Across the generations, the low pay of Arkansas’s elected officials — a direct result of an ingrained distrust and cynicism regarding political elites — has served the state poorly by inhibiting the modernization of state government. The commission now at work on determining state officials’ pay has a great opportunity to remedy that flaw, but only if its members show care in their actions.
Precise pay limitations were locked into the state’s Constitution and, for decades, these salaries were typically the lowest in the nation; a positive vote on a constitutional amendment would bump them up and then pay would stay the same for years. Finally, in 1992, the pay of elected officials was again increased and a pay increase mechanism was created that tied the pay of executive branch officials to annual change in the Consumer Price Index (although legislators still had to vote on the actual appropriation of funds). While a significant advance, the low base meant that the salaries persisted in the lowest tier of states.
While some argue that this low pay is appropriate considering Arkansans’ low incomes and the signal it sends about the appropriate role in people’s life for state government, this persistent low pay has had a series of damaging ramifications for the state.
First, the low pay has unquestionably dissuaded many talented individuals from state government service during the prime of their wage-earning years. For instance, low legislative pay is often blamed for the almost total elimination of attorneys from state legislative service in recent years.
Moreover, while certainly not excused, the low pay has also inevitably led to a continuum of problematic behaviors that harm the public trust. They range from legislators gaining reimbursements for the “legislative services” they provide themselves, as brought to light by Blue Hog Report in 2011, to questionable per diem and mileage reimbursements to clearly criminal acts of corruption. Because of its scope, perhaps the most troubling episode of the low pay era in Arkansas politics came in Orval Faubus’ final term as governor, when his key lieutenants collected funds to cover the cost of a retirement home for the governor: a 7,000-square-foot Fay Jones-designed structure in the gorgeous hills of Faubus’ native Madison County. As the Arkansas Gazette’s longtime editorialist Jim Powell put it, “[W]e referred to them as ‘love gifts.’ They were large gifts from people he had done a lot of favors for, and at the time, he was still in a position to do more favors for them.” Even though Faubus’ gubernatorial salary had never topped $10,000, the total cost of the construction of the house was estimated to ultimately exceed $3 million. It was excused in large part because of the sacrifice Faubus had made in receiving such a low salary for so long (indeed, its picture donned the front of Faubus’ final gubernatorial Christmas card.).
Thus, improving the pay of elected officials was an attractive component of the hydra-headed beast that was Issue 3 on the fall ballot. In one of the biggest surprises of election 2014, the seductively titled “Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment” snuck to victory. While about ethics reform, Issue 3 was also about increasing the pay of elected official through the ongoing actions of a seven-member citizens commission.
That commission is now hard at work to meet a Feb. 2 deadline for the setting of salaries for all state elected officials. While there are no constraints on this first set of salary recommendations, raises (or reductions) in pay are limited to 15 percent in coming years under the amendment.
There is a real potential for backlash if the commission attempts to do too much too fast. All signs are that the commission is taking great care in its work, but this week’s proposal by outgoing Attorney General Dustin McDaniel to increase the pay of his successor in the office by 129 percent (to $165,000) raises real concerns. Immediate changes of that scope would likely produce anger in an electorate still ripe with cynicism about government and could produce efforts to roll back the pay increases. Instead, the commission should establish a goal for salaries and plan to use the significant pay increase mechanisms allowed under the amendment to reach them over a period of time.