office staff. A newby legislator commonly receives at least one staff member and a three-room office suite consisting of reception room, legislator’s office, and work room/meeting room. An experienced legislator with some seniority will have multiple staff, and an office with sufficient space to accommodate them.

    The SD legislature was designed from the beginning to work on the cheap. It’s worked well for lots of years, so why change it? All we have to do is keep those stupid initiated-money-measures off the books and there should be no reason to change our ways.

  9. Troy Jones

    Service without sacrifice is just a transaction.

    People who choose a number of ways to serve (ministry, social work, teach science, military, law enforcement, day care, etc.) understand their motivation/reward isn’t financial. Further, they choose it for lifetime.

    Since we have term limits, its only short-term sacrifice. Suck up or do something different.

    1. We need to expand the pool of candidates

      You get what you pay for. I’d rather not pay for legislators like Latterell. If it requires paying legislators $4,000 more to ensure we get higher quality candidates and officials that is a great trade off.

      1. We need to expand the pool of candidates

        Look at how many trips he goes on with tax payer money. Then there are other legislators who don’t take trips or advantage of the tax payer funded trips.

        I’d like to see travel come out of their pay. Then if they get paid more they can take it out of their pay and if they don’t spend it they can put it in their pockets.

        I don’t understand why some legislators get to take so many trips but that is ok. It’s not fair across the board.

    2. Anonymous

      Troy I think you better walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you get all high and mighty about the virtues of their sacrifice. If that’s your opinion than any person worth a damn will chose to “do something different.” It’s a tired argument every time there is a proposal to raise the wage. No one has ever done it for the money and it’s sad the Legislature hasn’t had the guts to raise their own wage occasionally to keep up with costs.

  10. Keeping it real

    I am against new boards, if this is what is called for. Include it under another boards responsibilities if it is absolutely necessary but no new boards. I agree with TJ also.

  11. Anon1

    I’ve watched and listened to comments about this for the last few days. It seems the rank-and-file in South Dakota feel the current legislature is either inept or elite. Think it through… For $6000 a year…. Remember, that’s all year, 50-100 off-season meetings included… the only people you’re going to see running for office are either wealthy or retired… Seems the complainers who want “real people” in the legislature are cutting their own throats.

  12. Anonymous

    The pay is not motivating but the real sacrifice is the time away from family and the campainging every other year. That being said unless you are retired, you are giving up a salary at home, paying someone to do your job or giving up business. What is an ever growing concern is with the political divide becoming larger, there is serious backlash against votes that are taken. There is no “I voted yes but let me explain” or vice versa. Too many bills these days seem to be purity tests on sensitive subjects that bring out the worst in people. People won’t do business with you because of your politics or your employer won’t allow you to serve because they are afraid of the backlash.
    People think you are corrupt or worse, you go backwards in your career, you lose money, there’s lots of time away from family so tell me who is crazy enough to do this job?

    1. Fred Deutsch

      7:06am. I have always prayed that the sacrifices are all part of a life well-lived, and that they will someday be rewarded with the simple words ‘”well done, my good and faithful servant.”

  13. Troy Jones

    Anonymous 7:17 a.m. : I “better walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you get all high and mighty about the virtues of their sacrifice.” I have no idea what you are saying.

    My opinion is what it is: If you want to serve, the pay sucks, the hours suck and when you are done you won’t likely be thanked. Live with it or don’t serve.

    My opinion also is: If a few thousand will make you feel better or stay in the legislature longer, I’m interested in neither making you feel better or want you to stick around for a few thousand dollars.

    My opinion also is: If you want to serve for 20 years, I’m ok with that and support getting rid of term limits.

    Finally, I know how hard being a legislator is because I’ve seen what you do in the off-season as well during the session. I’m most grateful and I’ll thank you for your service whether I agree with you or disagree. If that’s not enough and you need a few thousand dollars more, I suggest you work more at a job and let someone else serve.

    OK, this is my final comment: Instead of 20% of the median household income, I’m good with 10%. How does that compare to current wages?

  14. Troy Jones

    P.S. I don’t care how much or who buys you lunch or drinks. If that is your price to sell your soul, it is what it is and the people will figure it out and deal with it. Otherwise, if someone wants an hour of your time and wants to buy you lunch, I hope you order steak. SD is ranch country.

  15. Anonymous

    Ok Troy since a few thousand is such a pittance in your world why pay them at all? I mean it’s about sacrifice and service right? You’ve made it clear only rich people should run this state and if you can’t afford it then too bad, don’t run! In some people’s world the difference between making it and not is a few thousand dollars and that will box them out of running. But you are certainly entitled to your opinions!
    P.S. I am not writing this on my behalf but on many who simply CAN’T AFFORD to run and don’t and they would be wonderful. But too bad I guess, they’ll just have to work harder in their current job until they can afford to sacrifice in the legislature as you put it.

  16. Troy Jones


    Legislative service is no more valuable than so many who serve in their ways and it isn’t a lifetime like so many who choose a career that requires sacrifice. If you can’t afford to serve, Work hard, save your money and serve down the road. You aren’t indispensable.

    The more I think about it we need to cap your pay at 5% of the median income. The money seems too important to you. I don’t think you have a servant heart.

  17. Anonymous

    I’m not a legislator so pass a petition to cut it to zero then; I’m sure you could fill that one so you can really find out who has a servant heart. I have no doubt you could fill that petition to run because helping a politician right now is about as popular as helping a bank robber.
    Obviously we don’t agree on this.

  18. Troy Jones


    You are right we disagree. It would have been better if you hadn’t started your response to be me as you did. There are different profiles one can prefer as legislator. Mine is one who recognizes and accepts the position with an attitude it is sacrificial service. There are people who volunteer or take reduced compensation jobs to serve whether they be volunteers at our hospitals, CASA volunteers, Big Brother/Big Sister Mentors, raise money for charities, etc. or donate large percentages of their income or choose lower paying professions such as teachers whose financial sacrifice is significantly more than what legislators make. I don’t find these people’s service to the public any less worthy than what legislators do.

    And when I hear if we don’t pay people more we will not have good caliber legislators, I don’t find any merit in attracting people who need or want the money. They either should be putting their effort into their profession so they don’t need the money. And, the person who wants the money is obviously there for the wrong reasons.

    That said, I am sympathetic to some of the nuances of being a legislator where they aren’t nickel&dimed out of service. That is why I don’t give a rip who or how many meals or drinks they accept. If they have time to meet with anyone who wants to input on government and the person wants to pick up the check, I don’t like the implication they have been bought off. The reality is in most cases the legislator is going to spend the time getting the information and if it is over lunch or drinks, I wonder more about the person who cares than the host or the recipient. I don’t know anyone whose price is that low. Frankly, If a person thinks someone can be bought for lunch, it makes me wonder if that is that person’s price.

    Will I listen and might I support a raise as a token of appreciation? Absolutely. But, 20% of our household median income I find excessive on many levels, including an insult to all the people who serve us in other ways. Individual legislators just aren’t that indispensible.

  19. Pingback: Budget Address coming up today… Any thoughts on what we’ll see? – South Dakota War College

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.