Do you think your state senator and two representatives are worth $35,000 a year?
What about the other 87?
You're going to get a chance to decide exactly that question in November.
The Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers voted 3-2 Wednesday to recommend an $11,000-a-year raise in the current $24,000 compensation for lawmakers. Proponents said that, at the very least, that keeps the salaries in line with inflation since the last pay hike was approved in 1998.
But the Arizona Constitution gives the last word on legislative salaries to voters, and the panel's recommendations get rejected far more than they are approved.
Dennis Mitchem, who has been a commission member for years, said he thinks this year can be different. And the answer is simple math. Figures prepared by the state Department of Administration track inflation, as measured by the cost of labor, since that 1998 raise. If legislative salaries had risen by the same figure, it would now stand at $34,700.
He rounded that up to $35,000 to come up with the recommendation.
“Legislators shouldn't have to take a cut every year in the take-home value of what they're being paid,” Mitchem said.
Joe Kanefield, another member of the panel, said that figure is justified.
“No one is getting rich serving as a legislator here in Arizona,” he said.
“The people that do serve make great sacrifice, both personally, professionally and financially to serve here,” Kanefield continued. “So what they are paid at $24,000 a year just barely covers some of the incidental costs that they have to incur.”
Kanefield acknowledged prior efforts to increase the salary to $36,000 and, when that failed, to $30,000, all faltered. But he said the economy has “greatly improved” since then and he believes voters will look more kindly on this $35,000 proposal.
Karen Johnson, a former state lawmaker who also serves on the commission, said that's not true outside the major metro areas. Johnson, calling in to the meeting from Snowflake, said that area is “extremely depressed economically,” and she said most other Arizonans have not gotten pay hikes recently.
“For the voters to go to the ballot to raise the salary of the legislators, I don't think this is a good time,” she said. “I have not seen our economy bounce back, at least not up here.”
Brian Kaufman also voted against the $35,000 recommendation as indefensible, saying he would have gone along with something smaller, perhaps in the $28,000 to $30,000 range for what is supposed to be a part-time job.
That left Lisa Atkins, who chairs the panel, to cast the deciding vote in favor of putting the $35,000 recommendation on the ballot.
“I do think the voters should have an opportunity to decide this issue,” she said.
Mitchem said one thing working against voter approval is public distrust.
“In recent times, I have gotten comments that I didn't used to get: ‘What they're doing, they'll make it up in the graft,’” he said.
“I don't for a minute, believe that's true,” Mitchem continued. “In fact, I think our elected legislators almost universally are performing a valuable public purpose and are to be esteemed, not ridiculed.”
It probably didn't help when Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, told a TV reporter earlier this year that he feels entitled to take free tickets to football games because his legislative pay is so low.
“Give us a raise, we'll buy our own tickets,” he said.
Legislation this year to stop lawmakers from accepting free tickets from lobbyists to everything from sporting events to concerts never even made it out of the Senate.
That also gets to the question of what Kanefield and Atkins said are out-of-pocket costs.
Lawmakers do get an allowance while the legislature is in session: $35 a day for Maricopa County residents and $60 a day for everyone else. That includes Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the session even though there are no meetings.
The session is supposed to last about 3 1/2 months but has gone on up to close to six months. There also is the occasional special session, with committee meetings at other times during the year.
Legislators also get an allowance for at least one day a week during the rest of the year, with those in leadership entitled to submit a claim any time they are at the Capitol.
Atkins said she does not believe that covers the real costs, particularly for rural lawmakers with sprawling districts who have to stay in contact with constituents, but she conceded it may be a different matter of whether those legislators who live in Maricopa County — and do not need to rent hotel rooms or apartments during session — should be getting an allowance just for coming to the Capitol.
But the size of the living allowance is set by lawmakers themselves and not by the commission or voters. A bid last year by Reps. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, and David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista for a sharp increase — $98-a-day for Maricopa County lawmakers and $163 for everyone else — faltered when they could not marshal support from their colleagues.