It’s Time to Raise State Legislators’ Annual Salary

Over the past few years, I’ve done some work on Article I issues. In January 2020, I coauthored a paper, Restoring the Balance of Powers, in which my coauthor and I talked about the lethargy that has led to a weaker Legislative Branch. One of the things that we mentioned but didn’t have enough space to dive into was congressional pay for staffers. Staffers aren’t paid that much for a life in an area with a high cost of living. As a result, turnover on the Hill is high, with the best staffers—typically, committee staffers—moving on to K Street or elsewhere when it comes time to “cash out.”

Now, I hear you. “Members of Congress and staff shouldn’t get paid that much! We pay their salaries while they’re living large!” Yeah, well, in constant 2020 dollars, Members are actually paid less than they were in 2005. Most staff positions are paid less in 2020 than they were in 2005—again, using constant 2020 dollars—including chiefs of staff, district directors, caseworkers, legislative directors, legislative assistants, and staff assistants. Meanwhile, the cost of living in DC and the surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia has only risen. 

The loss of this legislative muscle memory is one that seriously harms Congress as an institution and, ultimately, hurts constituents. Moreover, this is one of the many reasons why the Executive Branch has continued to grow. There are other reasons, for sure, but being a staffer on Capitol Hill is a thankless job, particularly in these polarizing times, and one isn’t likely to earn much money in the process.

It’s easy to take the populist angle that lawmakers don’t deserve more pay, for whatever reason one wishes to concoct. I once had that opinion. It took me only a few months of working as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill to see the widespread institutional problems that exist because of the failure to invest in Congress. These problems, by the way, began with the gutting of the Legislative Branch appropriations under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s.

I’ve since come to believe that we’re really doing ourselves a disservice when we don’t invest properly in the Legislative Branch. We’re only hurting ourselves because we lose institutional memory when staffers leave. Congress also fails to conduct proper oversight, which, I’ll concede, is also a partisan problem.

Bringing this to the local level, the Georgia General Assembly also faces similar problems. State legislators don’t really have legislative staff. Yeah, they have a secretary who splits his or her time working for several legislators. (The more senior a legislator is, the fewer legislators the secretary will serve.) This secretary isn’t a policy staffer, so state legislators can use their $7,000 legislative account to hire someone for what is effectively a temporary job to handle policy work or respond to constituent emails. State House and Senate districts have only grown to an average of just under 59,000 per House district and nearly 190,000 per Senate district.

If a state legislator is personally wealthy, he or she can pay that person more or hire additional staff. Otherwise, the state legislator is the chief of staff, legislative director, district director, field representative, and more. All for a salary of $17,342. By the way, that salary is $16,200 in base pay set in 1999 and a cost-of-living adjustment passed in 2007 that brought it to the current $17,342. State legislators also receive a $173 per diem for days on official business and milage reimbursements.

In fact, one could argue that the way everything is structured now, serving in the General Assembly is easier if one is older or wealthier. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t have older or wealthy state legislators, but I am saying that we need some changes that make serving in the legislature more attractive to people of all socio-economic backgrounds. What’s more, state legislators who aren’t particularly well off really can only serve for a certain period before the impact takes a toll on their bottom line. As a result, we lose a lot of legislative muscle memory in the process.

One may say, “Well, Georgia has a citizen legislature. They’re in session for only 40 days and, when they’re done, they return to their regular jobs.” Sure, I’ll concede that state legislators are in session for 40 days and can return to their day jobs after the session is over, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, does it? State legislators might be in session for “only 40 days,” but this is a naïve way to look at it. That doesn’t include hours that lawmakers put in for constituent work, which can be time consuming even when not in session.

Considering the amount of work for this “part-time job” requires, a pay raise is much needed and long overdue.

State Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) introduced legislation, HB 675, to increase legislators’ salaries to $29,908, as well as to index the annual salary and per diem to inflation. This reflects the recommendation of the 2018 State Compensation Committee Report. Although the per diem structure remains the same, with the exception of tying it to inflation, state legislators who live 50 miles from the Capitol would receive another $50 per 50 miles they live from the Capitol.

StateAnnual SalaryPer Diem
Alabama$49,861$85/overnight, $100/two or more consecutive days
Arkansas$42,428$50/per day for lawmakers within 50 miles of the Capitol, $151/day for those more than 50 miles away from the Capitol
Kentucky$188 (per day)$166/day
North Carolina$13,951$104/day
South Carolina$10,400$140/day
Tennessee$24,316$61/per day for lawmakers within 50 miles of the Capitol, $284/day for those more than 50 miles away from the Capitol
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

HB 675 increases the salary for the lieutenant governor and some other state officials and indexes them to inflation. The salary increase, which wouldn’t take effect until 2023, would bring Georgia in line with Florida, although Georgia would still lag behind other states in the region.

As a separate matter, one that isn’t covered by Cantrell’s legislation, I would argue that money should be appropriated to allow legislators to hire at least one full-time staffer. Regardless, HB 675 should be taken seriously by state legislators. It should be passed and signed into law.

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