Most area legislators support pay cut amendment, but not happily
by Tim Lockette
Oct 15, 2012 | 5721 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The House chamber is seen at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery during the final day of the legislative session in 2011. (AP photo by Mickey Welsh)
The House chamber is seen at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery during the final day of the legislative session in 2011. (AP photo by Mickey Welsh)
MONTGOMERY — Alabama's state legislators aren't exactly overjoyed with a proposal that would cut their pay by about $7,200 per year.

But many say they'll vote for the cut anyway when the matter comes before voters next month. And they'll be glad to put the issue behind them.

"I'm voting for it to appease the press," said Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke. "They've been the only ones who were really confused about the pay issue."

An amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot would tie lawmakers' pay to the average household income in Alabama, taking back some of the pay raise lawmakers granted themselves years ago.

At present, senators and House members make roughly $52,000 in gross pay annually, though some bring in a few thousand dollars more in travel and other expenses. The amendment would make legislators' pay the same as the median household income, plus reimbursements for mileage and $75 per diem for time spent in Montgomery. The median income figure would be re-calculated every year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Alabama was $42,081 in 2011. Legislative staff projected the change would cut most legislators' total pay by $7,208 in the first year. Spread over a total of 140 legislators, the cut would trim about $1 million from the state budget in the first year.

The amendment is a reaction to a five-year-old pay raise that lawmakers have yet to live down.

Legislators voted in 2007 to boost their base pay from around $30,000 per year to $49,000, with annual increases for the cost of living. Then, they also voted to override a veto of the pay hike by then-Gov. Bob Riley.

A year later, the economy crashed, unemployment soared and the already-unpopular 62 percent pay raise continued to haunt lawmakers. In the 2010 election, challengers pounded incumbents on voting for the raise, and legislators who turned down the raise occasionally used the issue as ammunition against those who did.

'Problem of public perception'

The upcoming amendment wouldn't roll lawmakers back to their pre-2007 pay, but advocates of the bill hope the pay cut will heal their image.

"It's a reasonable approach to solve the issue," said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who didn't accept the pay raise in 2007. "It's a problem of public perception."

When the pay-cut amendment hit the Legislature earlier this year, it passed the House 91-2 and the Senate 28-6 with several legislators not voting. Even some of the amendment's supporters on Goat Hill seem less than thrilled by it.

"If you don't do something to allow the common man to serve, you're not going to have the common man in the Legislature," said Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford.

Hurst said he voted for the measure in the House, and will vote for it again on Nov. 6. But he said the job comes with more out-of-pocket costs than most people realize.

"There are things you have to do as a legislator," he said. "If someone's selling Girl Scout cookies, you'd better not buy a box, you'd better buy a case. If the volunteer fire department is having a raffle, you'd better buy a whole book of tickets."

The job doesn't offer insurance or retirement, he noted, and he said he spends much of his time and money traveling from event to event within his mostly rural district.

Other rural legislators agreed. Laird said he wears out a car every two years, driving across a multi-county district. Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, said it's a problem urban legislators don't have to contend with.

"Jabo Waggoner can drive across his district in five minutes," said Dial, who also voted for the amendment. "Dick Brewbaker can go to a committee meeting and be home in minutes."

Waggoner, the Senate majority leader, represents densely-populated portions of Jefferson and Shelby counties. Brewbaker, a Republican House member, represents Montgomery.

Despite the cost of being a legislator, Dial said he understood why people would be offended when lawmakers voted themselves a 62 percent raise. He said that by voting the pay scale into the constitution, the amendment would take that power away from the Legislature.

Rep. K.L Brown, R-Jacksonville, agreed.

"People have told me we're elected to make decisions, and we shouldn't send this back to the people to decide," he said. "But this way, it's out of the Legislature's hands."

Gaming the system?

All legislators call Montgomery home for at least part of the year. The legislative session takes up 30 days, usually spread over a three-month period. It often has lawmakers in the capitol on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Under the current system, lawmakers pay for their own lodging.

Laird frequents the Country Inn in eastern Montgomery, while Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, stays at Embassy Suites downtown. Marsh said he owns a second home in Alexander City, and Hurst said he often makes the two-hour drive back to Talladega County. Dial bought a townhouse near Shakespeare Park.

"If I'd known I was going to be around this long, I'd have bought a house at the start," said Dial, who is in his ninth term.

If the amendment passes, lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from Montgomery could collect $75 per day for their time in Montgomery. Some worry that fellow legislators will game the system to boost their per diem payments.

"You'll see a lot more committee meetings," Dial predicted.

Marsh said House and Senate leaders would keep that under control.

"We keep a pretty close eye on that sort of thing," he said. "We won't let that happen."

Dial said the job of a legislator was always intended to be part-time. Other legislators agreed, but said it has been a long time since things worked out that way.

"If I'm at church, at a movie, anywhere I'm out in public, people come to me and ask me to help them," Hurst said.

Boyd, the Anniston representative, said she also spends much of her time with constituents.

She's one of the few legislators who have yet to announce a position on the amendment. Boyd didn't vote on the matter when it was in the House, and said she still had not made up her mind.

"It's a difficult decision to make," she said. "The general public does not understand — it's not a part-time job, but most of the public looks at it as a part-time job."

Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.
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