The governor’s office — though it is not in charge, only a participant — has announced the appointees to the commission that will recommend salaries for state elected officials and judges, pursuant to the constitutional amendment adopted by voters Nov. 4.
They will study existing pay for the 7 statewide officers, legislators and judges — district, circuit and appellate — and make recommendations. The first year the pay raises, if recommended may be unlimited, but will be limited to 15 percent in future years. The commission was established to take pay out of the hands of the legislature. It was part of the amendment that eased term limits and also added new ethical rules, including a prohibition of gifts of any sort from lobbyists, including meals and drinks.
Gov. Mike Beebe’s Appointees:
Barbara Graves, Little Rock, retired businesswoman.
Larry Ross, Sherwood, President of Ross Consulting, L.L.C.
Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang’s appointees:
Stuart Hill, Searcy, Vice President and Treasurer of White County Medical Center.
Brenda James, Little Rock, Math Coach in the Little Rock School District.
House Speaker Davy Carter’s Appointees:
Mitch Berry, Little Rock, Attorney at Dyke & Winzerling, P.L.C.
Stephen Tipton, Cabot, Regional Vice President of Centennial Bank.
Chief Justice Jim Hannah’s Appointee:
Chuck Banks, Little Rock, Senior Partner at Banks Law Firm, P.L.L.C.
These appointments will expire Nov. 5, 2018.
The public will be able to review the commission’s work and attend its meetings. The Arkansas Public Law Center, on whose board I sit, is making plans to participate, particularly on the issue of expenses. The Law Center brought the lawsuit that produced some improvements in legislative expense reimbursement practices. But we’ve learned in recent days that the legislature — in addition to creative ways to funnel expense money to themselves through the guise of hiring spouses as assistants — has been abusing the expense process by claiming per diem for days when a legislative session is ongoing but the legislators are not attending meetings at the Capitol. Per diem is specifically intended as an expense reimbursement for attending meetings, not as a salary supplement. Discussions to rectify this abuse have, so far, been nonproductive.
The public needs to watch carefully to be sure abusive expense practices aren’t made a matter of law by this green commission, particularly in tandem with expected huge pay increases. Legislators currently are paid around $15,000, but typically drawn in the range of $50,000 a year counting expenses. They like to say they are full-time legislators with annual sessions, but the sessions don’t last year-round. State official and judicial pay is higher.
Here’s the full text of the amendment.
The members of the commission will elect a chair. The auditor’s office will provide staff, if requested. Salary changes will take effect within 10 days after they are filed with the auditor’s office. The commissioners may receive $85 a day for working days.
The commission may raise or lower pay. Its first meeting must occur within 45 days of the effective date of the amendment, which was Nov. 5. So they will meet within two weeks. They’ll have 45 days after that to review the salaries and also to make recommendations on per diem, expense reimbursement and mileage. I hope 1) per diem is limited to actual days at work; 2) expenses are only specifically identified official expenses and payments to relatives are prohibited; 3) legislators qualify for no greater mileage reimbursement than other state employees and must specify the purposes for that mileage.
The commission is to meet annually and make pay recommendations 90 days before a legislative session.
Current pay rates: $42,315 for lieutenant governor; $54,848 for treasurer, land commissioner, auditor; $73.132 for attorney general, and $87,759 for governor. Judicial pay is $125,495 for 38 district judges; $140,372 for 121 circuit judges; $144,982 for 11 court of appeals judges; $149,589 for six associate justices of the Supreme Court; $147,286 for the chief judge of the court of appeals, and $161,601`for the chief justice.
Some will argue that the state officials should at least be paid as much as their top staff members — six-figure pay is possible in several offices. I’m not sure I buy that line of reasoning. As Secretary of State Mark Martin proves, you don’t have to go to work every day. The top administrative aides do most of the work. Would taxpayers go for 100 percent pay increases the first year for people who ran for jobs knowing what the pay would be.
Legislators likely should be paid more — and expensed less — but a raise to $45,000 would be a 300 percent pay increase for a part-time job that legislators knew going in didn’t pay much. That might be hard for some voters to swallow as they’ve watched their own take-home income stagnate. It would be particularly hard to stomach for legislators who opposed the increase in the minimum wage.
I’d say a good starting point might be to get Arkansas’s current ranking in per capita income. If we are 48th in per capita income, then our pay for elected officials should rank 48th.
Beebe observed later in the morning that he expected an objective look, but he also said politicians knew the pay when they ran. Pay should be competitive, he said, but added, “But salary ought not to be your number one reason for running for public office. If it is, you’ve got the wrong folks running.”