The cost to serve as a legislator

Senator Ryan Maher

State Senator Ryan Maher made an interesting comment under the post “Redistricting Committee Meeting,” and I thought it was worth bringing the issue  up for discussion. How much does it cost to be a legislator in time and money, and are our legislators adequately compensated for their service? I’m not sure the general public is aware of the time and financial cost to legislators like Maher who put in long hours for little compensation because they are dedicated to serving our state.

I would like to share some thoughts on this issue being in the Senate from the Northwestern part of the state. First off, I am not complaining, I chose to run for this seat and I have been privileged to hold this seat for the past 6 years.
I live in Isabel, so my eastern boundary is the Missouri River at Mobridge and that is only about 60 miles away. However, the western edge of my district is Belle Fourche and that is right at 150 miles from where I live. Camp Cook is about 130 miles from home. I try to make it to just about every community in the district at least once in a two year cycle, some communities see more of me.
We get called to Belle Fourche many times a year for evening meetings, and I consider myself lucky because, I have some very good friends in Spearfish and they let me stay at their place. I have been there so much they just leave me a bedroom open. I really don?t have to call them anymore, I just show up. So that saves on hotel expense, the car expense from hitting those deer on the road late at night.
I remember one year I was coming back home from one of those December meetings in Belle and the temp out side was right at 15 below and then add the wind chill to that, and if anyone has traveled between Newell and Faith on Hwy 212, this is one lonely road at midnight on a night like that, you just pray that your car does not break down because you know if it does it will be your last night.
I figure being in the legislature costs me at least $10,000 to $15,000 a year to do the job.  [note: current pay is $6,000/yr.]That is gas, hiring help to cover your absent at work, parade candy, etc, etc. The first five year when I was still working at the bank and never used a vacation day for personal reasons, they were all used to do legislative work. But like I said, I have been blessed to live in this great state and so if I can give a little bit back it is worth it in the end.

This topic is certainly worth looking at. I would like to see Dennis Daugaard and the legislature focus on increasing the pay for our legislators and set the level of compensation and income on par with the times.

Maybe that includes making annual increases and maybe it just involves a one-time increase in pay. I am not someone who thinks we should raise the pay to equal a full-time salary; I do think that a lot of good people cannot currently serve in Pierre because it is simply not feasible for them to take time off from work and still support a family on the income that a legislator is paid.

The pay for our legislators concerns me because I think the low pay decreases the number of qualified people who are able to serve in our part-time legislature. I know that our legislators are diverse when it comes to economic means, but we should ease the burden a bit and make it easier for more to serve. In other words, serving in the legislature should not be a losing proposition economically.

South Dakota currently pays state legislators $6,000 per year. (I do not know all of the expenses they are reimbursed for.) When you factor in that legislators serve all year and not just during session, the costs can be a real hardship for some. If we want to continue our tradition of a citizen-legislature, we should make sure that regular people can afford to take the job.

40 Replies to “The cost to serve as a legislator”

  1. Anonymous

    Good Republican philosophy, don’t give state employees a raise for three years but let’s get those legislators more money. By the way you neglect to mention the per diem. Makes a big difference. Like about a hundred a day.

    1. Anonymous

      The state employees are not underpaid, or some would say somewhat underpaid. The legislators are. The state employees have a health plan, the legislators do not. The state employees have a great retirement program, the legislators do not. Your example of comparing the two groups is like comparing apples to tomatoes.

      The legislators do get per diem when in session or meeting for an interim committee. But all the travel that they do to meet with constiuents, attend meetings to learn or share knowledge or information, the meals they have . . . comes right out of their pockets. Some legisators of course live in districts that are very small and don’t have as much travel as Maher does.

  2. Duh

    A hundred a day barely covers hotel in Pierre, unless you want to stay in Jake’s eat, sleep and tattoo parlor. I say $10,000/year plus mileage and per diem so the politicians that have more ground to cover get more than those within walking distances of their constituents. In case I misspoke, can someone give me a direct breakdown of what they are paid and what for.

