Are Lawmakers Worth What We Pay Them?

Would you become a Louisiana legislator for one year if someone paid you $16,800?

Some of you are probably thinking that there’s no amount of money that would convince you to get behind the pawns on the Capitol chess board. There are others, though, who would surely do it for free.

But there is an annual salary attached to the gig: $16,800. Lawmakers worked long hours for it in 2016, with more consecutive days spent in session than in any other year since 1812.

On the other hand, the Legislature failed to adopt a construction plan on time last year and couldn’t agree on a budget before the most recent regular session adjourned in June. We all know what would happen if you missed your deadlines at work. There would be no paycheck.

But government is not business, nor should it be run like one. Unless they’re independently wealthy, legislators want to be compensated for their time just like we do — and $16,800 seems like a small sum for the efforts invested.

Skeptics and critics have every right to be offended by that opinion, but they shouldn’t needlessly worry. The political landscape isn’t right for an increase in legislative salaries.

The $16,800 wage was established 37 years ago and was determined at the time to be a fair shake for a part-time government job. Lawmakers did try to boost their own pay in 2008, when former Gov. Bobby Jindal initially agreed to a plan that would have increased their base salary from $16,800 to $37,500 a year.

This was despite his promise during the preceding election cycle not to support legislative pay raises. But Jindal, reading the political tea leaves, broke free from his vow to lawmakers and delivered a veto that mirrored his earlier campaign promise — thus double-crossing legislators instead of voters.

Radio show hosts like Moon Griffon and bloggers like late Hammond attorney C.B. Forgotston were quick to remind Jindal of his first promise. They accused lawmakers of being greedy and pointed out that a few of them didn’t even have full-time jobs outside the public sector. (Back then many were also pulling down local and state pensions.)

At the time, former House Speaker Jim Tucker told WAFB-TV the “goal was to assure that citizens from all walks of life could afford public service.” In that interview Tucker also pointed to what remains the real problem: “The Louisiana state constitution currently requires that the Legislature set its own pay and this should be changed.”

The law, of course, hasn’t been changed since Tucker made his recommendation. Maybe it’s time to take another look at the idea.

Across the nation legislative salaries in 2017 remained largely unchanged from recent years, according to a study released three weeks ago by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the 41 states that actually pay their legislators an annual salary the average pay was $35,592, the study found.

Some of the study’s other findings, however, do serve as a reminder that lawmakers in other states are in a much tougher position than their Louisiana counterparts when it comes to paychecks. In New Hampshire legislators get $100 per year and Texas lawmakers have a salary set at $7,200 annually. But House and Senate members here are most certainly jealous of California legislators, who are the best paid in the nation and take home a $104,118 salary.

It’s important to remember that while $16,800 is the salary cap in Louisiana the figure doesn’t represent total compensation. Lawmakers likewise get a $6,000 per year unvouchered expense allowance and a $156 per diem for every day of official work in and outside of Baton Rouge. The numbers can add up quickly and quite commonly passes the $50,000 mark — all in — for the folks who have to be at the Capitol the most, like committee chairs and the legislative leadership.

If lawmakers surprisingly take up the issue, which is unlikely, they should probably watch their backs when opening up the law for review. Four years ago legislators in Illinois found themselves in a strange position when former Gov. Pat Quinn shepherded a unique pay provision onto the books that mandatorily required representatives and senators to forfeit one day of compensation per month.

Why? They were dragging their feet on unfunded pension liability.

That’s an idea. Lawmakers in Louisiana definitely think government employees should have to reach benchmarks to receive funding and to, yes, get a paycheck. The Legislature shouldn’t be exempt from such a review process involving taxpayer dough.

Louisiana's legislative salaries could even be tied to the median household income. Or a commission could be charged with taking over the process, removing lawmakers from the equation altogether.

But given the budget problems facing the state, legislators probably won’t be talking about their own pay scales in the next regular session. That’s for the best — for the time being at least.

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