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Joint resolution would ask Arkansas voters to consider repealing panel responsible for setting salaries for state’s elected officials

Raises would be Legislature’s call by Will Langhorne | January 24, 2023 at 5:27 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

After objecting to a state panel's plans to raise lawmaker salaries, Rep. David Ray filed legislation Monday that would ask voters to decide if the board should be dissolved.

House Joint Resolution 1001 would create a ballot initiative to repeal the state's Independent Citizens Commission, a seven-member board created to set the pay of the state's constitutional officers, legislators, judges and prosecutors. If backed by voters, an amendment to Arkansas Constitution would provide the state House and Senate with the authority to grant pay changes for state elected officials.

The constitutional change proposed in the resolution would effectively reverse an amendment approved by voters in 2014. Amendment 94 created the commission and took the responsibility of setting salaries away from state chambers. The amendment also extended term limits for state legislators, banned certain gifts from lobbyists to state elected officials and barred direct corporate and union contributions to candidates.

Members of the commission are appointed by state House and Senate leaders, the governor and the state Supreme Court chief justice.

"I think it was a mistake to create the Independent Citizens Commission," said Ray, R-Maumelle, during an interview Monday. "That was a provision that was tucked away in a so-called 'ethics amendment.'"

He noted that Amendment 94 was written by former Republican state Sen. Jon Woods, who is serving an 18-year sentence in federal prison for corruption-related charges.

"In my opinion, Senator Woods created that independent citizens' commission as a mechanism to raise legislative pay without legislators having to vote on it, and it's worked out exactly as he intended it to," Ray said.

While Ray opposed the commission itself, he said he respected the decisions made by the individual members of the panel.

"They're just doing the job they were appointed to do," he said. "I don't hold anything against them."

Since the commission was created, salaries for state lawmakers have risen.

In 2014, the annual salaries for the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore were $17,771. All other lawmakers were paid $15,869 that year. On average, each legislator in 2013 was paid $35,333 for per diem, mileage and other expense reimbursements.

Current salaries for the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore are $50,661. Legislators are now paid $44,356, according to the state auditor's office. The average per diem paid to lawmakers during the most recent regular legislative session in 2021 was roughly $23,111.

In exchange for pay raises effective in March 2015, the Legislature enacted a bill to eliminate lawmakers' eligibility to receive up to $14,400 a year in certain office-related expenses.

Annabelle Tuck, chair of the Independent Citizens Commission, said the pay raises were needed as the demands of serving in the General Assembly had mounted considerably. Tuck -- who specified she was speaking on behalf of herself and not the entire commission -- said running a business had become increasingly difficult for lawmakers.

"They work many, many hours," she said during an interview Monday. "It's just a different ball for a legislator to have your own business."

Salaries for constitutional officers also have increased since the commission was created. In 2014, the governor's annual salary was $87,759 while the attorney general's pay was $73,132. The secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and land commissioner each received salaries of $54,848 that year. The lieutenant governor position, which is considered part time, has an annual salary of $42,315.

Currently the governor is paid $158,739 and the attorney general receives $146,355 a year. The state treasurer, auditor and land commissioner each make $95,693 annually. The lieutenant governor receives $46,704 a year, according to the state auditor's office.

Three days before Ray filed his joint resolution, the commission voted to approve a proposal for a 6% pay increase for lawmakers and constitutional officers. Tommy May, vice chair, was the only commissioner to oppose the recommendation, citing falling inflation and a study comparing lawmaker pay in Arkansas and other states conducted in 2021. During the meeting, Tuck noted the figures in the study were likely out of date and could be misleading.

The commission scheduled a meeting for Feb. 3 to consider a formal resolution recommending the salary increases.

In a letter addressed to committee members, Ray and two other lawmakers said they believed legislative pay increases were not justified.

The letter, signed by Ray, Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and Rep Howard M. Beaty Jr., R-Crossett, said the state had more pressing budgetary needs, including teacher pay increases, expanding prisons and enacting tax cuts.

"Arkansas's workers and families have faced extraordinary levels of inflation over the past year, but many have not received a commensurate pay increase as the economy continues to flounder," the letter read. "In our view, it would be inappropriate to raise legislative pay at this time when many Arkansans have to face choices such as whether to heat their homes or buy their groceries."

On Monday, Ray said his concerns about pay increases for the time being applied only to lawmakers. When asked if constitutional officers deserved pay raises, he said he had yet to do his due diligence and compare salaries in Arkansas with those in other states.

"If that authority were returned to [the General Assembly], I and my colleagues would do the due diligence to study what those ought to be," he said.

Tuck defended the recent salary increases proposed by the commission, pointing to comments from Robert Brech, an administrator with the state Department of Finance and Administration, who told the commission on Friday that there was room in the state budget for pay raises.

Brech provided a forecast of the general revenue for fiscal year 2023 that estimated Arkansas would see $8.325 billion in gross general revenue. Of this projected revenue, $258.1 million is expected to go to the state's central services and constitutional officers funds.

"You get about a third of that $258 million," Brech said. "That's more than what you're spending."

If the money in the fund isn't spent by the end of the year, Brech said, much of it would be swept into the central services fund, which pays the salaries of most state officials.

"The concern was that it would take money from education and prisons," Tuck said. "This money isn't going to take away from any of that."

Regardless of where the funds come from, Ray said, he found it inappropriate to raise legislative pay "with so many important spending priorities still unresolved."

Tuck noted the commission always takes into account current economic conditions when deciding how to adjust salaries.

"We'll see what happens next year," she said. "If there's a recession, it's not an automatic pay increase."

Tuck, who formerly served as a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, also raised concerns that dissolving the commission could make it difficult to pass pay increases for judges and create a separation of powers issue. Tuck said she had to take a pay cut when she joined the state Supreme Court, and that if pay for judges was too low the state might struggle to attract attorneys with experience.

Last year, the commission approved a 2% cost of living adjustment and a 5% salary increase for prosecuting attorneys and Supreme Court, appellate, circuit and district judges.

The salary adjustments raised the pay for the chief justice of the state Supreme Court to $219,902 and associate justices to $203,625. The Court of Appeals chief receives a salary of $200,610 while other Court of Appeals judges receive $197,596. Circuit court judges are paid $192,918, and district court judges receive $168,803.

In 2014, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court was paid $161,601 and associate justices earned $149,589 a year. The annual pay for the Court of Appeals' chief judge was $147,286 while other Court of Appeals judges earned $144,982. The annual pay for the state's circuit judges was $140,372, and district court judges received $125,495.

Under the joint resolution, the proposed constitutional amendment would appear on ballots for the state's next general election. The amendment would go into effect Nov. 6, 2024, and the salaries of state elected officials would remain unchanged as they exist Nov. 5, 2024, until adjusted by the General Assembly.

Print Headline: Officials’ pay focus of Arkansas ballot issue bill


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