We pay our state legislators $52,596 annually. All but the $10-per-legislative-day salary set out in the state Constitution is categorized as an expense allowance.
While that may sound like a lot of money to many for a part-time job, for most, particularly those lawmakers who live outside Montgomery, it is mostly eaten up in travel and subsistence expenses.
The $10-per-day salary is the lowest in the nation, except for New Hampshire where the pay is $200 for a two-year term and no expenses and New Mexico where there is a $159-perday expense allowance but no salary. The highest salary is California at $95,291 plus $142 a day for each day in a session.
Some other examples are: Washington, $42,106 annual salary plus $90-a-day expense allowance; Illinois, $67,836 annual salary plus a $139-per-day expense allowance; Tennessee, $19,009-per-year salary plus $185-per-day expense allowance during sessions; Wisconsin, $49,943 annual salary plus $88-per-session day expense allowance; Mississippi, $10,000 annual salary plus $116-per-day allowance; Florida, $29,697 annual salary plus $133-per-day expense allowance; Delaware, $41,680-per-year salary plus $7334-annualexpense allowance; Michigan, $79,650-peryear salary plus $12,000-annual-expense allowance; South Carolina, $10,400 annual salary plus a $131-per-day expense allowance.
State law requires Alabama lawmakers to set their own compensation. I believe that needs to change.
As I reported last week, Rep. Paul Beckman of Prattville has introduced legislation that would create a Citizen Pay Commission to establish pay and expense reimbursement for legislators. His proposal would rescind the 61-percent legislative pay raise enacted in 2007. A companion constitutional amendment is also proposed to repeal the raise and establish the commission, which would fix the compensation of legislators.
Beckman says it is time to remove the process of establishing legislative pay from the province of the legislature and place it in the hands of an outside body. The five-member commission he proposes would consist of citizen appointees by the governor, state auditor, state treasurer, and two by the Ethics Commission. The terms of office would be staggered, and pay commission members would assess the pay issue based on a number of factors, including what legislative pay is in other states.
A full-time lawmaking body
I know the following proposal will not likely meet with a great deal of approval, if any at all. However, I believe it is time for a fulltime legislative body, perhaps with fewer members. Maybe we should even go as far as Nebraska and establish a unicameral (one house) legislature. The state senate is Nebraska’s total legislative branch. It is unique in that it is the only American state legislature that is unicameral. It is often referred to by Nebraska residents as “the uni.” Each of Nebraska’s 49 state senators represented an average of 34,293 residents, as of the 2000 Census.
But back to the matter of a full-time legislative body, be it two houses or one. Our part-time Legislature is a dismal failure. Why? It is because the members come with a special interest tied around their necks… their jobs. We have just eliminated or attempted to eliminate public-employee and teacher-special-interest lawmakers, but doing that hasn’t eliminated other special interest legislators.
For example, how many lawmakers are on the payroll of the financial industry, the agricultural industry, the retail industry, the medical profession, lawyers, unions, municipal government, county government, the brewers, the tobacco manufacturers… I could go on and on.
This is why we need a legislative body which is not beholden to any organization but us, the people. Otherwise we end up with what we’ve got and that includes many on the payrolls of corporate or other interests that may not jive with the interests of most of the rest of us.
The only way to accomplish this is to make lawmaking a full-time job; pay those who serve a decent salary, but require that they not be paid any outside income other than investment income from their own resources.
I am a perfect example of what I preach against here. When I sought, unsuccessfully, election to the Legislature many years back, I was a full-time employee at the daily newspaper in Florence. While I might have attempted to divest my legislative actions from my job, it would have probably been difficult if such action would have been detrimental to my employer. That is no less a problem today, and it will continue to be as long as legislators are permitted to earn income other than from the people of Alabama.
Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org