In tough financial times, legislator pay raises can be rejected.

When do legislators deserve a raise?

After rejecting a nonpartisan commission recommendation for legislative pay raises last year, some lawmakers are looking for alternatives.

“This issue has ‘jumped the shark’ politically,” said Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley. “We charge the members of the commission to do the work, reject it before their report is released and then cast the political blame on them for what we ask them to do. It shows how ludicrous this process has become.”

With annual compensation of $45,291, plus a $7,334 “expense allowance,” state legislators’ pay is more than $17,000 above the national average. The National Conference of State Legislatures puts that at $35,592.

California legislators make the most -- a whopping $104,118 a year. In New Hampshire, legislators have been paid $100 per year since 1889.

Each state sets pay differently. In 41 states, legislators receive a salary. Others pay by the day. In New Mexico, legislators are paid per diem, or a rate per day for lodging, meals and incidental expenses. Other states, like Alabama, pay the average annual salary of state residents.

The 62 members of the Delaware General Assembly work a hybrid schedule, as opposed to full- or part-time. That comes to about 75 percent of the time required in a full-time job. They also receive the expense allowance, which effectively raises their pay to $52,625. They aren’t required to account for how they spend the allowance.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 the annual mean wage for a Delaware resident was $50,930.

Legislator pay raises

The NCSL says low legislative pay is a problem. The annual salary of a legislator in 2017 was 10 percent lower than it was in 1970, adjusted for inflation. Pay is important, says the NCSL, to attract qualified candidates.

Since they are elected officials, they often have to vote on their own pay raise, making it a difficult task that is rarely achieved. Some states, though, that have taken pay raises out of legislative hands.

Delaware, along with several other states, has addressed the question by creating a nonpartisan compensation commission that studies and recommends -- or doesn’t – raises for the three branches of government.

Compensation commission

The Delaware Compensation Commission first met in 1985 to recommend salaries for the cabinet, legislature and judiciary. Members are unpaid and include two appointees by the governor, one by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, one by the Speaker of the House, and the president of the Delaware Round Table, a nonpartisan volunteer organization of CEOs. None can hold public office or be full-time state employees. Each has a six-year term.

The commission meets every four years to recommend changes to policies or salaries, and those recommendations become law unless the General Assembly passes a joint resolution to reject them. The General Assembly has rejected the recommendations three times, in 1993, 2013 and 2017.

The 2017 report, in PDF format.

Lavelle released a statement upon the General Assembly’s rejection of the commission’s recommendations last year.

“Why does the Delaware Compensation Commission continue to exist if its work is to be spurned before it’s even read?” he said.

When the General Assembly rejected the recommendations in 1993, lawmakers passed slightly smaller pay raises than recommended. In 2013, only judicial raises were recommended (and rejected), and in 2017, legislators expressed the need to vote down a pay raise before a recommendation was made.

In 2013, the recession left Delaware with a budget shortfall that would affect budgets for years to come. Last year, Gov. Jack Markell left office and the newly elected Gov. John Carney issued a “budget reset,” using a combination of cuts and new fees to deal with a $385 million deficit. He created the Government Efficiency and Accountability Review Board to study and improve Delaware’s fiscal state and become more efficient.

Senate President Pro-Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, said he supports the commission.

“It takes it out of the political process and puts it in an impartial committee,” he said.

But he didn’t vote for the bill that created the commission.

“Because with the way the process is right now, if we do nothing in the legislature their recommendations take place. I thought we should opt in, so they would make a recommendation that we would have to affirm,” McBride said.

Lavelle introduced a bill in 2013 that would have done just that, but it never made it out of the Senate Executive Committee – a committee he is on. He filed similar bills in 2009 and 2011.

In 2017, Lavelle introduced Senate Bill 14, to eliminate the compensation commission. According to Lavelle, the bill is still in committee and may be heard in the coming session.

With the compensation commission’s conclusion rejected, the General Assembly has until 2021 to determine when to give themselves a raise, and how much. Lavelle’s bill is the only one to address the issue. The General Assembly returns to Legislative Hall on Jan. 9.