MY LAST NERVE: Poor Lawmakers – They Need a Pay Raise

May 16, 2014

Inside Insight

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By JAMIE MURGUIA

moneyWhether they’ve earned one is another question.

The S.C. Senate voted 25 to 20 in favor of raising legislators’ monthly in-district compensation from $1,000 per month to $2,000. In effect, 25 lawmakers voted to raise the salary of all legislators by $12,000.

The amendment that passed Wednesday does not mandate that lawmakers take the additional $1,000. But the existing law doesn’t require lawmakers to take the monthly $1,000 either – it’s always been optional. Additionally, senators argued that they or other members of the legislature have large districts – with two senators representing parts of six counties – as an excuse for the increase in compensation. However, lawmakers have nobody to blame but themselves since lawmakers draw their own electoral districts – and Article III, Section 12 of the constitution explicitly states that “the Senate shall be composed of one member from each County.”

The Senate rejected an initial increase Tuesday, instead sending the $2 million to the local government fund. It wasn’t until the Senate gave unanimous consent to cut off any additional amendments to the budget bill that this particular “optional pay raise” was debated.

The sponsor, Sen Ray Cleary (R- Georgetown), contended that the amendment wasn’t about salary but was simply a reimbursement for in-district expenses such as travel and gas. However, the in-district expense allowance – permitted simply through a budget proviso that’s reauthorized annually – is taxable income, as The Nerve reported in a 2010 study of legislative expenses.

At the time of that study, almost all lawmakers claimed the annual maximum for in-district expenses, $12,000. That report also cited Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett as saying that legislators’ in-district payments are treated as income – taxed and factored into their pensions.

The argument that this isn’t a salary increase seems, therefore, pretty flimsy. And in fact one senator – Paul Thurmond (R-Charleston) –  took to the floor to fight the amendment, citing the additional $1,000 allowance would raise legislators’ pay up to 33 percent. Meanwhile the Senate approved a mere 1.5 percent pay increase for all other state employees. That’s a different policy matter, but the comparison is certainly indicative of priorities.

In addition, some lawmakers who supported the pay increase were quick to point out that their pay hadn’t been raised in 15 to 20 years, yet the cost to travel (i.e. gas) had gone up significantly. Interestingly enough, it has been over sixty years since the state’s income tax brackets were set. Over the last half-century, the amount of income in which the highest tax rate kicks in increased by only $3,350. That’s a 33.5 percent increase, compared to the 649.3 percent cumulative rate of inflation during that time. If the brackets were properly adjusted to CPI growth, the top bracket wouldn’t kick in until a person makes over $73,000 – and the other brackets would have much higher thresholds as well.

Yet for some reason lawmakers haven’t been falling all over themselves to reduce this burden.

Further, if the need for a legislative pay raise is so dire, why did lawmakers wait until the last month of the last year of session to try and change it? The answer could be spelled out in a journal statement by Sen. Tom Davis (R- Beaufort): “I voted against giving state legislators the option of increasing their monthly allowance by $1,000. The current legislative salary ($10,400) and monthly allowance ($1,000) may be worth revisiting, but Article III, Section 19 of the South Carolina Constitution provides, in part, that “no General Assembly shall have the power to increase the per diem of its own members,” which I think means (though I acknowledge such is subject to interpretation) any increase in legislative compensation cannot be effected until AFTER the members of the General Assembly that approved the increase have stood for reelection (and a new General Assembly has been constituted).”

Only the House of Representatives is up for reelection this year; while the Senate will not be up for reelection for two more years. Are lawmakers violating the state constitution by raising their own salary? Sen. Davis’ argument seems pretty persuasive.

Still, the amendment passed. So it goes.

But the claim that really got on my last nerve was the claim by Sen. Darrell Jackson (D- Richland) that legislators who represent certain districts have more of a need for the additional expense than those who represent certain other districts because the former have constituents with “real needs” – such as requests by churches and non-profits for help in the community. These lawmakers, he said, are spending out of their own pocket to help these causes. He went on to explain an instance in which colleagues have written checks “out of their campaign accounts” to help fund the local basketball league.

Somehow Sen. Jackson concludes from this that lawmakers’ “in-district” expenses should be hiked by a grand every month.

That’s a very nice sentiment, Sen. Jackson. But those of us outside the State House don’t have the luxury of forcing taxpayers to give us a pay hike every time we’re feeling philanthropic or every time we feel the pinch of gas prices.

Welcome to the real world, guys.