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Raising Legislator Pay

Feb 18, 2015

Four bills increasing South Dakota's legislators' compensation — count 'em, four! HB 1145, HB 1149, HB 1150, and SB 170 — are sailing through the Legislature. The most direct, SB 170, would raise legislators' annual pay from $6,000 to $10,000.

Let me be clear: I support raising legislator pay. Our legislators work hard for some of the lowest legislator pay in the nation. They sacrifice family and work time to do thankless work in the glare of public scrutiny. Those conditions make legislative candidates scarce. Higher pay will help address that candidate shortage.

Republican Rep. Jim Bolin has made arguments like that to defend two of these bills. I make arguments like that to advocate higher teacher pay. The logical connection between our arguments seems obvious. Alas, that logical connection seems to escape our legislators, who have proposed no legislation this session to address South Dakota's teacher shortage.

How do we fix that cognitive disconnect? Hmm ... if legislators can't look at teacher pay the way they look at their own checks, maybe they'll get it if we look at legislator pay the way legislators look at teacher pay. Here are some legislative pay-raise counterplans I would expect from our Republican legislators:

  1. Local Control: Let citizens in each district set salaries for their legislators. Set out tip jars at crackerbarrels ... but subject distribution of those tips to local referendum.
  2. Merit Pay: Appropriate money to raise the salaries of 21 out of the 105 legislators. Give the raises to the legislators who perform best, as determined by (a) number of bills enacted, (b) number of votes their bills receive, and (c) number of proponents who testify in committee for their bills. Let the Governor break any ties.
  3. Bang for the Buck: We can't just throw money at legislators. We have to get something for our investment. Raise their pay, but lengthen the session by a month.
  4. Summer Study: Why are we rushing to raise legislator pay? How do we even know that higher pay attracts more workers? Let's first convene a Blue Ribbon Task Force to study the Legislature and maybe reinvent basic labor economics.
  5. Training Wage: Fund raises for some legislators by cutting the pay for legislators under the age of 30. Young legislators don't bring as much talent, do as much work, or sacrifice as much time as older legislators.

(Oops—sorry about #5: I mixed up how Republicans treat teachers with how they treat children. Easy mistake.)

Legislators, if you finally catch my goose-gander drift, permit me to propose an amendment to the legislative pay raise that I really would support. Let's index legislator pay to teacher pay. If South Dakota teachers rank 51st for pay, you rank 51st for pay. If you legislators get South Dakota teachers up to 50th or 49th (do I hear 34th?), your pay goes up the same.

Legislator pay and teacher pay — connect the two, and we might really start solving some problems.

Update: Between the drafting and the publication of this column, the Senate rejected Senate Bill 170, the $4,000 pay raise. It looks like our senators are rediscovering their political consistency and leaving both teachers and legislators in the pay cellar.

Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a conservative perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard on this site. 

Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman, near Madison. He studied math and history at South Dakota State University and information systems at Dakota State University. Heidelberger lives, writes and bikes in Aberdeen.


05:44 am - Thu, February 19 2015
Warren said:
They say the SD legislators are the lowest paid in the nation, news flash, so is ever other member of the work force in SD. If the SD legislators would due as promised when gambling was made legal in this state, ALL moneys generated from gambling would go to education, we could pay our teachers what they are worth. What party has been in control of this state for generations? Draw your own conclusions.
01:46 pm - Thu, February 19 2015
Strange, Warren, that wages should be low across the board while our Republican governors have made economic development their primary policy priority. They tell us that by focusing on economic development, they'll bring jobs, economic activity, and higher tax revenues to support schools, roads, and other government functions (including higher wages for legislators, which they could use). Is even that policy priority misfiring?
07:09 am - Fri, February 20 2015
Ed said:
So what is the solution when you read this story in the Argus and look at the current survey with it and 70% agree. Lets hear your answer to doing it right!
06:33 pm - Fri, February 20 2015
dave tunge said:
Basically a good summation Cory.......except for number 3. I think you misspoke and inserted "lengthen" when you meant "shorten".
07:04 pm - Tue, February 24 2015
Ah, Dave, remember, I'm using Republican logic. They don't think teachers deserve more money for the work they do; on rare occasions when Republican legislators consider giving teachers more money, they would tie that money to greater demands, like lengthening the school year.
07:14 pm - Tue, February 24 2015
Ed, the fact that Galluo can find an above-average percentage of South Dakotans saying they feel healthy and happy doesn't change the fact that it's hard to convince people to go into legislating or teaching due in large part to low compensation

If by "solution" you mean the right way to raise legislator pay and recruit more legislative candidates, I say just do it. Doubling legislator pay would cost $630K, which is rounding error in the existing state budget. We could also adopt my plan to spread out the Session so legislators meet on a National Guard schedule:

Instead of enduring a solid two months away from work and family in the cold, cold winter, legislators could meet on weekends throughout the year, plus maybe an intensive session during better weather.

If the "solution" you're asking me for is teacher pay, that's tougher. We're talking about more than 9,000 teachers whose pay we need to raise $10K just to reach a middling 34th in the nation. There are many fiscal mechanisms: I suggest repealing 12.5% of our state sales tax exemptions.
12:49 pm - Fri, February 27 2015
Ed said:
Cory it seems to me that week end legislature would cost to have staff around for over time, plus milage/per-diam for legislators. And I'm not sure if you were raising a family or running a business you'd want to take your only real free time off for the year!

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