On Feb. 1, not long after this year’s legislative session began, Oregon state lawmakers got a raise.
The pay for most of the state’s 90 legislators increased by nearly 28 percent, to $2,600 every month. House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney now make twice that.
The new pay amounts to a salary of $31,200 a year for members of Oregon’s citizen legislature. Lawmakers are also paid $149 each day of the legislative session to pay for meals and lodging — a provision that could give them another $23,840 this year. And they receive monthly allowances of at least $450 for routine expenses when the Legislature is out of session.
It’s not enough, according to some lawmakers, to create a well-rounded statehouse.
“We’re a diverse state, we need a diverse legislature,” said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland. “Because of the low pay, we are automatically screening out people who really should be represented here.”
Burdick and three other senators want to change that. They’re floating a bill this year to raise lawmaker pay by nearly $20,000 a year — ensuring Oregon’s legislators earn more than their counterparts in many other states.
The lawmakers say Oregon’s meager pay structure creates a situation where retirees and the independently wealthy are most likely to pursue office.
“Trying to recruit someone of caliber to serve in these chambers with the pay that we're getting currently just is a very difficult choice,” said state Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, another sponsor of the effort. “I’m a retired dentist, and I've done well in life, but when you go to tell someone, ‘We want you to serve, but your base pay is going to be around $2,000 a month,’ that's pretty tough sledding.”
Burdick said the current pay structure leaves out “a whole category of people: Young working people in the first parts of their career or in the middle of their career where people try to boost their earnings … you rule those people out, and that’s not healthy.”
While that sentiment has long been the conventional wisdom in Salem, it's not a hard-and-fast rule. Two state senators and at least five state representatives are in their 30s. In addition, recent elections have seen an influx of lawmakers of color, making the Legislature as racially diverse as it's ever been — though still overwhelmingly white.
The bill Girod and Burdick are sponsoring, Senate Bill 959, would change the criteria for how lawmaker pay is set, tying it to the average salary of Oregonians as a whole. Sens. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, are also chief sponsors.
The change would bump base lawmaker salaries by 63 percent, to more than $50,000 per year. With the per diem, that could mean compensation of nearly $75,000 in odd-numbered years, when lawmakers meet for more than five months.
The bill is the brainchild of Prozanski, who shares concerns that Oregon hasn’t been able to attract lawmakers with diverse backgrounds.
In an interview Tuesday, Prozanski said the amount of time demanded of lawmakers makes it extremely difficult to hold down another job.
Besides yearly sessions — which last around five months in odd-numbered year, and only about a month in even-numbered years — legislators are also required to attend "legislative days" at the Capitol at regular intervals. Some opt to serve on committees that hold extensive hearings during the interim period between sessions, such as one that toured school systems around the state last year.
With the higher wage his bill would provide, Prozanski said lawmakers could more easily live off their state income alone.
“What I thought Oregonians would find reasonable is that we would tie our salary to the average,” said Prozanski, a municipal prosecutor who has a replacement stand in for him during legislative session. He noted the law could mean a dip in pay if Oregon enters a recession.
If it passed, though, the bill would mean a substantial raise. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary in Oregon is $51,010.
That salary, combined with the per diem payment and monthly allowances, would make Oregon's Legislature one of the highest paid in the country when compared to states where lawmakers spend a similar amount of time on the job, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Of 25 states with comparable legislatures, only one, Maryland, paid lawmakers more in 2018 than the salary bump contemplated in Senate Bill 959. Members in states with full-time legislatures are paid more.
Prozanski suggests this isn’t the best way to look at it. Instead, he says Oregon should be placed in context with other western states. His bill would put Oregon’s pay between California, where lawmakers work full time and receive six-figure salaries, and Washington, which has a comparable workload to Oregon and paid its lawmakers nearly $49,000 last year.
Burdick hastens to point out that some city and county elected officials in Oregon make far more than legislators.
The bill would also simplify how lawmaker pay is calculated. Under current law, they earn either 17 percent of what circuit court judges make, or their pay is tied to a classification in the state's compensation plan for management employees, whichever is higher.
It was the latter criteria — the management compensation plan — that dictated the raise legislators received earlier this year. The state’s Department of Administrative Services told OPB that the pay scale affecting lawmakers was adjusted along with others, as the state made changes to reflect recent collective bargaining agreements. Lawmakers did not have a hand in the raise.
The new rate, $2,600 per month, is the lowest the state pays any employee enrolled in its pension system, according to department spokeswoman Elizabeth Craig. Girod and Burdick say that pay is far out of step with what many Oregonians assume lawmakers make.
“You ask people how much they think we get here, and they would say in the $100,000 range or something,” Girod said. “We just don't get that.”
The recent pay bump will cost Oregon an additional $340,000 in the two-year budget that ends in June, and an additional $1.6 million every two years after that. The raise that would result from SB 959 would cost far more — and could be a hard sell in a year where lawmakers are both considering cuts to state services and trying to find billions in new money for schools and health care.
Even without those factors, Burdick, Girod and Prozanski concede it’s a politically tricky maneuver they’re proposing. After all, they’d be giving themselves a 63 percent raise.
“It's a tough vote to make, because people are going to jump to the conclusion you're trying to pad your own pocket,” said Girod. “Like I said, I don’t need the money, but there are people that will make that accusation.”
Burdick echoed that: “Politically it can be used in hit pieces: ‘Oh so-and-so passed all these bad bills, and then they wanted to raise their pay,’” she said. “So people have been reluctant to move forward on this, but it really needs to be done.”
Oregon isn't alone. The National Conference of State Legislatures dubbed this difficulty in legislators raising their own salaries the "pay problem."
“Many legislators agree that the political fallout from attempting to raise legislative salaries is simply not worth the trouble,” the NCSL wrote. “However, by doing so, legislatures are potentially handicapped in their ability to recruit qualified and representative members.”
Burdick is undeterred. She chairs the Senate Rules Committee, where Senate Bill 959 currently sits, and intends to call it up for a hearing.
“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme down here,” Burdick said. “This is public service. But if it gets to the point where you can’t feed your family, that’s where the problem is."