OPINION: Legislative pay, despite critics, ranks as serious budget issue

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In light of the budget woes facing the state, the Mississippi Senate voted last week to reduce its pay by 10 percent for the upcoming year.
Budget problems solved, right? Hardly.
A reduction of 10 percent for the 174 members of the House and Senate, plus the lieutenant governor, will save the state about $186,000. The state’s budget troubles are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The House now will take up the proposal to reduce its pay from $10,000 to $9,000. Both sides must agree to it, and it must be signed into law by the governor.
It is interesting to note that the Senate Fees, Salaries and Administration Committee brought out the bill to reduce legislative pay, but not the pay of statewide elected officials.
Legislation making the same reductions for the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and other statewide and districtwide officials would have saved additional tens of thousands of dollars, but it died in committee.
Plus, it is a bit misleading to refer to legislators’ pay as $10,000. They get paid $10,000 for each regular session – whether it is 90 days or the 120-day session that the first session of each new term is supposed to be. If they finish early, which seldom happens, they still receive $10,000. If they stay in session longer than expected, they still get the $10,000.
The $10,000 salary for the session is what the Senate bill would cut by 10 percent. It also would cut pay for special sessions next year from $75 per day to $67.50.
Sen. Giles Ward, R-Philadelphia, who is the primary author of the bill, knows the pay reduction will not solve the state’s budget woes. It is viewed as more of a symbolic gesture to show that legislators – the state’s policy makers – are suffering like state employees and like those who depend on state services that are being cut.
Besides the $10,000 salary, legislators also receive money for expenses while in Jackson. That is based on the federal rate, which is currently $116 per day. In addition, when not in session, they get paid $40-per-day for a limited number of trips to Jackson each month, plus the $116 per day for living expenses.
During the session, they receive mileage once a week for trips from their home to Jackson. Out of session, when they make those limited number of trips to Jackson, they also receive mileage.
Out of session, legislators also receive $1,500 per month – theoretically for all the demands they face in their district, such as traveling to attend meetings, handling constituent services and the like.
The Auditor’s report published each year revealing the pay of legislators includes all pay, including what they receive for living expenses. In fairness, it should be remembered that legislators can’t stay in Jackson for free.
Sure, some, but not all, get an inordinate number of meals paid for by lobbyists, but they still have to pay for some meals and a place to sleep.
I have always thought it is unfair to consider living expenses as part of legislative pay. It should be pointed out, though, that legislators living near Jackson, who can sleep at home every night, receive the same pay for living expenses as does a member living in Corinth.
When everything is factored in, most Mississippians would agree that the compensation legislators receive for what is supposed to be a part-time job is not that bad – especially in this economy.
The problem with that line of thought is that it is not the usual part-time job. In recent years, the job has consumed much more time. Sure, part of that is the fault of legislators, but more so it is the product of the modern system that is more partisan and more complex.
How many people have jobs where they are allowed to be gone for three months or more when the Legislature is in session and able to miss work on essentially a moment’s notice when the governor calls a special session?
The nature of the work makes it a very unusual part-time job. A legislator must either have an understanding employer, be an independent businessman or be retired.
Truth be known, for many, especially older members retired from their private-life job, serving in the Legislature is their only job. Many members are independently wealthy, but many are not.
And despite the generally held perception, not all are attorneys. In the 52-member Senate, 11 attorneys serve, while in the 122-member House, 30 lawyers serve. Far more members have business connections, whether it is as business owners, insurance agents, farmers or in health care.
The Legislature is supposed to represent the state’s population – white and black, male and female, some wealthy and some not.
That is why talk of reducing legislative pay should be viewed as a serious issue. Reducing the base $10,000 salary by 10 percent for one year might not be that big of an issue, and might make an important symbolic gesture, but by the same token we should not want to reach a point where the only people able to serve in the Legislature are the retired and the independently wealthy.

Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or e-mail
bobby.harrison@djournal.com.