The independent citizens commission that sets pay levels for elected state officials including legislators and judges met this morning but took no action. They’ll meet again Oct. 30.
In meetings earlier this year, the commission heard requests from various parts of government on pay raises. By way of context, state employees are to get a 2.4 percent pay raise this year, though individual pay raises will be based on evaluations rather than given across the board.
District judges have asked for a pay raise equivalent to that given other state employees. Other judges — circuit and court of appeals — asked for a 3 percent raise. The Supreme Court asked for still more. Its members have long argued there’s not a big enough pay differential between that received by the highest court and the other courts. Currently, circuit judges make $168,096, the court of appeals judges make $169,671 (or $172,298 for the chief judge) and Supreme Court justices make $174,924, or $189,108 for the chief justice. Chief Justice Dan Kemp in May asked for a 3 percent raise for the Supreme Court plus an additional $5,000 for each associate justice (but only the 3 percent for himself) because the Supreme Court doesn’t rank as high in pay nationally as the other judges.
The independent commission received today an updated national report on judicial pay. Arkansas judges do comparatively well at all levels, given that the state is near the bottom in per capita income (45th) and cost of living (48th by one index).
Circuit judges rank 21st nationally in pay, the court of appeals ranks 20th and the Supreme Court ranks 30th. Adjusted for cost of living, the circuit judges have effectively the third-highest pay level in the country. The study doesn’t provide similar cost-of-living-adjusted figures for the higher courts.
Last year, the commission gave all elected officials a 3 percent pay raise.
A 2014 constitutional amendment moved pay-setting to the commission to remove the political hot potato from the legislature. Lawmakers were rewarded with a huge pay increase the first year the commission was in business and they now make more than $41,000. They also draw significant payments, known as per diem, when attending meetings, plus other expense reimbursements.
The creation of the commission also produced substantial raises for all other offices, including the current $148,134 for the governor and $159,691 for prosecutors in the most populous districts. The prosecutors this year have asked that their pay continue to be set at a level pegged to judges’ pay — 5 percent less than circuit judges in the biggest offices.