Oklahoma’s lawmakers won’t be getting a raise any time soon, a state panel decided on Tuesday.
The Legislative Compensation Board, which meets every two years, voted 7-1 on Tuesday for the $38,400 base pay, along with the retirement and benefits package, to remain the same for Oklahoma’s 149 legislators. Former state Sen. Charles Ford, R-Tulsa, who had urged the panel to consider hiking the base pay to $44,000 annually, was the lone dissenting vote.
Oklahoma legislators received their last pay hike in 1998, when it was boosted from $32,000 annually, and Ford suggested a competitive salary was needed to recruit qualified members to spend time away from their families.
“The problem is, without compensation you don’t get someone who is independent thinking,” Ford said.
Ford wrote legislation in the 1960s to set up the board and change the way lawmakers were compensated. He said the idea was to ensure legislators could earn a decent wage and not be susceptible to the influence of special interests.
“We had legislators sleeping in their cars or local fire stations,” Ford said. “It was a mess.”
But several members of the panel noted Oklahoma’s compensation package appears to be competitive, especially when compared to contiguous states.
Oklahoma’s lawmakers, who meet for an annual session that runs from February until May, rank 16th in the nation for its salary and per diem benefits, according to Oklahoma’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services. But their salary and benefits package is higher than all states that border Oklahoma, said OMES revenue analyst Shelly Paulk, who briefed the panel on the current benefits state lawmakers receive.
In addition to the $38,400 base salary, legislators who live outside a 50-mile radius of the Capitol receive a $147 daily per diem when the Legislature is in session, an amount that is set to increase to $153 in 2014. All legislators also receive a 56-cents-per-mile travel reimbursement, a health benefit allowance of $640.98 per month, and an optional retirement benefit with a 3.5 percent legislator contribution and eight years to become vested.
Legislators in certain leadership positions also receive additional compensation. The president pro tem of the Senate and speaker of the House each earn an extra $17,932 annually, and the House and Senate appropriations chairmen, House speaker pro tem, Senate assistant majority leader and majority and minority floor leaders in both the House and Senate all earn an extra $12,364 per year.
The median household income in Oklahoma was $44,312 in 2012, while the total compensation package for an Oklahoma legislator was worth about $62,000, Paulk said.
“With today’s government and today’s environment, I think we would not be looked on as wise members of this committee if we were to do increases, especially with the federal government shutdown, and cuts here and cuts there,” said board chairman Wes Milbourn, an appointee of Gov. Mary Fallin.
State Rep. Joe Dorman, who is entering his 12th and final year as a state lawmaker, said he believes the board made the right decision, especially when state employees haven’t received an across-the-board pay raise since 2006 and the starting salary for a public school teacher is around $31,000.
“When our state employees haven’t had a raise in seven years, it would be ridiculous to think we would even consider giving an elected official a pay raise,” said Dorman, D-Rush Springs.
State Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, agreed.
“I think it was a no brainer,” Morrissette said. “It’s like the captain of a ship — you’re the last to leave the boat. I think legislators should be the last ones to get a pay increase after state employees.”