Legislative Compensation (S.39) - May 10, 2023

A number of amendments were reviewed by the House Government Operations Committee and then reviewed on the House floor later in the day. These included attempts to reduce health care coverage to just during the legislative session, looking at creating an independent commission to oversee legislative compensation, study appropriate salaries instead of new salaries instead of setting them now, and shortening the legislative session to 12 week (typically around 19 now).

House Government Operations Committee

The Committee returned to S.39 on Wednesday morning to review proposed amendments to the bill. Representative Harrison was the first to testify regarding his amendment, which would treat Legislators as employees during the Legislative session, however when not in session they would not be treated as employees. In this way they would still be eligible but without a subsidy and would pay 100% of the premium.

Harrison added “health insurance is a very, very valuable benefit.” He doesn’t want that to go away, but the “cheaper” family plan is $20K and that “dwarfs” legislators’ current compensation. He thought that would be a “very hard sell with my constituents.”

Mrowicki noted that this issue was going to be taken up by the Working Group created in the bill, so he proposed that they find this amendment not favorable.

McCarthy added that the bill, as written, would provide 2025 Legislators with VSEA plans year-round. However, the major change contemplated in the amendment is that the health insurance coverage would only be when the legislature is in session.

Representative Waters Evans wondered if these changes would affect those who are eligible for the Vermont Health Connect exchange. McCarthy believed it will and this is another reason for them to hesitate here.

McCarthy made a motion to dismiss the amendment and the vote was 8-3-1 in favor.

Harrison offered a second amendment. He explained that some states have independent commissions for pay adjustments. The amendment would add this to the list of topics for the study committee and does not commit them to anything. Representatives Hango and Higley both supported this idea.

Representative Birong commented that “the legislature has a tradition here of doing this (setting its own pay).” 

McCarthy stated that they “don’t set our own pay, we set each other’s pay.” Looking at the bill, they were asking the Working Group to “focus on a few things,” he added.

Mrowicki offered that there was “some merit here.” They had already set this working group up, so he thought it might be appropriate to have them look at this proposal.

Representative Higley moved that they find this amendment favorable. There was a vote 11-1-0 in favor.

Harrison offered a third amendment, saying it related to the Study Committee in the bill. He found it a “little ironic that we presuppose in some sense what these recommendations are because we put in statutory amounts for salary in future years.” The amendment would essentially remove the salary components and ask the working group to return with proposed salary levels next year, which the legislature would then vote on.

Other states are “all over the map” and he understands the need to address salary. Assuming the House and Senate does its due diligence, “we should act then,” he stated.

Higley made a motion to find the amendment favorable. The vote was 3-9-0 against.

Representative Peterson introduced an amendment intended to “shorten the demands on folk’s lives,” which he believes would also allow more people to serve. His argument was that a 16 or more week “sacrifice” was prohibitive for most people’s lives. His proposal was to limit the legislative session to 12 weeks or less.

He pointed out that under the current salaries, savings would be $612K. In 2026, under new salary ranges, taxpayers would save $930K. Vermont ranks 49th in population, and yet 27 states have a shorter session than we do.

Mrowicki moved that they find the amendment unfavorable. He hears they “don’t take enough time” with legislation now and “to suggest we take less time flies in the face of the feedback we have been getting from members.”

Higley supported the idea, saying that he has “put in a resolution years back to push for getting our work done… to limit the number of bills a member can present in a session.”

Representative Nugent agreed it wasn’t an “outlandish idea” but would want a study committee to look more into it and discuss the idea. Hango contrasted the “time they spend” with Florida, which ends their legislative session in March. She believes they could do this and supported the idea. Representative Hooper didn’t think population was the key issue. Pointing to the bills on the wall, “the work is there and lots of ideas are there,” he said.

McCarthy thought there was a lot of merit to considering the length of session. Other states also have committees that may meet year-round, he noted. He opposed the idea for now, but wanted the discussion to happen at the Working Group.

The vote was 9-3-0 against the amendment.


House Floor

The bill increasing salary and benefits for legislators, S.39, reached the House Floor on Wednesday. Representative Nugent reported the bill for the Government Operations Committee, pointing to the need for a more diverse cross-section of the communities in Vermont being represented in the legislature. She provided a walk-through of the bill for representatives.

Representative Bluemle reported for the Appropriations Committee and quoted extensively from the fiscal note. Over the next three years, legislative compensation and benefits would increase $4.7M over today.

The Speaker called for a voice vote on the Committee amendments and they passed by a large margin.

Representative Peterson offered his amendment that we detailed earlier. He believes that his plan to limit the length of the legislative session could reduce cost.

Nugent noted that the Government Operations Committee felt that this would limit the scope of the Study Group and they opposed it 9-3-0.

Representative Toof agreed with the amendment as it will also help his employer to support the work he does as legislator and also give him time back as father and husband.

Representative Cina argued that legislators have inherited “so many problems from past generations” that they cannot solve in five months. He questioned how they could possibly do that in 12 weeks. He claimed it would “further the imbalance” with the executive branch, which is year-round. Another representative from Burlington also agreed.

Representative Mrowicki also agreed that it was too much work to do and it takes lots of time to do well. He thought that they perhaps needed even more time. He added states with shorter sessions may also have committees that operate around the year.

The roll call was 34-112-4.

Representative Harrison introduced his first amendment, reviewing some of the NCSL data showing the wide range of pay scales and intervals for legislators across the country. Vermont has a large body, he noted, each House member may represent about 4,300 residents. In New York State they represent about 126,000 people. He believes they need a study to understand these compensation differences. Then he explained how the amendment works to delay the decision about compensation (only) until the study is returned. He would expect them to vote on this next year.

