Fatter payday nears for state legislators; public hearing today on $23,531 pay raise | Arkansas Blog

Monday, March 2, 2015

Fatter payday nears for state legislators; public hearing today on $23,531 pay raise

Posted By on Mon, Mar 2, 2015 at 7:07 AM

BEST PAID: Rep. Nate Bell led the 135 members of the legislature in gross state payments in 2014, with $62,902. He could soon get a $23,531 pay raise.
  • BEST PAID: Rep. Nate Bell led the 135 members of the legislature in gross state payments in 2014, with $62,902. He could soon get a $23,531 pay raise.

Speaking of Amendment 94, Sen. Jon Woods' cagey creation that is giving legislators longer terms, higher pay and cover for freebies in the name of ethics:

The independent citizens commission established by the amendment to grant legislators, judges and state officers pay raises in a way that legislators don't have to fade the political heat will have a public hearing today on its pay raise plans at 10 a.m. at the University of Arkansas System offices on North University Avenue.

It will be interesting to see the attendance. The Commission has no budget. It has a rudimentary website. But it has no means to advertise its process toward pay increases for politicians, other than the occasional story in news media.

The commission finalized its plans Feb. 2, subject to a change of heart following today's public hearing.

This is the plan:

* LEGISLATURE: Pay for regular legislators would rise from $15,869 to $39,400 and to $45,000 for House speaker and Senate president. The 145 percent increase is supposed to be accompanied, legislative leaders have promised, by an end to a $14,400 expense account that has been used by some as a pay supplement paid in the form of flat monthly payments to spouses' LLCs. The commission dictates pay but may only make recommendations on expenses. Legislative leaders have indicated no plans to cut the per diem payments and mileage reimbursements (at a rate much higher than state employees) when they get the pay raise.

* GOVERNOR: Would go from $79,132 to $130,000, an increase of 64 percent.

* LT. GOVERNOR: Would stay at $42,315.

* ATTORNEY GENERAL: Would go from $73,132 to $130,000, an increase of 77 percent

* SECRETARY OF STATE: Would go from $54,848 to $90,000, an increase of 64 percent

* AUDITOR, TREASURER AND LAND COMMISSIONER: All make $54,848, they'd all be moved to $85,000, an increase of 55 percent.

* DISTRICT JUDGES: From $125,950 to $140,000, up 11 percent

* CIRCUIT JUDGES: From $140,372. to $160,000, up 14 percent.

* COURT OF APPEALS: From $144,982 to $161,500, up 11 percent. The chief judge, $147,286. to $164,000, also up 11 percent.

* SUPREME COURT: From $149,589 to $166,500, up 11 percent. The chief justice,from $161,601 to $180,000, up 11 percent.

This is the full set of recommendations on pay and expenses and the basis by which the commission reached its conclusion after weeks of meeting and independent study.

A word about legislative pay. Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette compiled Sunday the newspaper's annual summary of total payments to legislators from all sources in 2014. Sen. Jon Woods, architect of the get-richer "ethics" amendment, led senators with $50,904. He is essentially a full-time legislator with no regular job otherwise. He claims limited outside income from "business consulting." I wish he'd disclose who pays for business consulting from someone who's only job is serving in the legislature and playing in a rock band. In the House, Rep. Nate Bell of Mena drew $62,902 (swollen by $10,000 in expenses held over from the previous year.) Bell says his constituents want him in Little Rock as much as possible, thus lots of per diem. He says he won't run again because it costs him too much in lost business income.

Bell told Wickline that the pay raise wouldn't net him much because the increased pay will be taxable, unlike the $14,400 paid for "office expenses." He estimated a net gain of $2,000 to $2,500. That is perhaps true for Bell if he is actually spending all of the $14,400 for legitimate expenses. Many lawmakers are taking it as a straight pay supplement, claiming it as a payment to a spouse for unitemized services. The $23,531 pay raise, after taxes, should clear a good $16,000 for most lawmakers.

Another thing worth pointing out: Bell and others only got about $30,000 from pay and the expense account. The lawmakers draw an additional $20,000 to $30,000 for per diem, mileage reimbursement  (now a whopping 57.5 cents a mile) and free trips to conferences.

The per diem isn't going away. Lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from Little Rock get $150 a day and those closer get $61 a day. This money is tax-free, whether lawmakers incur expenses or not. The leadership has decreed that lawmakers should get five days of per diem each week the legislature is in session, whether the legislature meets five days in a week or not. The amounts are not reduced by free meals that are supplied in abundance. Nor are they offset by the fact that some commute or can arrange free or low-cost housing in Little Rock. Commuters, of course, have no expenses to speak of that would be reimbursable for any other state employee except a cosseted legislator.

If past experience is a guide, with the pay raise, lawmakers like Bell and Woods should hit $65,000 or $70,000 in total state payments for 2016, the first full year of the new scheme, with about a third of it untaxable. (PS on expenses: The Commission recommended  continuation of additional expense enhancements given Senate and House leaders and chairs and vice chairs of committees. I'd be surprised if the legislature overrides THAT recommendation.)

You get a $2,000-a-month pay raise this year? Get 57.5 per mile in car expenses? Get  $150 a day to drive to work, even on days you don't work? Have somebody buying you free meals nearly every day? Don't like it? Head out to the UA System office this morning and be heard.

Once the public hearing is held, the commission is free to file the new pay schedule with the state auditor and the pay increase then takes effect in10 days. The money comes off the top of state revenue and is not subject to legislative appropriation.

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