State lawmaking has never been a get-rich-quick scheme. But at least in some states, those who win election can now make a better-than-living wage.
Pennsylvania lawmakers this week will begin earning six-figure salaries when a hefty 7.8% pay bump tied to the Consumer Price Index kicks in. Their new base salary will be $102,844 with higher pay for legislative leaders.
Keystone State lawmakers will join their colleagues in California and New York who already make more than $100,000 a year, according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures. All three states have full-time legislatures.
Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio, where legislative pay ranges from a hair over $60,000 to just over $70,000 a year, represent the next tier of legislative salaries. Another batch of states pay in the $40,000 and $50,000 range.
But after that, salaries quickly taper off until they reach a paltry $7,200 for Texas lawmakers who meet every other year and, on the bottom rung, $100 a year for New Hampshire’s 424 legislators.
Only one state, New Mexico, pays zilch. Lawmakers in the Roundhouse earn a per diem when the legislature is in session, but they do not earn an actual salary.
Researchers at the University of New Mexico, who are looking for ways to modernize the legislature, have found strong support among surveyed lawmakers for instituting some sort of pay.
In 2021, the average legislator base salary was $39,216, an increase of $846 from the year before, according to NCSL.
The wide range of legislator pay reflects a variety of factors, including the political ethos of the state, the size and population and whether the legislature is part-time, hybrid or full-time.
But even as some lawmakers have seen raises, generally lawmakers have lost ground when it comes to what they make, according to a 2021 NCSL report on legislative pay.
“When considering rates of inflation, average state legislative pay has decreased over the past 30 years,” the report concluded. “Many states have not seen an increase in legislative wages for decades.”
A chief factor, the report said, is that state legislators are wary of raising their own salaries because of the likelihood of political blowback. That concern has been eased somewhat in 21 states where outside commissions play a role in recommending or setting legislator pay.
But even then, there is no guarantee of inoculation from criticism.
This month, The New York Daily News called for a cap on outside income for Empire State lawmakers after the state Court of Appeals upheld an earlier 38% legislator pay increase that had been approved by an outside panel.
“Now that legislators have gotten their extra money, it will be time to curb their outside income,” the editorial inveighed.
In Pennsylvania, where the $7,400 pay raise is tied to a 1995 law, some lawmakers have expressed discomfort with the optics of crossing the $100,000-a-year threshold. PennLive.com reported that there had been internal discussions about capping the CPI-based increase.
“While people are still struggling and trying to get by, to have such a huge COLA for the General Assembly… It’s just too much right now,” Rep. Patty Kim (D), who supports a cap, told the newspaper.
While state lawmakers may both hope for and squirm over pay raises, advocates for raising legislator pay often argue that higher salaries are key to increasing the diversity of legislatures. The theory is that decent pay would enable lower-income candidates to run for office. But a 2016 Duke University study cast doubt on that idea.
“According to our data, paying politicians more doesn’t seem to promote economic diversity,” the study’s authors wrote. “To the contrary, higher salaries …. seem to make it more attractive to professionals who already earn high salaries.”