Compared with the pay of captains of industry or college football coaches, the $124,398 average salary earned by U.S. governors in 2007 isn't so spectacular. But for many, that's not a problem. Three governors are donating their salaries back to the state, and others are fighting against a raise.
A list of 2007 gubernatorial salaries compiled by the Council of State Governments shows the largest at $206,500 in California, though the governor doesn't accept it, and the smallest at $70,000 in Maine, where the governor hasn't gotten a raise in 20 years. At $179,000, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) draws the largest salary among governors who actually accept one.
"When people run for governor, they know what the salary is," said Ingrid Reed, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "They're not doing it for the money. They're doing it for the power to do good deeds."
Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) took an $80,000 pay cut in 2003 when he traded a U.S. House seat for the governor's mansion. Now, he's the lowest-paid head of state in the nation at $70,000 annually.
In fact, Baldacci's pay is less than that of 426 state employees, including his own assistant, who earned nearly $102,000 in 2005, according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a research group dedicated to less government spending. Baldacci opposed a proposed pay raise for himself last year and instead supported a teacher pay hike.
He's also one of 10 current governors who once served in the U.S. Congress, positions that come with a $165,200 salary, higher than 45 gubernatorial pay rates.
"(Baldacci) could do very well if he chose another profession," said his spokesman, David Farmer. "But people who become governor aren't doing it to be rich. They do it out of public service."
Considering the position's perks, such as travel assistance and free housing, being governor is "not a bad deal," said Jason Fortin of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Forty-six states subsidize governors' travel, while 44 have official residences, according to the Council of State Governments.
At $206,500 a year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who made hundreds of millions of dollars in Hollywood, gets a bigger state paycheck than any other governor, but he gives it back to California. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), founder of health insurer HealthAmerica, gives his $85,000 paycheck back to his home state, where he accumulated much of his wealth.
Another multimillionaire, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), accepts a salary each year, but it's only $1. That's less than three-tenths of a cent per day. If he chose to take the maximum statutory salary, he would get $175,000, the fourth-largest in the nation.
"It's a good political ploy to (not accept a salary)," said Thad Beyle, a University of North Carolina professor who studies U.S. governors. He said politicians run for the top state job not for the money, but sometimes to parlay the post into higher office, including the presidency. Four of the last five U.S. presidents served in the governor's office before the Oval Office. "It's just the next step to bigger things," Beyle said.
Corzine, a former chief executive officer of financing giant Goldman Sachs, reported income of about $6 million in 2006 mostly through stocks, bonds and real estate. Current Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein received a $54 million salary in 2006, making him the best-paid executive on Wall Street, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Corzine spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said her boss in "no way" has been put into a financial bind as governor. As a U.S. senator from New Jersey from 2000 to 2005, Corzine was forced by law to accept a salary, but he donated it to charity. He also has said he personally will pay for his medical care after an April automobile accident left him critically injured.
"He has been blessed in his life," Gilfillan said. "He wants to give something back."
Head football coaches at NCAA Division 1A schools are paid about $900,000 annually, the largest salary among all state employees, according to an April study by the American Association of University Professors. Though not shooting for top coaches' pay, at least seven states have proposed a salary increase for their chief executives in 2008. They are Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington.
Republican leaders in Arizona's Senate said the governor's $95,000 salary, No. 41 in the nation, will reduce the quality of candidates. If a bill to raise the pay to $112,500 is defeated, the sheriff and attorney of Arizona's two largest counties will be paid more than the head of state.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) opposes the pay raise, which would go into effect for her successor in 2011. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) similarly indicated they would turn down a proposed raise.
"With an accelerating cost of living, sooner or later, things will suffer," said pay-raise proponent Marian McClure (R), a state senator in Arizona, one of six states that don't provide the governor with a place to live. "It gets to a point that you get what you pay for."