When Idaho state Sen. Ron Beitelspacher isn't conferring with colleagues, constituents, and lobbyists in Boise, he dons his tool belt and shimmies up utility poles. The third-term Democrat from Grangeville is also a lineman for a local power company.
Senator Beitelspacher laments that there are ''so few workingmen - those who work with their hands for a living - in the Legislature.'' That's why he says he wants better compensation for lawmakers in his state, who earn $4,200 a year for their legislative work. Their last increase was in 1979.
''There has to be just pay if we are not going to turn the Legislature over to rich men and lawyers, who would use it to promote their business,'' he warns.
Beitelspacher and many other American lawmakers consider themselves underpaid - if not overworked and underappreciated. This may be especially true in smaller states, where the legislative workload keeps getting bigger, often with little more than token compensation.
Salaries in many larger states, and in the United States Congress, however, have not only kept pace with inflation, but even exceeded it, particularly in recent years.
In the last 25 years, when the nation's overall cost of living climbed 237.4 percent, annual pay for state legislators soared an average 343 percent, from $2 ,649 to $11,761, largely due to some whopping increases in a few large and mid-size states. Pay for US congressmen kept up fairly well, with a 210.6 percent increase, from $22,500 to $69,800.
In the past three years, Congress and at least 19 states have passed lawmaker pay boosts. Increases in several others are being considered, although action is not expected until early next year.
The latest is a 20 percent increase signed into law Sept. 14 by California Gov. George Deukmejian. It will raise annual legislative salaries for all 40 senators and 80 Assembly members from the current $28,110 to $33,732, the highest in the US, as of January 1985.
By comparison, members of Congress now earn $69,800, thanks to the 15 percent raise approved by the House last December and the Senate earlier this summer.
Other states where lawmakers' annual or biennial salaries have been increased during the past three years are are Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Washington.
In most states, like California, sole authority for setting legislative compensation rests with the lawmakers themselves, with gubernatorial approval.
Seven states, however, have special commissions that determine how much pay should be provided. Legislators must either accept or reject the recommendations within a specified period.
In nine other states, pay levels are established by the state constitution and can be changed only by an often-cumbersome amendment process.
Arkansas is the only state with this type of procedure to pass pay increases in the last 10 years. Such efforts were thwarted in 1980 ballots in North Dakota and Rhode Island. New Hampshire's 430 senators and representatives continue to receive a paltry $200 every two years and are the lowest paid in the nation.
Two recent legislative pay hikes stand out: a more than fivefold increase in Louisiana, from $3,000 to $16,800 a year, and a boost in Oklahoma from $9,000 to
Massachusetts lawmakers in January received a nearly 50 percent raise, from $ 21,192 to $30,000.
States on the less generous end of the scale have often partly compensated by raising either travel or daily--expense allowances to reflect rising costs of food, lodging while at the capital, and transportation expenses. It appears that lawmakers, especially in poorer and smaller states, are finding it easier to justify raising their expense allotments than their pay.
Some legislators are skittish about accepting any increase. In Idaho, lawmakers last winter rejected the modest increase in their expense accounts recommended by a special state commission.
Senator Beitelspacher says his colleagues erred and he wants to get the decision reconsidered, but the deadline for such action has expired and the legislative session has long since ended.
Currently the highest state lawmaker salary in effect is $32,960 in New York. Next comes Michigan at $31,000, followed by Massachusetts, $30,000; California, each; Wisconsin, $22,632; Maryland, $21,000; Alaska, $20,070; and Oklahoma, $20, 000. Lawmakers' salaries How congressional pay compares with the average annual salaries for state legislators in the United States.
Year Congress State
1983 $69,800 $11,761 1980 44,600 9,963 1976 44,600 7,947 1972 42,500 6,617 1968 30,000 5,062 1964 22,500 3,579 1960 22,500 2,649