Nugent reported that the Government Operations Committee opposed the proposal at 3-9-0.

Representative Donahue asked if witnesses and testimony was taken to arrive at the dollar figures in the bill. Nugent deferred, saying they were set by the Senate and noted they had a process to arrive at those numbers. Representative McCarthy noted that they heard from NCSL and, while they did not make specific recommendations, they provided “hard examples” for them to see that these raises were in “line with other states.”

McCarthy added that the working group could also provide further recommendations but “these are a good first start.”

NOTE: This implies that further increases in legislative compensation could be coming if the working group deem it appropriate.

Donahue reminded members that the last time they did a “fairly significant increase” in compensation, it was “was based on commissioning and seeking a consultant report that did the kind of in-depth review that maybe our constituents would expect… in terms of assessing and identifying what would be an appropriate income level considering things like median income and considering the very dynamic different categories of reimbursements in other states.”

When they did that, they also adopted an inflationary adjustor and that was recently increased to be similar to Constitutional Officers. “I think the amendment speaks to the fundamental problem with this bill,” she said, it is suggesting an “internal study… not an external review that makes it hands off.”

Nugent mentioned that her intern had reviewed some studies already done about this but failed to identify which studies and their conclusions.

Donahue asked if the Committee had “reviewed the specific studies the member is referencing” when determining the appropriate salary levels.

Nugent was flustered, saying they had “reviewed the information I have mentioned previously, and rely on the good work of our colleagues and previous researchers to inform that decision.”

Donahue pushed harder, asking if Nugent could “cite those researchers.”

Representative  Bartholomew took offense, saying that “this line of interrogation is starting sound more like an cross examination than trying to gain information.”

The Speaker called a recess and called Donahue and the party leaders to the podium. Five minutes later, the Speaker returned and declared Bartholomew’s Point of Order well taken. She noted that the rules allow asking a question a different way to get at an answer.

Representative McCarthy stepped in to offer an answer to the previous question. He pointed to the Senate’s fiscal note, claiming it contained an analysis of the mean wages across the state, according to the Department of Labor. The Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) had drafted the original bill to be in-line with these compensation levels.

NOTE: The Senate’s Fiscal Note from JFO does not actually contain this analysis.

Donahue questioned if the data was actually publicly available for review. McCarthy admitted that it was not. Donahue closed her argument by saying that she felt “the challenges to sort out the basis of the numbers… a very brief amount of review time actually in the committee.  An extensive reliance on the work done by the other body…” was problematic. Further, she stated that “none of it involved the kind of specific outside consultant or in depth review of our data and information in the way we did it the last time.” She urged that the study group look at this and come back with solid recommendations because they “put all our credibility at risk when we take a leap like this on our own.”

McCarthy countered that JFO has the wage data available and urged a no vote.

The roll call was 40-104-6 against the amendment.

Harrison introduced his second amendment (reported on earlier). This time Nugent reported that the Government Operations Committee supported it 11-1-0. There was no discussion and it was passed on a unanimous voice vote.

Harrison then presented his third amendment related to health care which would guarantee the 80% state coverage only while the legislature was in session.

Nugent noted that the Government Operations Committee had voted against this amendment as it undermined the intent of the bill to provide affordable access year-round. They voted 8-3-1 against.

The amendment failed on a voice vote.

The discussion moved on to the underlying bill as a member asked for a summary of the costs involved in the bill. Nugent reviewed that the General Fund commitments were an additional:

  • $2.5M in FY2025
  • $4.1M in FY2026
  • $4.8M in FY2027
  • *All these estimates include health insurance costs.

Representative Galfetti stated that she believes the “greatest hurdle to service is time commitment. The length of the session prevents citizens both young and middle aged from being able to serve.”

A representative from Barre City stated that “S.39 grants those who cannot now access these halls of power a voice that allows some the capacity to serve when otherwise they could not afford to do so.”

Representative Mihaly noted that when the and former member from his district, Janet Ancel, retired they canvassed “to no avail” and salary and health insurance was as important an obstacle to serving.

Representative Morgan stated that he found it “unconscionable we cannot take up for consideration the bill that would give tax relief for my retired sisters and brothers in uniform that I had to send into harm’s way. I will be voting no.”

NOTE: The price tag associated with exempting military retirement benefits is similar to the cost of the legislative compensation expansion being contemplated here. This seems to be what he is referring to and similar to a statement made by Representative Hango in committee discussion.

Representative Higley read the Common Benefits Clause from the Vermont Constitution.

Article 7

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single person, family, or set of persons, who are a part only of that community; and that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right, to reform or alter government, in such manner as shall be, by that community, judged most conducive to the public weal.

“We are voting benefits to ourselves that many Vermonters will not have,” he stated. He argued that without a study in advance, it is “certainly irresponsible” to pursue this.

A number of other representatives spoke both for and against the increase. Many claiming that it was patriotic to make the legislature more accessible through compensation increases and a repeated argument that they were voting for the benefit of future members.

NOTE: This last argument is a bit disingenuous as the legislature just ushered in their largest freshman class ever and Vermont tends to see a very high retention rate for legislators. It is likely that 97%[1] of them will be serving in the next biennium (and likely for many years to come) and will benefit from these compensation increases.

The vote was 102-44-2 in favor, enough to sustain a veto.


See what happened with S.39 on Thursday


[1] https://ballotpedia.org/Election_results,_2022:_Incumbent_win_rates_by_state

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