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Pay raises for state legislators keeping ahead of cost of living

By George B. MerryStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 1981



Boston

Most public officials, especially state lawmakers, consider themselves underpaid, overworked, and often unappreciated. But in many instances their compensation has not only kept pace with inflation but exceeded it.

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During the past two decades, for example, while the national cost of living tripled -- up 201.6 percent -- the average legislator salary level among the 50 states has nearly quadrupled.

Lawmaker salaries, which vary widely across the land from a low of $100 a year in New Hampshire to $28,788 in New York, have increased at least once in 35 states within the past six years, with 22 boosts coming the past three years.

This includes Massachusetts where a controversial $1,800 pay hike, rushed through the lawmaking mill on Halloween night 1980, was wiped out by voters last November.

Backers of the repeal referendum, which carried statewide by nearly 8 to 1, objected not so much to the dimensions of the raise in the compensation base. What they disliked were built-in boosts of up to $18,000 for legislative leaders , as well as the way the statute was engineered under the cloak of darkness.

A new move is afoot to raise Bay State lawmaker compensation, although by perhaps more modest proportions. The pending measure would involve the establishing of a special commission to recommend pay levels for legislators as well as governor and other statewide officers.

Similar panels have been in operation for some time in several other states. In some instances the commissions, rather than legislators, have determined compensation.

The proposed Massachusetts panel would be purely advisory. But it is questionable whether, under the state constitution, such authority could be delegated to outsiders by the senators and representatives were that politically desirable to the lawmakers.

Regardless of what happens in Massachusetts, legislators in at least a few other states already are assured of raises next year.

A 1979 New York statute, for example, not only increased legislator pay there from $23,500 to $28,878 last Jan. 1 but provided for additional boosts next year and in 1983. Those hikes will boost the lawmaker pay level to $30,804 for '82 and $32,960 for '83.

Although legislative salaries in the Empire State are set by the lawmakers themselves, any raises approved cannot take effect until after the next election.

Similar restrictions against legislators posting their compensation apply in 23 of the 33 other states where legislators have full say in setting lawmaking salaries.

The exceptions are Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont. Rarely, however, outside of the Bay State have legislators taken advantage of the opportunity for either instant or even retroactive raises for themselves.

Most of the 34 states where legislative salary-setting is entirely in the hands of the lawmakers, and the seven others where compensation commissions are also involved, have had at least one pay raise since 1975.

On the other hand, only in Arkansas, among the nine states where such compensation levels are fixed constitutionally, has there been an increase.

Voters in North Dakota and Rhode Island, two othe states with such restrictions, last November rejected proposals to clear the way for pay increases. Rhode Islanders, whose lawmakers earn but $300 a year, spurned a measure to establish a commission to recommend compensation levels. North Dakotans refused to remove the $300 biennial maximum pay for lawmakers.

But North Dakota has not stood pat on expense allowances. Measures enacted during the recently ended 1981 legislative session increased from 10 cents to 25 cents the transportation reinbursement for lawmakers who commute to the capitol on official business. Also boosted were expense allowances -- from $70 to $85 a day -- and additional living expenses -- from $150 to $180 a month -- for legislators when they are in session.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Wyoming, lawmakers have also increased their per diem living expense and transportation allowances, starting in 1983. Legislative pay was raised from $40 a day to $65 commencing in 1983 and to $75 a day in 1985. Wyoming ranks 47 out of 50 states in legislator pay.

Hawaii and Nevada similarly have raised lawmaker expense allowances, in both instances retroactively to last January. Neither involved salary adjustments.

While the legislator pay raise trend seems likely to continue, the pace seems to be slowing with increased activity directed toward improving expense allowances.

Contributing to lawmaker timidity in reaching for more compensation may be the squeeze on state funds at a time when the federal government is preparing to cut back on funding various programs.

Legislative pay raise supporters maintain that increases are necessary because lawmaking is becoming more time consuming.

This, they contend, forces senators and representatives either to give up or drastically curtail the business or professional activities that had provided much of their income.

As throughout much of the past 20 years, when the average biennial legislator salary level has climbed from $5,229 to $19,925, those pushing increases argue they are essential to attract and hold onto top caliber lawmakers.

Twenty states now pay annual lawmaker salaries of more than $10,000, seven of them in excess of $20,000. The latter include: New York, $28,788; California, $ 28,110; Illinois, $28,000; Michigan, $28,000; Pennsylvania, $25,000; Wisconsin,