Stateline Story

1999 Year Of The Pay Raise For Many Lawmakers

WASHINGTON - Emboldened by the booming economy and robust budget surpluses, state legislators in many parts of the country are making 1999 the year of the pay raise.

Lawmakers in 10 states - Maryland, Kentucky, Idaho, Illinois, California, New York, Colorado, Arizona, Massachusetts and Connecticut - will be getting fatter salaries this year.

And five other states - Kansas, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee - are talking about paying their legislators more.

One exception to the national trend is New Mexico, where lawmakers get no salary for their 60-day session, just a per diem. That per diem was just cut by $1, bringing it down to $124 a day.

Legislative pay can be a sensitive subject politically. After South Carolina lawmakers received a meager $400 increase to their $10,000 annual salary in 1991, they waited eight years before making a cautious bid for $15,000.

"I feel I personally deserve a pay raise," Democratic Rep. Curtis Inabinett told The State, a Columbia, South Carolina, newspaper. "I spend a lot of time doing constituent work at home," Inabinett said. "You're subject to calls 24 hours a day, 12 months of the year."

To put South Carolina legislator pay in perspective, if the $10,000 that General Assembly members made in 1978 had kept pace with inflation, they would be earning $24,620 today.

"Public servants are not always held in high esteem, and whenever they vote for an increase in pay that essentially goes to themselves, it can be met with skepticism," says Brian Weberg, with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "That's why, in many states a legislature cannot vote a pay raise to itself."

That's the route California took on its way to the highest state legislative pay in the country, $99,000. That sum, which reflects a 26 percent increase that kicked in the first of the year, was deemed appropriate by a citizens panel.

New York legislators, on the other hand, were directly responsible for a 38 percent pay hike that took them from $57,500 last year to $79,500 in 1999. The New York pols included their salary hike in a measure raising Gov. George Pataki's pay from $130,000 to $179,000. However, it was their first raise since 1989.

California has a ten month legislative session, while New York lawmakers work the entire year.

Colorado lawmakers, who meet from early January to early May, okayed a 71 percent pay raise two years ago that takes effect this year and pushes their pay from $17,500 to $30,000 annually.

Whatever the legislative pay scale, there are some citizens in every state who cannot be disabused of the notion that their representatives in the statehouse are overpaid.

In Pennsylvania, where legislators will not get a pay raise this year, former newspaper reporter Regis Stefanik is so incensed over the $58,341 annual salary the state pays its lawmakers that he created www.downandout.org, a forum where he grouses about legislative compensation.

It rankles Stefanik, who lives in Apollo, a western Pennsylvania town, that lawmakers are reimbursed for leasing cars, have paid medical insurance, and can continue to earn income from businesses they run.