News of legislators’ continued snorting at the trough of free swill slopped on them by lobbyists got me to thinking about the independent citizens commission soon to recommend pay for state officials, legislators and judges under a recently approved constitutional amendment.
There’s an easy and fair way to come up with a suggestion.
Arkansas voters approved substantial pay increases for many elected officials in a constitutional amendment that took effect Jan. 1, 1993
It stipulated pay of $60,000 for the governor; $29,000 for the lieutenant governor; $37,500 for the secretary of state, auditor and land commissioner; $37,000 for the treasurer, and $50,000 for the attorney general. It provides $12,500 for legislators, who work part-time (then and still).
These figures were considered reasonable pay 21 years ago for the jobs, and came with an end of pay supplements known as public relations accounts. The amendment did allow expenses “reasonably connected” to official duties, but only if documented. Legislators soon were fudging on expenses to enhance their take-home.
The amendment allowed the legislature to propose an additional constitutional amendment devoted to official pay to the three already allowedy. It has never done so. It also allowed the legislature to increase pay annually, through an appropriations bill, but by no more than the increase in the Consumer Price Index. For political and budget reasons, this hasn’t always happened.
So let’s be fair. Let’s move pay up to the figure it would be if state officials HAD gotten an increase annually equal to the CPI. Following are current pay figures and what they’d be using a tool applying the CPI to the 1993 salary level from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I’ve also figured the percentage increase that raise would represent:
Governor: $87,759 ($98,588) 12.3%
Lt. Governor: $42,315 ($48,472) 14.5%
Secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, land commissioner: $54,848 ($61,617)
Attorney general: $73,132 ($82,156) 12.3%
Legislators: $15,869 ($20,539) 29.4%
These are big percentage pay raises in an economy where the average worker has experienced little in the way of pay improvement (and where lawmakers ran knowing the pay scale and expecting this amendment to be defeated). They also can still claim per diem for days they show up to work at a rate that exceeds actual expenses. They can still bill for actual expenses, with documents. This is better than most experience in the private sector. They can still get slopped with free swill by lobbyists every night this week. And heck, let’s go crazy. Round these pay levels up to the next highest $1,000.
Remember, too, that Arkansas ranks 48th in per capita income, so pushing pay to exorbitant levels hardly seems in order, particularly when you consider the part-time nature of the legislature and the fact that constitutional officers need not show up at the Capitol should they choose. Mark Martin is frequently absent among the current crop,his employees say, except that there is currently no lieutenant governor (and Mark Darr’s absence since February has, to put it kindly not been missed.) OK. Martin supposedly does check in by spying remotely on security cameras.
And what about judges? They, too, will come under the independent citizens commission.
Circuit judges make $140,372, associate justices on the Arkansas Supreme Court make $149,589 and the chief justice makes $161,601. Some different figures apply for district and court of appeals judges.
I won’t make many of my retired judge wife’s colleagues happy by noting information from the annual judicial survey of the National Center for State Courts. Arkansas judicial pay already compares favorably with the rest of the country.
In 2014, a judge of a court of general jurisdiction in Arkansas made $138,982 (this was before a July 1 pay raise to over $140,000). That ranked Arkansas 28th among all states for judges of general jurisdiction courts, but ninth in the power of that salary against the cost of living (much lower in Arkansas). Again, this is a state that ranks 48th in per capita income. Yet it pays judges in the top 10 when cost of living is considered. They’ve been bypassed by some cost of living pay raises other state employees have received, but it hasn’t exactly left them in poverty.
UPDATE: Looks like the first meeting of the commission is at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18, at Room 272 of the Capitol.