Higher legislative salaries would be worth investment

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How much should a lawmaker be paid?

The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask, and which lawmaker they're talking about.

But is $12,000 a year adequate compensation for a member of the Nebraska Legislature?

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha doesn't think so. He's introduced LR373CA to give Nebraska voters a chance to decide whether to give their state representatives a raise to $32,000 a year.

The Legislature tried to put an increase to $22,000 on the May 2010 ballot, but technicalities apparently made the vote unconstitutional, prompting Speaker Mike Flood to pull the measure during the middle of the recession.

We doubt if voters would be much more receptive to a pay hike now than they might have been in 2010, but the issue still deserves a serious hearing.

Yes, the actual terms are designed to be 60 days long one year and 90 the next, but with interim hearings, studies, constituent service and other duties, it's easily more than a full-time job.

A Lincoln Journal Star story pointed out that DiAnna Schimek made $12,000 a year in the Legislature, and now makes $24,000 on the Lincoln City Council. Lancaster County Commissioners make $38,047 annually, Omaha City Council $35,232 with a raise next year, and Douglas County Commisssioners $36,217 this year.

Red Willow County commissioners make $17,500 a year plus health insurance, with an extra $50 a month for the chairman, and McCook City Council members make $450 a quarter, with no benefits. The county board meets once a week, the City Council twice a month, and the school board -- no salaries -- once a month.

For perspective, a person working 40 hours a week at minimum wage would draw $15,080, with benefits unlikely.

So what type of people can serve in the Unicameral? Many are retired, some are wealthy, some simply have flexible day jobs and some apparently live ascetic lives.

As a result, the Legislature is more likely to cater to the interests of people like those who are elected to it.

If voters did approve the $20,000 raise, it would cost the state about $980,000 for a year for senators' base pay.

That's nothing to sneeze at, and might be enough in itself to kill the proposal before it gets to the voters.

But a $32,000 salary, while maybe not enough to attract career politicians -- especially with a two-term limit -- should be enough to make it possible for a wider variety of citizens to seek a seat in the Legislature, a change that would be well worth the investment.

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