The Independent Citizens Commission that sets salaries for elected state officials today proposed a 2 percent pay raise for the year beginning July 1 for all of them, thus rejecting an 11 percent pay raise for the Arkansas Supreme Court pitched again today by Chief Justice Dan Kemp.

Commissioner Mitch Berry, who made the motion, noted the commission gave no pay raise last year and economic indicators supported a 2 percent raise. He and others at the meeting expressed some interest in establishing something akin to indexing to follow in the commission’s future annual deliberations, rather than a full hearing for every category of official covered.


Barbara Graves seconded Berry and echoed his reasoning. John Shelnutt, the state’s chief economic analyst, had earlier said the inflation rate was around 2 percent and income in the state was growing at better than 3 percent and state revenue seemed sustainable at current forecasts, even better than indicated by a recent forecast cut of almost $100 million over this and next fiscal year. The commission also heard from Kay Barnhill, the state’s personnel chief, that 54 percent of the 28,000 state employees would get a 1 percent pay raise this coming year and a recent restructuring of the state pay plan meant an average increase of about 3 percent for the others. A new merit pay plan also is soon to be introduced.

Commissioner Chuck Banks went along with the 2 percent proposal, which will be put out for public comment and up for ratification next week. But he said he’d like to have more time to explain to the Supreme Court why the commission was bypassing its proposal. In his remarks he seemed to indicate he might have been open to some additional percentage, though not 11.


Banks said he’d “love to talk about” the requested 11 percent pay raise in private, but that wasn’t possible. He said he was concerned about both “2 percent and 11 percent,” suggesting he might be open to some middle ground. “But I am very concerned about 11 percent. I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say that.”

Where today’s proposal will raise Supreme Court justices from $166,500 to $169,830, Kemp’s initial 11 percent raise proposal would have raised them to almost $185,000. He proposed only a 2 percent pay raise for Court of Appeals judges from $161,500 to $164,730.


No state constitutional officer and no member of the legislature appeared to make a pay request. Pulaski Prosecutor Larry Jegley said prosecutors had no specific request, but hoped the commission would continue to set pay that put prosecutors in the biggest districts at 95 percent of circuit judge pay and the prosecutors in smaller districts at 85 percent of the other prosecutors’ pay.

Circuit Judge David Guthrie of El Dorado, president the Arkansas Judicial Council (all the elected judges in the state) reiterated his group’s request for a 2 percent cost of living increase.  He encouraged the commission to consider a system where pay raises could be considered “periodically and automatically.” Graves agreed that the commission should meet earlier, in the spring, and use economic performance as a beginning point for the annual discussions.

Commission Chair Larry Ross said the leaders of the House and Senate had declined invitations to make a pay proposal.

Chief Justice Kemp again made a plea for an extraordinary pay increase for the Supreme Court, based mainly on pay increases for Supreme Court’s in five states — Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, Tennesse and Oklahoma — and the fact that Court of Appeals judges, who make $5,000 a year less than Supreme Court associate justices, also get a mileage allowance. Kemp had compiled reimbursements to Court of Appeals judges and said six of the 12 made “as much or more” counting mileage than the six associate justices. Graves noted that mileage payments are not pay, but reimbursements for expenses. No one noted, but could have, that Court of Appeals judges run from geographic districts and are required to live in those districts. Supreme Court justices are elected statewide and may live wherever they choose. Also: The latest data shows Arkansas Supreme Court pay is 29th highest in the country, in one of the country’s poorest states.


No one mentioned it, but it seems unlikely that this group of seasoned political and legal professionals on the commission aren’t aware of the recent squabbling between the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, with the Supreme Court dumping additional work on the Court of Appeals and sending unhappy messages in that direction after being criticized in a Court of Appeals decision.

Kemp suggested a “pyramid” would be fair — $140,000 for district judges, $160,000 for circuit judges, $170,000 for court of appeals and $180,000 for Supreme Court, with additional amounts for chief judge of the court of appeals and chief justice. He noted that a couple of commissioners had recommended higher pay for the Supreme Court before the commission reached its final decision, and lower pay, in 2015.

The commission has received a few public comments on its website about pay deliberations. None was supportive of pay raises. Said Christopher Kilgore:

Please do not grant this pay raise under any circumstance. It is absolute ridiculous to grant an 11 percent pay raise. At a time with such pay inequality, high citizen vs. government tensions, granting a pay raise of this magnitude would only further in adding fuel to this fire.

The table below shows salaries before the commission increased them in 2015. The column of figures at right were the pay levels adopted then. They’d go up 2 percent each if today’s proposal is ratified next week.

Editorial: The commission is heading in the right direction. The Supreme Court needs some public relations advice.