    Think of all of the quality people that don’t run because they cannot afford it. You shouldn’t retire on public service, but it shouldn’t be a serious hardship either. I cannot imagine eating $10-15K a year to “serve”. If that’s the case, then people should quit bitching that only the “haves” are in politics.

    Our whole legislative system was created to oblige the farmer, hence our session is in when most farmers are out of the field and most are in down time. The political demographics have completely changed.

    $6,000 is a complete joke.

  3. grudznick

    If I wouldn’t have to put up with the stupid ideas that constituants probably bother the legislatures with I’d gladly take $6000 for 2 months work and another $100 a day to eat on because of all the free food they get. Have you ever heard about all the free food? No legislature worth his salt ever has to pay for a sandwich or a tasty beverage.

    That said, I think we should raise it to about $20,000 a year and then tie their raises to the grudznick formula:

    Senator Salary = Old Salary + % increase to employees – % increase to schools

  4. Ryan Maher

    Yes, we get right at a hundred dollars a day per diem during the session, this is to cover the cost of housing and food, which you are correct we don?t have to buy very much food until the last two weeks of session. We get paid 5 cents a mile for the first trip to Pierre and 5 cents for our last trip to Pierre. The rest of the mileage is at the state rate during session. If we serve on any interim committees we are paid a daily wage and a per diem if we spend the night along, with mileage to the meeting site.

    However, this is not were the expenses add up, it is during the rest of the year when you are traveling the district meeting the people and attending events throughout the district. Such as going to this dedication, going to this school board, city council, county commission, or a whole host of special interest meetings, pow wows, and other Native American ceremonies or how about the lady who just turned a 100 and the family would like you to come to the open house. This is all out of pocket expenses but yet it is all a very important part of the job. This all adds up when your legislative district covers over 17,000 sq miles.

    But as I have said, I am honored and humbled to have the privilege to serve. It is just the most expensive hobby I have ever had.

  5. snyder

    A lot of people are mentioning Maher for School and Public Lands in ’14 to replace Jarrod. I see he is a strong conservative but my advice to him is to get out and meet the activists or become a county chairman. They are an entirely different group of people than the legislators.

    I also hear Lucas Lentsch mentioned for that.

  6. CaveMan

    An interesting debate within the legislature itself would be how to cover the expenses of legislators during the summer and fall months when the folks back home really want to see them. The crux of the problem is how to address legitimate expenses of visiting constituents, attending meetings, being present in community events while not actually doing so for re-election purposes. Quite possibly putting an expense account out there for politicians to use which is made 100% public on the LRC website for all to see could solve the problem. Time will tell although many think we never want to provide enough money for legislators to enable them to consider running for office an actual job title. And to that end we must all agree the system does work pretty darn well right now as every South Dakotan should thank the guys and gals who run every time they see them; for it isn’t fame or fortune which drives them! 🙂

    1. anon

      No one is talking about paying full time but the pay is currently a joke. And term limits keep those who would treat it as a career from doing so.

    2. Lobby me this

      Hard to get something like that passed when we have politicians playing political grandstanding games such as this We have had so much of that in the past that our legislative branch of government is severly disadvantaged with the other two branches that it is supposed to be equal with. Some have even gotten so confused as to think it is their sole job in the legislature to carry the water bucket for the executive & judicial branchs…

      People wonder how people can be legislators at such a low rate, curious how many legislators receive concurrent pay while employed at a law firm, insurance agency, etc… Nothing like having someone on the inside vice the lobby…

      1. Anonymous

        Stace Nelson: Did you notice that the Greenfield amendment to cut pay by 50% is not included on the LRC link? There are alot of games being played with the LRC website.

        1. Arrowhead

          So why do they want to cut pay?

          And why not just make it a volunteer legislator if they think $6,000 is too much?

  7. caheidelberger

    Bill/Hans is [ggaaaccckkk!] right: fair compensation for legislators helps make it feasible for a wider range of citizens to serve… although regardless of the pay, very few working class folks have the kinds of jobs that allow them to take the winter off (unlike Russ Olson, whose HCPD bosses are happy to have him on staff as their permanent lobbyist).

