UPDATE: The independent citizens commission created by a voter-approved constitutional amendment today ratified pay raises for legislators, judges and state officials it had recommended last month. The vote followed some legal wrangling.
Since the approval of new pay for official was voted, public comment has been taken. It has run heavily against the size of the pay raises — 150 percent for legislators, for example. The reaction and further study led some commissioners to lean toward changing some of the recommendations.
But Commissioner Chuck Banks said the Constitution left the commission no option but to vote up or down on the amounts voted Feb. 2. Commission Chairman Larry Ross took exception. He thought the commission would be free to change its mind after public comment. What’s the point of taking public comment if the commission has no opportunity to respond to it, he wondered. Banks said that might seem a better process, but that’s not what the amendment says. Commissioner Barbara Graves said this “frustrated” her.
Finally, a motion was approved to delay the pay raises until an attorney general’s opinion could be issued on whether the commission had the power to alter its earlier recommendations.
But that motion was rescinded when it became apparent at least four of the seven commissioners would stand with the original recommendations, making a legal review moot. Commissioner Stuart Hill said he’d have proposed changes. “How can I ignore” the public comment, he asked. He said it ran 90 percent against the recommendations. Graves said she supported the raises for legislators and statewide officials but said the commission had departed from methodology in giving judges big increases than merited. She’d prepared a chart that showed Arkansas would move substantially beyond the national average in all judicial categories, despite being one of the poorest states in the country.
Banks and Commissioner Mitch Berry said all the commissioners had read and considered public opinion as well as many other factors. Berry said the result may not be “perfect,” but the commission had attempted to strike a middle ground and there was no new information that prompted him to reconsider.
In the end, the Commission voted 5-2, with Ross and Hill nays, to approve the Feb. 2 recommendations. Graves said she voted “aye” with regret.
The pay raises will take effect within 10 days of filing today with the state auditor, but the resolution on legislative pay will take effect only after the legislature formally ends a current $14,400 home expense payment. Speaking of the plain language of the Constitution: It allows the commission to set pay, without review by the legislature, but it allows it only to “recommend” expense practices. Wouldn’t conditioning pay on an end of an expense payment functionally amount to setting an expense practice? Furthermore, what power does the Commission have to lower pay should the legislature renege on the expense deal. They will, by the way continue to draw other expenses, including mileage at a rate much higher than that paid other state employees and a per diem payment, nominally for expenses, that is paid five days a week during the sesssion whether the legislature is meeting or not.
The increases will cost the state $4.9 million in pay increases and matching payments (for retirement, for example) this year and $7.7 million fiscal 2017, when 16 more district judges will be added to the state pay plan. An item not widely remarked is the big jump in matching costs — more than $500,000 in the House, $180,000 in the Senate, $50,000 for constitutional officers, and $700,000 for judges in the first year.
From earlier this morning:
The independent citizens commission established to set pay for state officials will meet at 8:30 a.m. today at University of Arkansas System offices to finalize pay raises for lawmakers, statewide officials and judges.
They are expected to finalize pay and recommendations on expenses.
I’d guess that the commission will generally, if not completely stick with its final recommendations March 2.
But the public has been heard from, many to object to the size of many of the pay raises. A couple of Supreme Court justices — Karen Baker and Jo Hart — also appeared to say their 11 percent pay raises, to $166,500, weren’t big enough.
The full recommendations made previously are here, with rationale. Legislators’ pay would increase from $15,869 to $39,400. After the final vote, the pay levels are filed with the state auditor and begin in 10 days. There is no legislative review.