On Legislative Pay Raises


Today, the Seventh State goes where no one has gone before: defending salary increases for state legislators.

It’s always easy to bash legislative pay increases. No one likely politicians with the stereotype being the proverbial fat cat. The proposal to raise legislator salaries from $43,500 to $53,330 over the next four years thus makes for an easy target, especially in election season.

Less mentioned is that the proposal also imposes on legislators  changes to their pensions similar to those that they placed on state employees as part of the effort to place the pension fund on a more even keel:

[The Commission also] proposed some of the same adjustments to legislative pensions that the General Assembly imposed on state employees and teachers in 2011. The commission suggested raising legislators’ contribution rate from 5% to 7% of their salaries, raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, and raising the early retirement age from 50 to 55.

People like to focus on the idea of legislators trying to raise their own pay.  Neglected is that the salary increases are recommended by an independent commission mandated in the Maryland Constitution:

Within 15 days after the beginning of the regular session of the General Assembly in 1974 and within 15 days after the beginning of the regular session in each fourth year thereafter, the Commission by formal resolution shall submit its determinations for compensation and allowances to the General Assembly. The General Assembly may reduce or reject, but shall not increase any item in the resolution.

Todd Eberly has pointed out that the new pay level is higher than the American median family income. However, it’s almost exactly equal to U.S. median household income in 2012 and well below the median Maryland household income of $72,999–not too surprising since our state is currently the wealthiest in the country.

Median household income is even higher in some of the largest counties, such as $73,568 in Prince George’s, $96,985 in Montgomery, $86,987 in Anne Arundel, $107,821 in Howard, $83,706 in Frederick, and $93,063 in Charles.

Of course, being a legislator is only supposed to be a part-time job. The General Assembly is in session for 90 days per year. Except that many professions aren’t too keen on hiring someone who has to be out for three months per year and is also liable to disappear when the Governor calls for special sessions.

Any legislator who is doing their job properly, moreover, also works hard outside of session on both constituent and legislative matters. It may not be a full-time job but it’s far from being active for only 90 days per year.

Claims of the easy life remind me of the similar statements made about teachers and college professors. Both have to engage in lesson preparation and grading outside of class. There are also numerous committees, recommendations and other responsibilities that are part of the job. College professors spend less time on these matters than teachers but also have research expectations.

Others point out that lots of people want these jobs, so why don’t we just lower their salaries? Certainly, Republicans don’t take this approach to CEO pay. Most people wouldn’t prefer to hire the cheapest person regardless of quality as a teacher, babysitter, or to do repairs on their home unless they have no choice.

When we limit legislative pay, we limit the pool of people who are willing to take–or can afford to take–the job. The whole idea of “you get what you pay for” seems thrown out the window . The situation is especially complicated in Maryland because we don’t have either a “professional” legislature like California or a clearly part-time one like New Hampshire or Wyoming.

Perhaps the worst idea is the one proposed by Republicans to adjust pay increases to metrics such as unemployment in the State. While, like Republicans, I believe that government can wreck the economy, I don’t think that it can necessarily counter overall national or world trends in this area.

It’s positively weird for the party that believes government is the problem to express support for a policy that assumes that legislators have some sort of magical control over the economy. I also didn’t exactly hear national GOPers rush to take responsibility at the national level during the 2010 and 2012 elections after the economy slid down the can on their watch.

The point here is not that the sky is the limit on legislative salaries. But maybe a little more thought is needed before deriding pay increases. Fewer canards and more thought are needed.