Lawmaker pay gets fresh look in several states

Salary bumps are possible or already in motion in Alaska, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico and Oregon.
The Oregon state Capitol in Salem. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

A handful of states are considering legislator pay increases, an awkward issue many lawmakers would prefer to delegate to avoid the optics of lining their own pockets.

Salary bumps are possible or already in motion in Alaska, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico and Oregon, a few months after legislators received one in New York and Pennsylvania.

State lawmakers in Minnesota are in line to get a 7.25% pay bump this summer following a vote by an independent salary-setting council created in 2016. That will boost pay by $3,500 to $51,750 a year.

In Alaska, a newly appointed state salary commission on Wednesday recommended a 67% increase in legislative pay, from $50,400 to $84,000. That leap will take effect in January 2024, unless lawmakers reject it, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

New Mexico’s status as the only state legislators in the nation who do not get paid anything beyond per diem could change if the state Senate approves a House Joint Resolution to send a constitutional amendment to voters to create a salary-setting commission.

Time is short, though, with the New Mexico legislature scheduled to adjourn its 60-day session Saturday. While polling has shown strong support amongst voters for giving lawmakers a salary, there are concerns that a ballot measure would be vulnerable to defeat.

“It is so easy to kill, ‘this is just greedy politicians who want your money,’” Sen. Katie Duhigg (D), chair of the Senate Rules Committee, recently told New Mexico In Depth.

It is not a hypothetical concern. New Mexico voters said “no” to pay for state lawmakers in 1990 and 1992.

The debate over pay is part of a larger discussion in New Mexico about modernizing the legislature. It is led by university researchers who have recommended, in addition to paying lawmakers, an increase in the number of permanent legislative staff and an extension of the state’s 30- and 60-day even-and-odd-year sessions.

Legislative modernization and pay raises are on the agenda in Kansas, where this week the House Legislative Modernization Committee and a second committee gave thumbs up to a bill to create a bipartisan salary-setting commission.

The commission would review legislative pay, per diem and retirement benefits every four years and make recommendations.

Kansas legislators currently receive $88.66 each day they are in session, plus per diem. That pay rate hasn’t budged in at least two decades.

“If you believe in a representative democracy then there’s one thing that should determine whether or not you get to serve in this legislature — that is if voters decide to send you here,” Jason Watkins, a former state representative who proposed the bill, testified. “Not whether or not you can afford to come up here and serve.”

Increasing the pool of people who can afford to run for the legislature is also a key selling point in Oregon, where pay raise proposals have languished for years.

This year, lawmakers are getting a boost from a coalition calling itself Opportunity to Serve Oregon, whose members include the ACLU, SEIU and the League of Women Voters.

The coalition argues that Oregon’s current legislator salary of about $33,000 is not enough to encourage a diverse group of candidates to run for the legislature. It is backing a bill to tie legislator pay to the average pay in Oregon, which would nearly double lawmaker salaries. 

“Raising legislative pay will improve the quality and diversity of representation in the Capitol,” the coalition argues.

Oregon Public Broadcasting recently reported that, if enacted, the pay raise would put Oregon lawmakers, who are part-time legislators, in league with some of the nation’s highest paid state legislators, many of whom serve in full-time legislatures.

In December, during a lame duck special session, majority Democrats in New York approved a $32,000 pay raise that will make them the highest paid state legislators in the country, with an annual salary of $142,000. The bill also imposed a $35,000 limit on outside pay beginning in 2025, which was billed as an anti-corruption measure. 

Also in December, Pennsylvania lawmakers received a $5,097 raise to boost their salaries to $102,844.  

New York, California and Pennsylvania, all full-time legislatures, are the three states where state lawmakers now make six-figure salaries. They are outliers according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which concluded in a 2021 report that lawmakers have been losing ground as a result of stagnant pay.

“When considering rates of inflation, average state legislative pay has decreased over the past 30 years,” the report stated. “Many states have not seen an increase in legislative wages for decades.”

This story was updated to include the salary development in Alaska.