    Now, how about raising teacher pay to make it feasible for a wider range of talent to remain in teaching?

    1. PNR

      I don’t want a wider range of talent in the teaching profession. I want a very narrow range – concentrated at the top.

  8. Anonymous

    No one is in it for the money. Let’s not forget to mention the cost to win which in my case exceeded what I raised by $4000. My family ate that cost too. It’s a privilege to serve but I would not be able to if I didn’t personally have the means. Most in our state could not afford to be a legislator. Running again is a decision we are presently making and the main issue is can we afford it while having kids still in college. Legislative pay needs to increase or our state will only have old retired white guys representing them because they are the only demographic that has the time and money to do this well.

  9. Lee Schoenbeck

    This is a serious topic and I am glad to see it being addressed. Had I run one more time,there would have been a leadership bill taking this on. The problem is to discern a philosophy that makes sense, and a practice to implement it (rather than tossing a dart at the board every 20 years like we do now).

    In 1994 when I won in a 12 vote landslide, I remember whining to Sen Halvorsen on our rides home to the northeast, about how hard it was to be a senator, miss work and have 4 kids eight and under to raise. Sen Halvorsen made several good points (he didn’t say – but probably should have – that somebody with 4 little kids belonged somewhere closer to home). He said here’s the challenge. If this is about economics, you have to set the price high enough to pay what the market says the good talent is worth, say 30 or 40 thousand, but suppose that just seems too high and so you say $20,000. Well guess what, nere-do-wells like ____ (unamed here) would run then and do nothing all year but run and live off of the state check. His point being that there are some characters that would be over-paid and motivated by the cash to take the job.

    So, you can’t ignore that the state needs more talent than it can pay for, and public service needs to be what motivates the candidate to try and serve.

    The problem is that the job has grown to about a 50% time job, if you want your legislator to attend all the meetings you invite them to, and to read all the material you send them, and then spend some time with their people finding out the pulse of the people —- and toss in a little time for thinking about how to solve problems. At $6,000 per year for 50% of somebody’s time, those of us that use a little business sense to analyze problems would firgure that means you are expecting — in an economically efficient world — somebody worth $12,000 a year or $5.77 per hour to take the job.

    That might be ok for somethings (nothing comes readily to mind), but deciding how to set tax and spending policy, and how to fund and deliver the education of the next generations — probably not the rate I would pick.

    And as for what expenses they get covered – this isn’t DC. Legislators have to use their own funds to pay for the stamps they use —- the stationairy with their name on that they put it on.

    This needs to be addressed — but it takes political will and some thought about the long-term consequences.

    PS for those of us that support term limits, this gets easier to understand. History shows that South Dakota looses more legislators to “spouse limits” than “term limits”

    1. Anonymous

      Lee is right. We lose good legislators to “spouse limits” and business reasons – one of which is opportunity cost. When you give up your regular income for over 2 months in exchange for the $6,000 legislative salary, it hits the pocketbook hard.

      What else do you do to serve in the legislature? You give up 2 months with your family every year, plus you give up months of campaigning time every 2-year election cycle – and you don’t get paid for the time you spend campaigning. If your race is expensive and you don’t raise enough you cover the difference out of your own pocket. You get a mailbox full of stuff every single day of your entire legislative term, and if you take the job seriously you read most (o.k. – a lot) of it. You buy your own gas to go to meetings and events all year long, and you don’t get paid for any of your time except the few official legislative committee meetings held between legislative sessions. You buy your own stamps, your own business cards.

      It’s an honor to be elected by your neighbors to represent them in Pierre. But when your term is finished you get your life back, you get your time back, and if you are a working person your finances improve considerably. If you talk to former legislators they don’t regret doing it – it’s a great experience, pay notwithstanding. If you talk to anyone who tries to recruit candidates you will hear about all the quality people who take a pass on it when they hear about the pay and the time commitments. The low pay makes good legislators walk away and good people decline to run.

