Lawmakers this week advanced a bill to increase legislator salaries for the first time in 17 years. The pay boost would not go into effect until 2027.
During a meeting Wednesday, the Subcommittee on Legislator Compensation also voted to support increasing per diem rates and constituent service allowances, as well as a bill to allow lawmakers to participate in the state employee group health insurance program. The Legislature’s Management Council will ultimately decide whether to sponsor the bills and bring them to the full body in 2023.
The subcommittee was tasked with examining lawmaker compensation in light of an ongoing increase in workloads underscored by trends like a significant rise in the number of interim meeting days. The last salary boost was in 2005, when the Legislature met for a total of 103 days, according to the Legislative Service Office. In 2021, there were 155 interim meeting days. That number does include regular session days. It also does not include special session days, two of which have occurred since 2020. Interim topics have also stacked up and become increasingly complex.
“I think this begs a larger question,” Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) said during the meeting. “What are we expecting out of our legislators?”
Brown is among those that say the role of a lawmaker has dramatically changed over the last decade and stagnant pay has contributed to a disparity between who has the means and ability to serve the state and who does not. Much of the Legislature today is made up of retirees and the self-employed, as previously reported.
The only way to foster a statehouse that is more reflective of Wyoming “is to have a fair and equitable salary where somebody steps away from what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis, and they can afford to do it,” according to Brown.
Bumping pay has historically proven to be a challenge, mostly hindered by two obstacles.
For one, the Wyoming Constitution requires legislative action to raise lawmakers’ salaries. Since 2001, 20 bills have either been numbered or introduced that would modify legislator compensation, per diem pay, constituent service allowances or other benefits, according to the LSO. Only five of those became law. One of the few recently successful bills will allow lawmakers to enroll in workers’ compensation coverage in January.
The other hurdle is public perception — it’s not very popular for legislators to appear to be raising their own salaries. Supporting such bills is often used against lawmakers as “campaign rhetoric,” according to Rep. Pat Sweeney (R-Casper).
“It’s going to be difficult for the Management Council or anybody to get anything through with this regard,” Sweeney said.
Optics aside, Wyoming’s Constitution prohibits lawmakers from raising their own salaries — they can only increase the base salary for the next body of lawmakers. This means the 67th Wyoming Legislature could not raise members’ own salaries, but could for the 68th.
“This is the one that really is a no brainer,” Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) said of a bill to increase legislator per diem — a daily allowance to cover the expenses associated with serving — from $109 to $155. At the current rate, lawmakers have had difficulty covering lodging during the interim, Connolly added.
That legislation would also create an automatic adjustment each year that would be based on the federal per diem amount, a practice adopted by most states. The subcommittee voted unanimously to move the bill forward.
Because per diem is considered a reimbursement and not salary, the constitutional prohibition would not apply, according to LSO’s Matt Obrecht, which means such an increase could be effective immediately. However, the bill sets the effective date for January 2024.
When the subcommittee voted to increase legislator base salary, it also amended the bill to create an independent commission to oversee legislator compensation. The idea is to hand the task over to an outside entity to help avoid poor distrust.
“I think we all understand what it sounds like when someone raises their own salary,” Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) said. “And I do think that having that additional justification from an external entity would really make the case to the public.”
Sens. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) and Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) voted against creating such a commission.
“I think the next one is the big one, personally, that could really be a game changer for allowing more people the ability to serve,” Rep. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) said of a bill to allow legislators to participate in the state employee group health insurance program in the same manner that state workers do.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) told the committee that 10 of his 18 years serving as a lawmaker were without health insurance. Brown described having to make a similar sacrifice during a previous meeting.
Zwonitzer, who called lack of insurance “maybe the strongest prevention of people being able to serve in the Legislature,” said he could recall three legislators who left the state body to run for county commissioner because those offices offered health insurance.
The subcommittee also voted to increase constituent service allowance from $750 a quarter to $1,000. There are no requirements, in statute or legislative policy, on how that money can be expended, according to LSO. It’s simply defined as to help defray the cost of serving one’s constituency. The subcommittee voted against a bill to give additional constituent allowance to lawmakers representing districts that are 2,000 square miles or larger.
After the last session, Connolly said she sent out a letter to her constituents, summarizing the 2022 Budget Session and telling them what to expect from the interim. She put her constituent allowance toward the mailers, but it did not cover all the costs, she said.
The subcommittee will present the bills to the Management Council for consideration on Oct. 24 in Cheyenne.