Tahlequah Daily Press

October 23, 2013

Legislative pay hike proposal an insult


TAHLEQUAH — Last week, the Legislative Compensation Board, by a 7-1 vote, nixed an audacious proposal to raise the base pay of state lawmakers from $38,400 to $44,000 a year.

The lone holdout for the windfall was former State Sen. Charles Ford, R-Tulsa, who claimed a “competitive salary” was imperative if Oklahoma wants to coax “independent thinking” folks to serve.

Let’s get this straight: If an individual isn’t paid at least twice the amount of the average Okie, for about a third as much work, he’s not going to be a good “public servant”? Given the lack of concrete accomplishments from this recently gerrymandered state body, it’s tempting to accept that explanation. On the other hand, we do have some pearls among the swine, like our own State Rep. Mike Brown, who has done an exceptional job for his constituents.

The truth is, Oklahoma legislators continue to be among the highest-compensated state lawmakers in the country. The Daily Press conducted an analysis several years ago, and despite some across-the-board changes, the shocking outcome of this study remains largely the same. An Associated Press article last week indicated our lawmakers have dropped to 16th in the nation, though they are the best-paid among all neighboring states

 The article did not say whether it calculated rank based on the part-time status of Oklahoma lawmakers, since they only “work” about four months out of the year, whereas many other Legislatures are in session year-round.

The $38,400 salary for four months of work would seem generous enough to the average person in a state with a median household income of $44,312. But it’s even more attractive when you add in the $147 daily per diem for legislators who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol ($153 next year), plus the 56-cents-per-mile travel reimbursement and a monthly health care allowance of $640.  That’s not counting the optional retirement benefit, or the extra compensation for certain leadership positions, which ranges from $12,364 to $17,932 per year. A couple of legislators were heard to grouse that they hadn’t had raises since 1998.

We suggest these “people of privilege” join the club. Not only have many private- and public-sector employees not had raises for years, they’ve also been subjected to furloughs and benefits cuts. And if Oklahoma lawmakers could be seen as overpaid in 2013, the amount they were receiving in 1998 borders on the obscene.

It should also be pointed out that the starting salary for a public school teacher in this state is $31,000. That’s ironic, since teachers are often criticized by detractors for being paid for “only nine months of work.” Why aren’t those same naysayers lambasting legislators, with their minimum $62,000 annual package, for “only four months of work”?

Wes Milbourn, chairman of the compensation board and an appointee of Gov. Mary Fallin, had this to say: “With today’s government and today’s environment, I think we would not be looked on as wise members of this committee if we were to do increases, especially with the federal government shutdown, and cuts here and cuts there.”

That may have been an understatement. The large number of state legislators have not even proved themselves worthy of hanging onto their jobs for any length of time, much less worthy of raises of nearly 8 percent. Oklahomans should be insulted anyone even suggested it.