The independent citizens commission established by Amendment 94 to set pay for legislators, judges and statewide officials today firmed up pay recommendations.
This morning, after a wide-ranging discussion, the Commission recommended pay of $39,400 for legislators and $45,000 for House speaker and Senate president. They currently make $15,869 as regular legislators, but it’s a figure swollen for most annually to $40,000 to $50,000 by a variety of expense schemes.
This is a sharp increase over earlier suggestions in the $25,000 range to reflect an offer from House Speaker Jeremy Gillam and Senate President Jonathan Dismang to end a home expense payment up to $14,400 a year and otherwise attempt to reduce office administration in return for a $14,400 addition to their recommendation in taxable income. That’s what they got.
Commissioners set pay but only may recommend expenses. Several made clear they favored the raise only if it was clear the home expense — often paid to spouses without itemized expenses — were going away. The commission said it wouldn’t object to continued per diem practices, by which legislator on average are being paid more than $8,000 a year for expenses of attending meetings. This year, the legislature scaled back but didn’t end an abusive practice of paying per diem for days legislators don’t go to the Capitol. Previously, it was paid seven days a week for the duration of a session. Now they are paid for the five week days. The commission has recommended continuation of payment of mileage in excess of that paid state employees for travel.
The commission voted to recommend no change for the lieutenant governor, currently making $42,315. They’d indicated that was their thinking earlier in what has been a series of 10 meetings and lengthy discussions on the pros and cons of pay raises for each office. There’s a strong feeling that all others deserve higher pay, but a they’ve had a wide range in recommendations, with Chairman Larry Ross generally at the low end of pay recommendations. He remarked to me in a general personal discussion about pay about the propensity of some politicians to talk a lot about fiscal conservatism while advocating for much higher government pay for themselves.
* GOVERNOR: The commission recommended a raise of the current $79,132 to $130,000. The vote was 5-2, with opponents split over whether it was too high or too low.
* ATTORNEY GENERAL: Now making $73,132, the recommendation was $130,000 on a 4-3 vote.
* SECRETARY OF STATE: Now making, $54,848, the recommendation was for $90,000.
* AUDITOR, TREASURER AND LAND COMMISSIONER: All make $54,848, they’d all be moved to $85,000.
The commission took up judicial pay shortly after 10 a.m. The offices and the outcomes, on a 4-3 vote, with some strong sentiment for lower pay:
* DISTRICT JUDGES: Now making $125.95. To $140,000.
* CIRCUIT JUDGES: Now making $140,372. To $160,000.
* COURT OF APPEALS: Now make $144,982. To $161,500. The chief judge, who makes $147,286. to $164,000.
* SUPREME COURT: Now making $149,589. To $166,500. The chief justice, who makes $161,601. To $180,000.
Commissioner Barbara Graves objected to departing from methodology in considering state COLAs and merit pay in calculating a judicial salary, rather than looking to comparable states. She recommended a 7 percent increase for all judicial categories as “compromise.” She said Arkansas was already on a par with other states. Commissioners Brenda James, Mitch Berry and Stephen Tipton favored higher increases, in the 11 percent range, to make up for raises judges had not received when other state employees received them. Chuck Banks had favored a 15 percent raise, but said he’d accept a somewhat lower figure, with an exception to raise circuit judges to $160,000 from a proposed $156,000 that otherwise had been favored by a majority. Stuart Hill favored holding most judges at their existing pay, because it was a fair reflection of the market. Ross favored, in this case, bigger raises, near those suggested by the three together on the highest raise.
These recommendations will be formalized Monday and then opened to a public comment period. When completed, the new pay scale is submitted to the state auditor and the pay increase takes effect immediately. Legislative expense recommendations will be up to the chambers to approve, but their leadership has more or less promised to follow them if they reflect their proposal submitted last night.
The commission meets annually to review pay under terms of the new amendment. They are unpaid, though may draw expenses. They have no staff, but get assistance from the attorney general, auditor and Bureau of Legislative Research. This year, they could have approved raises of greater than 15 percent, but they’ll be subject to 10 percent limits in future years. They may also lower pay, a possibility of legislators resume expense account abuses, commissioners noted.
A public review was set March 2.