  10. anon

    If you take a look at the Legislature, it’s already showing up… If you keep the wages at their current level, you’ll end up with a group of people who are either independently wealthy, or retired.

    I’m not sure that’s the cross-section we’re looking for.

  11. Lee Schoenbeck

    Anon – actually, you end up with another group, that Lobby Me This referred to. There is a growing trend for organizations to find creative ways to compensate and make allowances for people affiliated with them to stay on the payroll during session. Some of those money trails have not been very obvious (one was hired by his industry to be a consultant and paid to travel to other states and speak about legislative initiatives favorable to his industry – for example).

    the point is, the issue needs to be addressed

  12. feasant

    This needs to be looked at.

    Also shouldn’t we look at increasing the term for the Senate? The House can stay at two years but I think we could increase the Senate term and split the districts up so they are not all being elected at the same time. 6 year terms like the US Senate?

  13. PNR

    I agree. $6,000/yr is a bit on the light side. And I am pleased that Cory thinks so, too.

    But I’d also like to ask – though Cory was apparently too polite to do so – would the question be raised here if we didn’t have a state legislature almost entirely GOP?

    Personally, I’d like to see a system where representatives are paid by the districts that send them (that includes the national level, too – rather than the feds, we should pay our senators and representative in Congress).

  14. New saving Plan

    To solve the problem of low legislator pay and the growing size of government: if a legislator introduces a bill to cut the ongoing budget, that legislator gets the saved money for that year. Imagine how much our state budget would decrease…

  15. poor person

    Even the constitutional officers are under paid.

    Jackley is in the 4th lowest percentile of AG’s in the nation. Imagine what he’d pull down in the private sector…

    1. Anonymous

      They do put in a lot of time to get a job that doesn’t pay all that well.

      Statewide officials should make $100,000 and legislators should get $15,000.

      It should be slightly higher pay then those type of jobs. Within reason of course.

      1. El Toro Grande Loco (The big crazy (ugly old) Bull)

        We “must” pay $380K++ a year to one college president to run a small state school poorly, but we only pay all of our legislators and governor a combined salary of $745K++ a year to run the whole state?

      2. grudznick

        You can’t tell me that young Messrs. Gant and Ohleen don’t earn their wages by working hard, because they do, but golly they have employees that are having to supplement their income by selling election services online so I think that money should go to the employees that really do the work.

  16. Lee Schoenbeck

    you don’t want to increase the terms to 4 years, or you’ll get fewer people to run (and loose money).

    It’s like the guy that says he is loosing money on an item he is selling,but he’s going to make it up on volume! 4 years of bad finances isn’t better than two, and wives (and husbands) will loose their sense of humor on the deal before two terms get served – which is generally true today

  17. MC Post author

    Do our legislators derserve better? They do.
    Do the school districts need more money to give teachers a riase? Yeppers.
    Is some of the rank and file state workers underpaid? Yes.
    Are there state projects that are under funded? Yes there are.

    There is no shortage of places to spend money; we do have a shortage of income. If the legislators get a raise, where is the money going to come from?

  18. Troy Jones

    Every legislator is underpaid (at least those worth anything doing the minimum). So is so many others in our society, especially those who volunteer with our many worthy charities.

    I’m wondering why legislative service vs. other forms of community service deserves better compensation? Just asking. Don’t have yet an opinion.

    I’m also wondering if a legislator is dedicating 50% of their time to “legislative” work, is this what we really want? Or is it better they just live a real life as citizens and take that to Pierre as citizens and not professional politicians?

    This said, I don’t go out of pocket with my community service activities. It is a gift of time and talent which I expect from my citizen legislators as well. Don’t have the time or talent, I’d prefer they did something else.

    But, I am sensitive to Sen. Maher’s challenge not faced by Sioux Falls legislators where their out-of-pocket expenses are much less (I’m not concerned about “losing” money to get elected. If you need/want to spend your own money on your campaign, this is your choice). Maybe there needs to be a reimbursement schedule for travel beyond 25 miles that even would include lodging. Just another question.


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