Josalyn Williams (Policy Specialist, National Conference of State Legislatures) joined the Committee to provide testimony on legislative compensation across the country. Legislative salaries range from $0 to nearly $120k annually. The median pay is around $31,775 per year. However, for part-time legislatures, this number drops to $13,111 in annual compensation.
Not all of the comparisons are apples to apples. State legislatures have a range of different time commitments and legislative session lengths. Representative Hooper pointed to Nevada as an example of this. That state only has a 60-day legislative session. Williams noted that they added weeks when necessary too, so it wasn’t always that short of a legislative session. She suggested looking at Colorado as an example for comparison. She thought their legislative session was 120 days, which is closer to Vermont’s.
Representative Waters Evans asked about the demographics of serving legislators and how that relates to pay. She was looking for an indication of whether pay allows only wealthy people to serve in state legislatures versus lower income people. Williams responded that NCSL was beginning to develop a model and will attempt to analyze that given all the variables, noting that demographic data may not be greatly accessible.
Representative Nugent asked about the various ways legislative salaries are set. Williams acknowledged that many legislators are cognizant of “setting their own salaries” so external factors are often used, such as a being paid a percentage of the average state annual salary rates. Sometimes they are tied to other compensated offices like judiciary staff. Other times, salaries are set by independent autonomous commissions (Alaska does this). Sometimes they are even set by the state constitution.
Chairman McCarthy noted that there was interest in changing the current system. They are currently tied to an inflationary amount each year. Supposedly, the original base salary was pegged to a median income number. This system, according to him, had “morphed into setting a fixed thing with an inflation adjustor that fell behind.”
When it comes to mileage and travel compensation, states again run the gambit. Often, mileage compensation is tied to the federal rate, but that is not universal. In some states, legislators receive per diem on any days they serve in House or Committee. Some have a per diem that has no relation to distance from capitol, while some are mileage-based.
Some states are “vouchered” and some are not, meaning that legislators automatically receive the per diem or milage stipend without submitted documentation for actual travel. Also of interest is that some per diems are taxed and some are not.
McCarthy noted that Vermont’s daily per diem is automatic and “is one of our worst kept secrets.”
Finally, benefits packages, including health insurance and retirement benefits, also vary greatly from state to state. A handful of states offer other benefits, such as Colorado, which has a 12-week paid family leave program.
Mike Fisher (Health Care Advocate) also spoke, fully endorsing healthcare coverage provision of the Bill. He saw this as addressing “barriers to service” in the legislature. However, he noted for the Committee that many legislators do receive Vermont Health Connect tax credits and premium assistance due to their lower incomes. The health care provided via legislative service would count against these tax credits and that is something to be mindful of. Some will lose ground under S.39 because of this (under the bill, legislators would buy into the VSEA plan at 20%). However, he believes the majority of legislators would be “winners.”
Chairman McCarthy acknowledged that that those between 138%-200% of the federal poverty level will likely pay $100-200 per biweekly pay period.
Representative Higley noted that a “respected friend” had brought up the Common Benefits Clause in Article 7 of the Vermont Constitution. His concern was that they might run afoul of this if they give themselves benefits but “not everyone else.” Legislative Counsel did not think the Common Benefits Clause has “been interpreted to mean that.”
Legislative Counsel walked through some of the changes that the Committee was contemplating:
- “Adjournment compensation” would have to be claimed by legislators, they would not be entitled automatically.
- Changing the meals provision so that legislators would receive it automatically, but set an allowance.
- Reducing the number of meetings the Legislative Services Working Group would have from 8 to 6.
Higley questioned why they had received the bill from the Senate so late. He added that he didn’t think there was “enough time to give the public enough time” to understand and provide feedback on the bill.
McCarthy took some exception to his point, saying they have known about this for while and it has been in the press. Higley was not convinced and Representative Waters Evans suggested that it was “perhaps a reflection of a bias you have against the bill.” This led to a bit of a kerfuffle.
Representative Hango pointed out that the bill was only Introduced by Senator White on May 1st so there actually hasn’t been much testimony before now. “I tend to agree with Rep. Higley that this is moving fast,” she said.
McCarthy quipped that “maybe the public wants us to waste too much time on this.” He supports “compensation adjustments” and suggested that they may not really require “a ton of thought.” They could expect a robust debate on the floor, he added.
Representative Morgan noted that constituents are saying “you are going to do what?” and that is the consistent message he is receiving.
Representative Chase noted that some (one) legislator(s) have already resigned and there are others who would participate but decline because of lack of pay and benefits.
Hango noted her work with the National Guard Caucus to get the tax-exempt status for military pensions and survivor benefits. She felt that “if we cannot do that at $3.5M cost why should we do this?”
Waters Evans cast the big picture for her as the Cost of Living Adjustments were tweaked “once in 20 years.” Making this change now would enable a “more diverse legislature that would maybe give different pathways and opportunities to legislation that’s failed to come over that’s important to people,” she argued.
She continued on to say that when she looks around (presumably the statehouse) “the diversity of our legislature as a whole doesn’t match the diversity of our state… I think that’s inhibiting legislation that some would like to happen.”
Representative Birong quipped that this bill would make a “very poorly paid part time job a little more viable.”
Representative Mrowicki agreed, saying that it was “because we are part-time” that they do their “best work.” He made a motion to pass the bill.
Representative Jay Hooper was confused why they were moving so quickly. He was not convinced they have “spent serious process” on the bill and would “love one more day” to deliberate on the bill. Mrowicki offered to withdraw his motion.
McCarthy admitted that juggling the schedule can be challenging and he will do his best to get a vote Friday or Monday. He was concerned they don’t have specific questions to seek advice on. He suggested members of the Committee “talk to each other” before coming back for a vote.