Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Politicians' pay commission back at work

Posted By on Wed, Jan 7, 2015 at 9:41 AM

click to enlarge AT WORK: Commission discusses pay and expenses.
  • AT WORK: Commission discusses pay and expenses.
The independent commission appointed to implement the pay raise review mandated by Amendment 94 for state elected officials and judges is at work this morning and the meeting is being streamed on the web.

Research is coming to the commission today, particularly comparative pay figures compiled by the Bureau of Legislative Research and expense reimbursements compiled by the state auditor's office.

Richard Wilson, assistant director for research of the bureau, noted that it's hard to compare the states because of differences in statewide job descriptions (the lieutenant governor is an important figure in many states; virtually powerless in Arkansas.) Also, some legislators work full-time, others do not. Arkansas is viewed by some rankings as have a legislature that works about two-thirds of the time. This is something it has worked itself into, however. The Constitution mandates only a 30-day fiscal session in even-numbered years and a 60-day general session in odd-numbered years, those periods including weekends when work is typically never conducted.

The commission heard that legislators get pay, mileage expenses, office expenses, per diem, state subsidy for health insurance and payment for certain travel. The Bureau didn't compile information about retirement benefits, which all elected officials enjoy. Wilson said the director of the Public Employees Retirement System would have to provide that information. The state has a defined benefit plan funded by the state for most state employees. Judges have their own retirement system that includes both individual and state contributions.

In discussing expenses, Commission Chair Larry Ross said he was inclined to recommend a uniform mileage reimbursement for all employees. Legislators currently get a higher rate. The commission will set pay for legislators, statewide officials and judges, but may only make recommendations on expenses, which the legislature is free to follow or not follow.

The commission came across one question raised by the amendment. It's presumed to apply only to the 38 state district judges who are paid a uniform salary. But there are dozens of local district judges paid by municipalities and other governments. Would their pay become a part of the commission's assignment. A legal opinion was requested.

Ross said he wanted to know about all the ancillary payments officials made before making a decision on pay for the officials. He's exactly right, of course. Legislative pay of around $15,000 is only the tip of a very large iceberg including extraordinary and sometimes dubious mileage reimbursement; office expenses used as a pay supplement funneled through many lawmakers' spouses; per diem payments that most are claiming for days when they don't work as well as those when they do work; state-paid retirement; state-paid health insurance; paid travel to conferences, and continuing free meals and booze from lobbyists.

In short: don't shed too many tears for this group. Particularly when you know that the Republican Party officially opposed this amendment to the Constitution and had every reason to expect it would be defeated on its extension of term limits. Now that they hold nearly all state offices, the GOP has grown silent about limiting pay raises.

Commissioner Chuck Banks said the process shouldn't be a "reward or punish" exercise. It should be forward-looking. He said the commission should merely conclude if existing expenses are fair and reasonable.

Rising House Speaker Jeremy Gillam appeared to argue that being a legislator was now more of a full-time job, in part in response to popular demand. He detailed interim meetings, for example. (They have become popular ways for legislators to gather in Little Rock to charge per diem.) The time demands have increased, he said. He said legislators work 16-hour days during the session to stay informed.

Banks said he was not hearing people who wanted pay raised to encourage a full-time legislature. Gillam said his constituents had increasing demands for service.

Commissioner Brenda James said many people couldn't afford to serve at current pay and she'd like to see the level make the job more attractive to all.

Sen. Jon Dismang, president pro tem of the Senate, presented information on expenses and meetings of the legislature. He noted expenses had dropped because of a lawsuit over expense account abuse. He also noted objections raised to the practice of paying per diem for weekends when the legislature isn't meeting. He said that procedure would change in the future.

The Commission concluded with a request to attempt to get a statistical comparison with similar states to see where the state ranks in pay. Several commissioners mentioned, thankfully, critical factors of per capita income and cost of living. Arkansas is still near the bottom in income nationally. Legislative pay should mirror that.

Chairman Ross said he'd like to see the commission make legislative recommendations first, then constitutional officers, then judges.

Judges are anxious to talk to the commission about pay raises, including Circuit Judge Shawn Womack, a former Republican legislator. The commission needs to get with the National Center on State Courts for its thorough judicial pay rankings. Arkansas ranks quite high already in that regard, particularly for a poor state. Adjusted for cost of living, trial judges in Arkansas have pay ranked 9th in the country by the National Center for State Courts.

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