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.
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.
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.