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Legislative Pay Cut Was For Optics, Not Savings!

Weekly Opinion Editorial

Legislative Pay is not the Problem!
by Steve Fair

     The Oklahoma legislative compensation board is a nine member panel that meets the third Tuesday of each odd numbered year to review state legislative compensation.  The Governor appoints five of the nine members, the Speaker of the House two members and the President pro tempore of the Senate two members.  There are specific qualifications for the members to insure a cross section of Oklahomans.  The Director of State Finance and the Chairman of the Oklahoma Tax Commission serve as non-voting members of the board.  For the past sixteen years, the board hasn’t adjusted-up or down- the salaries of the 149 legislators, but this year the board narrowly voted 4-3 to reduce the base salary of a state legislator from $38,400 to $35,021 annually, an 8.8% cut. It will be effective November 15, 2018.     
   Of the five states bordering Oklahoma, Arkansas pays their lawmakers the most- $39,400 a year, Texas the least- $7,200 a year.  Oklahoma legislators, like 40 other states are part time.  They meet in regular session 60-70 days per year from February to May.  Three observations:
    First, the board’s action was more about optics than substance.  The savings to state taxpayers will be $503,471 annually, certainly nothing to sneeze at, but that is just a tiny percentage of the nearly seven billion the legislature appropriates annually.  The board took the action to send a message, but it wasn’t the right one.   Wes Milbourn, the board president, said, “Oklahomans right now today are frustrated with Oklahoma’s Legislature.”  So using that logic, legislative salaries should be based on legislative likeability?  When Oklahomans like them, they should get more money and less when we don’t like them? 
     Second, reducing the salary for a legislator could result in fewer options at the ballot box.  Some potential lawmakers may not be able to afford to serve, meaning only the elite and wealthy would have the personal resources to serve.   That could result in fewer average Oklahomans in the legislature.
     Third, a workman is worthy of his hire.  Oklahoma lawmakers earn their money.  While they may meet only 66 days a year, they are always on the clock.  The last action the board took on legislative pay was twenty years ago when they raised legislative pay from $32,000 to $38,400. That action was met with anger by many Oklahomans because at that time it was twice what per capita income of the average Oklahoman.  If the board had kept up with inflation, that $38,400 would be $58,500 in 2017. 
     The state legislature represents the people and trying to starve them out or send half them home(unicameral) is a not a strategy that will move the state forward. Lawmakers should be paid a competitive wage for doing a difficult job.  If they aren’t representing the people, they should be defeated at the ballot box, not by withholding compensation. The board’s action appears to be retaliatory for the budget fiasco and that is not their constitutional function.