Tolbert: Salary Commission Should Consider Raises And Tighten Expense Reimbursements

by Jason Tolbert ([email protected]) 166 views 

Much to the surprise of many in the state – with perhaps the exception of Sen. Jon Woods and Rep. Warwick Sabin – Proposed Constitutional Amendment Issue 3 was passed by the voters in November with a little over 52% of the vote.  Much attention has been focused on two aspects of the new law – setting term limits at a total of 16 years for state legislators and banning virtually all gifts from lobbyists – but another key provision will change the way statewide elected officials’ salaries will be set through the creation of a new “Independent Citizens Commission.”  This new commission will set the salaries for all seven constitutional officers, state legislators, and judges.

We should soon get our first look at the make-up of this seven-member commission as Governor Beebe (2), Speaker of the House Carter (2), Senate Pro Tempore Dismang (2), and Supreme Court Chief Justice Hannah (1) roll out their picks. The appointments have to be made within 30 days of the amendment’s passage, which is this Thursday. The commission will have its first meeting by December 20th (45 days after the election) at the call of Pro Temp Dismang.

We should see quite a bit of activity quickly based on the way the new law is written.

The commission has a tight deadline for submitting its “initial review of the salaries” – set for February 3rd, or 90 days from when the law passed. During this time period, the commission must consider at what amount to set salaries and put this out for a public comment period. The law requires the commission to “make available to the public any data reviewed by the independent citizens’ commission in determining the proposed salary adjustment” and “afford the public a reasonable opportunity to provide public comment on the proposed salary adjustment.”

That means in order to allow a “reasonable opportunity” for public comment, the commission’s proposal will likely have to come sometime in January, which is only a month away.

This initial review is important as the law allows the most leniency during this first process. In subsequent years, the commission is limited to a 15% adjustment to the salaries, but in the initial review they can increase or decrease the salaries with few limitations. Commissioners are required to consider the “overall economic condition of the state” and – for some reason – they can only increase, but not decrease the salaries of judges. Other than that, they could raise or lower salaries to whatever level they deem prudent.

Hopefully, the commission will take a serious look at increasing the salaries of several officials during this initial review. If they do this task correctly, they will set a good baseline for each position and can make modest adjustments in the future based on cost of living adjustments and economic conditions. The fact is most of our elected officials make a salary far below the salaries in other states with some positions embarrassingly low.

Perhaps the position with the biggest gap is our state Attorney General who currently has a salary of $73,132. According to data from The Council of State Governments, this is the lowest of any state with the next lowest being Colorado at $80,000 and the highest being our neighbors in Tennessee where their attorney general makes $176,988. The average salary for all the states is around $122,000.

To look at it another way, prosecutors in Arkansas make $123,162, district judges make $125,495, and associate Supreme Court judges make $149,589. The AG’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Erika Gee makes $124,595, which is 70% more than her boss. In fact, according to Transparency Arkansas, 62 employees in the AG’s office make more than the Attorney General. That makes no sense.

A similar comparison could be done for the other six offices, but the AG is the most dramatically low. Hopefully, the salary commission will give this a serious look.

Likewise, state legislative salaries lag behind other states while at the same time the duties for state legislators have become more of a full-time demand due in part to the creation of annual sessions. Currently, state representatives and state senators earn $15,869 with the Senate Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House making $17,771.  The National Conference on State Legislatures has a study comparing state legislative salaries. They group the legislators based on how much of a “full-time” job is performed by the members. Arkansas is listed in the middle group in between a full-time professional body and a part-time citizen body. The average salary in this group is $43,429.

Another way of looking at this is the average per capita income in Arkansas in 2012 was $34,723 according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The poverty level for a family of four is $23,850. The starting teacher salary in Arkansas is $31,000, according to the latest proposal.

In short, legislative salaries are ridiculously low. The amount of time required combined with the low salary level creates a system where someone basically has to be independently wealthy, retired, or have a very generous employer to be able to make the commitment to serve in the General Assembly. If you don’t believe me, go ask your boss for three months off every year plus several days each month. Also, go to the bank and try to get a mortgage with your salary listed as $15,869. I would predict laughter from both attempts.

The way legislators have skirted this issue in the past is by taking advantage of rather generous expense reimbursement rules.  While this has improved due to a recent lawsuit, members can still turn in reimbursement for up to $14,400 a year (more for committee chairmen) with little documentation. Some take full advantage of this, while others do not. This is in addition to per diem of $150 a day and reimbursement for mileage to attend meetings.

It is therefore significant that the new law gives the new commission the power to make “recommendations” to the Senate Pro Temp and House Speaker on amount to be paid to legislators for “per diem, reimbursement for expenses, and reimbursement for mileage.” The same 90-day time table applies to these recommendations.

It seems by design the two issues are tied together as well they should be. The commission would be wise to consider an adjustment more in line with the average salary for state legislators with similar duties, while at the same time greatly reducing or even eliminating the amount that legislators are given for loosely defined “office expenses.”

In my view, per diem and mileage are somewhat separate issues and are not heavily abused as is the case with office expenses.  In fact – with the prohibition against lobbyist provided meals – perhaps legislators should be reminded that the $150 a day is meant to cover their lodging and meal expenses while attending to their duties.

It will be interesting to watch and should unfold rather quickly. The new commission is specifically open to the Freedom of Information Act, so the proceedings should all be open. If you really want to dive deep into the new amendment, make sure to attend the program Amendment 3: It Passed. Now What? next Monday at noon the Clinton School. A full panel will be on hand to break it all down.