‘Most powerful commission’ meets again on office-holder salaries

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 162 views 

The Independent Citizens Commission charged with setting salaries for legislators, constitutional officers, and judges hopes to hear from some of those people at its next meeting Jan. 7.

At its second meeting Tuesday (Dec. 30), commission members decided to request appearances by Speaker of the House Jeremy Gilliam, R-Judsonia, and Senate Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, to discuss legislators’ compensation and expenses. They also hope to hear from a representative from the judiciary as well as someone who can speak to salaries of constitutional officers. Additionally, the commission plans to hear a report comparing salaries from peer states.

The commission was created by voter passage of Amendment 94 in November. The amendment also extended term limits, prohibited gifts from lobbyists, prohibited campaign donations from corporations and unions, and required legislators to wait two years before registering as lobbyists.

By Feb. 2, it must present a salary review and make recommendations regarding reimbursements for per diem and mileage expenses. The commission ultimately will set salaries following a public review process. Under the amendment, the Legislature is not bound by the commission’s recommendations for expense reimbursements.

That’s a tight timeline. Commission Chairman Larry Ross said during the meeting that the commission could consider later making recommendations retroactive to the Feb. 2 deadline.

The commission is required to consider the state’s economic condition when setting salaries. Dr. John Shelnutt with the state Department of Finance and Administration told commission members that Arkansas’ recovery has been modest compared to recoveries from previous recessions. Inflation is low, and interest rates are not expected to rise in the near future. He said Arkansas’ cost of living is 12.4% below the national average, ranking it 49th.

The commission is hampered by a lack of funding and is relying on staff resources borrowed from the attorney general, the auditor, and the Bureau of Legislative Research.

Gov. Mike Beebe’s salary is $87,758.88, according to Transparency.Arkansas.gov. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is paid $73,131.84. The base pay for Arkansas legislators is $15,869, not counting expenses.

Longtime journalist Ernie Dumas gave legislators a historical review of elected officials’ salaries. Under the 1874 Constitution, the governor originally was paid a yearly salary of $4,000, while legislators were not paid a salary but did earn $6 a day in per diem reimbursements when they were in session along with 20 cents a mile.

“I guess you had to feed the mule,” Dumas told the panel.

By 1946, the governor was paid $10,000 – among the lowest in the country and far lower than in other states – while the attorney general was paid $6,000 and the state’s other full-time constitutional officers were paid $5,000. The lieutenant governor was paid $2,500, while legislators were paid $600 a year plus $6 per diem and 5 cents per mile. Those figures stood until 1974.

Dumas told commission members that, “This is the most powerful commission in many ways in the history of the state.” That’s because, unlike almost everything else spent by state government, the money will not be appropriated by the Legislature. The commission’s decisions are final.