Voters To Decide On A Pay Raise For State Lawmakers

By Nick Blumberg
Published: Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 2:20pm
Updated: Friday, October 24, 2014 - 11:03am
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(KJZZ file photo)
Arizona Capitol in Phoenix.

One of the items on this year's ballot is proposition 304, which would raise the salary for Arizona's legislators from $24,000 a year to $35,000 a year. Supporters say it's a fair increase, considering the many responsibilities of state lawmakers. But similar efforts haven't been successful in the past.

The last time Arizona voters approved a pay hike was in 1998. Since then, raises have been voted down in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

"It sounds like we're on our way to a cheer. Two, four, six, eight, who do you appreciate? Your legislators!" said Lisa Atkins, who chairs the state's Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers.

Every two years, the commission is required to review salaries for members of the state house and senate, statewide elected officials like the governor and the judicial branch, and decide whether to refer a raise to the ballot.

Atkins said the commission calculated what the $24,000 salary approved in 1998 would be in today's money. If voters approve the proposition, lawmakers will get an $11,000 pay bump to make up for inflation.

"No public official runs because of the salary of the office," Atkins said. "Every one of our 90 legislators run because they have a passion about public service and they have a great deal of interest in public policy. But we're asking a lot from them."

Even though the legislature is only supposed to meet for 100 days, it has a way of dragging on. Factor in special sessions and other responsibilities throughout the year and Atkins said Arizona's is a part-time legislature in name only. But in an election year, the lawmakers themselves may not support the raise.

"I think it's absolutely wrong and unmerited and unearned and it should not pass," said Bruce Wheeler. He's a Democrat who represents Legislative District 10 in the Tucson area. Last year, Wheeler was involved with a bill that would have raised per diem payments to legislators before withdrawing his support.

"[Many] people in Arizona are hurting much more than any member of the state House of Representatives or the state Senate," Wheeler said. "So first, we have to improve our economy and earn a pay raise."

But if legislator pay is higher, could it make the pool of candidates interested in running more diverse? Morgan Cullen is with the National Conference of State Legislatures and he tracks legislator pay around the country. Arizona is what the NCSL calls a hybrid legislature: not full-time, but with too many responsibilities to be considered truly part time.

"The average salary for those hybrids is a little over $43,000 a year, so they're making decidedly less income among their counterparts," Cullen said.

In states with low salaries, like Arizona, Cullen says many lawmakers are retirees or independently wealthy business owners who can afford to run.

"You want those independently wealthy people, you want the retirees, but you also want people in their income-earning years as well so that you are representing the population as a whole."

But it's not clear whether a pay bump would change the candidate pool. And two members of Arizona's commission on legislator pay oppose this year's proposition. In a statement to voters, former lawmaker Karen Johnson argued that election to the legislature isn't employment and shouldn't be treated as such.

"Bigger salaries will only give us bigger government, not better statesmen," Johnson said.

But commission chair Lisa Atkins disagrees. "While I know it's popular to wage a war on public spending, if we're going to elect people to do a job we need to make sure that they are fairly compensated," she said.

There isn't any polling available to see how voters are leaning. Atkins is hopeful, but is managing her expectations based on the many failed attempts at a pay raise in the past.

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