The independent citizens commission that sets pay for politicians under Amendment 94 held its final public hearing on its plans this morning and drew scant response — with a notable exception of Supreme Court Justices Karen Baker and Jo Hart, who asked for even more money than the commission already plans to give them.
The Supreme Court justices, who already make $149,589, would get boosted 11 percent, to $166,500, if the commission finalizes its previous decision. According to the National Center for State Courts, Arkansas already ranks 34th in Supreme Court pay, though we are the 48th poorest in terms of per capita income.
The justices complained that neighboring states (Iowa, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Missouri) used for pay comparison differed structurally in some cases. Missouri, for example, doesn’t elect judges. But they particularly complained that Supreme Court justices don’t get a $6,000 mileage allowance that the Arkansas Court of Appeals members get. That means those judges, who’d get a boost to $161,500, would effectively be paid more, Hart and Baker said.
The Court of Appeals is elected from geographic districts. The Supreme Court is statewide. Justices are free to move here to avoid maintaining two homes, as Hart complained she must do. Baker lives in Clinton. The work doesn’t require the justices to be in chambers daily, but they typically conference once a week.
The justices said it was hard to get good candidates to run at existing pay. The justices didn’t mention the judicial retirement system, which allows them to retire at 80 percent of final pay after 25 years on the bench (thus a $17,000 pay raise is instantly worth at least more than a $12,000-a-year increase in retirement pay for a justice eligible for the top benefit). The higher pay level will create some new pressure on the actuarial status of the judicial retirement system, a factor that hasn’t been mentioned in pay raise discussions.
Hart said the Supreme Court had a heavy workload and tried hard to decide cases speedily. None of the commissioners asked about why the same-sex marriage case was taking so long — pending without decision since Nov. 20.
Apart from the plea for more money from Baker and Hart, the hearing was relatively uneventful. Only two members of the public turned up to object — one saying the increase was too much, another a young man describing it as a “scam” before storming off.
The Commission decided to meet March 16 to finalize its decisions, though Vice Chair Chuck Banks said the commission probably could have completed work today. Commissioner Barbara Graves said the commission owed it to those who’d spoken to consider what they had to say.