Are you kidding me? That seems to be the near universal reaction to the pay increase announced by the Board on Legislative Compensation, which for the average legislator, provides a $12,500 pay raise from the current $35,000, almost 36%. I know I was astounded when I first heard what they were considering. So what gives? Note any opinion here is solely mine—I seek to inform, but am certainly not going to try to justify their action.
First, a few basics. Legislators did not vote to increase their own pay. They can’t. Legislative pay is set by the Board, another one of those unelected entities enshrined in our state’s constitution that I fuss about frequently. This one was enacted by a vote of the people in 1968. Board members are appointed by the Governor, Senate Pro Tempore, and Speaker of the House, and meet every two years. The nine appointees must, one each, be from religious organizations, communi-cations media, nonstate-supported educational institutions, labor organizations, retail business, agricultural organizations, civic organizations, manufacturing, and from profession fields “not otherwise specified”. Legislators cannot serve on the Board. The entire Board is new this year. Legislative pay was last increased in 1998 to $38,400, where it stayed until it was reduced $3,400 two years ago. The new pay raise is effective after the 2020 election cycle.
One can see politics at work. The current Board called the previous one “punitive” in its action to reduce pay two years ago. The previous Board was very critical of the legislature then, when it was wrestling with how to set a budget and increase education funding for teacher pay raises, during a time of several revenue failures, and two special sessions. Eventually, the legislature passed tax increases, and the price of oil rose, which removed much of the budget pressure, but not before the Board reduced pay. Did that action motivate the legislature? I don’t think so. No one in my presence complained about the pay reduction—most were actually just trying to find solutions and more concerned about criticism from constituents they took very personally.
News coverage has contained comments from Board members about what a fair level of compensation is for the expectations of the job, what is appropriate to attract the most qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced candidates, how median household income in Oklahoma has increased 60% since the last raise, but legislative compensation has remained flat and then reduced, etc. One of the things they review is what other states pay, but that can be deceptive as base salary is only one component of compensation. This month, I’ve come to learn, for example, that the $7,200 paid in another bordering state, also comes with a 6 figure office budget, lots of latitude on how to spend it, large support staffs, generous travel allowances and per diems, and, reportedly, approximately $150,000 a year pension for life upon retirement. And there isn’t a cap on campaign contributions. I suspect most Oklahoma legislators would trade for that deal!
In Oklahoma, legislators who live 50 miles or more away from the OKC metro area are also entitled to $156 per diem (lodging and food) per legislative day and the federal mileage reimbursement to and from the capitol, once a week. This only applies during regular session (February-May, if it goes the full length) or special session, and even then, only when the chambers are gaveled in, which makes the day a “legislative day”, and the legislator is actually present. During my first term, if memory serves correctly, there was a state travel allowance available to House members for conferences and other meetings, but that was eliminated during the budget cut days. Since then, legislators have been expected to use their own funds, or surplus campaign funds as “office holder expenses”. (The Ethics Commission provides guidance as to what those are.) Each House member is also allowed some office expense to cover things like postage and office supplies—that amount is set with each annual budget cycle, currently $2000 for the year, and any travel comes out of that budget if you choose to use it that way. Those expenses are carefully watched within the House budget. I haven’t needed to use my full allotment in any year. Finally, legislators receive state health and pension benefits, and the latter, after 2011, is only available to those serving at least ten years—12 year term limits and election turnover tends to keep that number small.
That about covers it. Will we get better performance from a better paid legislature? Will we attract a more qualified field of candidates in future elections? Will more candidates file for office? Will they be a more diverse representation of our citizenry? Will the Board reconsider its decision? Time will tell. In the meantime, we should do the job to the best of our ability, regardless of compensation level.
Legislative compensation was never really relevant to me, but the discussion has been thrust upon us, so I guess it is now. If anyone has interest in more detail, drop me a note, and I’ll give you some source information I requested regarding other states so you can check it out yourself. In the meantime, if you need to reach me during the interim, please call my office at 405-557-7380, or write to me at Representative Mark Lepak, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd, Rm. 441, State Capitol Building, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105.
State Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore) can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.