HELENA — Future Montana lawmakers would receive an 82 percent pay raise or more compared to what they’re making now under a measure to be considered next week by a legislative panel.
State lawmakers made $7,437 in wages over the 90 days of the 2015 legislative session, and that doesn’t include per-diem allowances, payments and reimbursements between sessions and other benefits, such as health and retirement.
Under the measure to be considered by the Legislative Council on Tuesday, the lawmakers would make $13,608 in the 2019 session, based on the proposed benchmark used to calculate unemployment benefits. Their pay would be even higher if that benchmark goes up in the next two years.
The wage rate for the state’s 150 legislators is now $10.33 an hour, which will be adjusted to $11.33 an hour when the 2017 session begins in January to match raises given to state employees.
The bill draft would give lawmakers in 2019 and beyond an hourly rate of about $18.90 or more. It would be the single-biggest pay hike for lawmakers in at least 18 years.
The measure is the product of months of study, with lawmakers on the panel defending it but sensitive to the public criticism that inevitably arises whenever a legislative body talks about granting its own members a raise.
“I don’t think the population understands how difficult the work is, how intense the work is,” said Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, the chairman of the Legislative Council. “Those pay rates are almost punitive. If the public were really to watch, observe and understand the amount of work, they’d be fine with that raise.”
The 150 members of the Montana Legislature are citizen lawmakers, part-timers who in theory leave their regular jobs and lives for 90 days every other year to meet in Helena to pass a budget and new laws. In reality, they also spend a lot of time in between sessions on legislative business meeting with constituents and participating in interim committees.
The proposed measure would peg lawmakers’ hourly wage for the 2019 Legislature to the state average weekly wage, which is used by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry to determine unemployment insurance benefits.
The 2017 average weekly wage is $755.76. That amounts to $18.90 an hour.
The reasoning behind using the average weekly wage as a benchmark is that lawmakers come from a wide variety of careers and the Legislative Council wanted something that represented a reasonable wage, which lawmakers are not getting now, Hunter said.
“Over the course of time, many in the Legislature have come to feel like our rates are not only not close to what other states are doing, but very low compared to the amount of work, effort and professionalism required in the job,” said Hunter, who is leaving office in January.
In addition to their hourly wage, legislators now receive per-diem allowances of $112.85 daily for food, lodging and other expenses while they are in Helena for the session and when they are engaged in legislative business between sessions. They also receive $3,000 stipends, are reimbursed between $1,000 and $4,000 for providing constituent services and can choose to receive health and retirement benefits.
Barbara Wagner, the state labor department’s chief economist, wrote in a letter to the Legislative Council that the current pay for legislators in Montana ranks 14th in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, Wagner adds, that data includes not only state lawmakers, but also elected leaders from city, county and tribal governments.
The Legislative Council will decide Tuesday whether to forward the bill for consideration during the upcoming session.
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