Though it shouldn't necessarily be automatic, South Dakota legislators need a pay raise. As it is now, the salary that state representatives and senators get is $6,000 a year plus $142 per diem for each legislative day and some compensation for work done away from the Legislature.
Sessions last from around Jan. 10 through late March, each containing either 35 or 40 (depending on even or odd numbered years) legislative days. The salary has been fixed for 20 years, while the per diem is adjusted by the Legislature itself.
This kind of money is actually awful for the time and effort our elected officials put into their work. Calculated on a daily or hourly basis, it's roughly entry-level compensation by private sector standards. Though the number of "work" days when the Legislature is actually in session seems limited, the fact is that legislators (at least every one I've ever known) are tied up in the process for virtually the entire 70 or so days that it takes to get an annual session completed. Then there's the year-around commitment to their positions that require attention to matters of state government, including a lot of constituent contacts that go with the job.
Our state's legislative compensation has fallen so far behind inflation that it's probably keeping a lot of good people from running for office. They simply can't afford to. With good reason, the Legislature's Executive Board two weeks ago advanced a plan to increase pay via a constitutional amendment that will be up for debate in the coming session. The plan would immediately raise the salary to $10,200/year, using a formula based on the growth of South Dakota's median household income. Historically, that matches up with an average inflation rate of 2.75 percent during the past 20 years, so it's reasonable enough.
But as the need and request for a raise are overdue and merited, the automatic aspect of it from this point forward can be called into question. Given the nature of the job, I'd be more inclined to use an incentive-based system than one tied to household incomes or inflation.
By using changes in our state's Gross Domestic Product as the measure by which legislative incomes are set, our elected officials would have a performance-based standard for setting their wages. On that basis, long-term growth justifies an immediate increase. The last six years, however, have been slow-growing, averaging less than 1 percent a year since 2011, Gov. Daugaard's first year in office. During that period, U.S. per capita GDP has gone up at 30 times the rate of South Dakota's. This is pathetic.
The feebleness of our state's agriculturally-based economy only highlights the failure of our elected leadership to find avenues of economic growth that would offset the poor grain and livestock prices of recent years. Legislators should be held accountable for that failure by seeing their salary growth remain as listless as South Dakota's economy.
Tying compensation to performance would certainly be consistent with the business-like model for running our government that many extol, including Gov. Daugaard himself. Let's adjust for the past 20 years, but remember that pay raises are earned, not automatically granted.