South Dakota lawmakers have negotiated a pay raise for themselves. And it’s just not any pay raise — it’s a 97 percent hike with a guaranteed annual increase, which some might call an entitlement, meaning it does not have to be earned.
If the lawmakers' legislation is signed into law by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, lawmakers will have raised their annual base pay from $6,000 to $11,800 a year. This would be in addition to the $142 a day per diem they now receive. In a 40-day session, that is another $5,680. Lawmakers also receive mileage reimbursements for the long drive to Pierre.
Initially, lawmakers were planning to put a pay raise measure on the ballot. They apparently decided later, however, that it would be better if only those who stand to benefit from it vote on it.
In voting overwhelmingly for the hefty pay raise and future raises, supporters of the legislation have made the case that higher pay equals better lawmakers. In other words, they acknowledge there is room for improvement. Recent and current legislative sessions are a prime example of that point.
For the past two years, lawmakers have considered numerous bills to essentially nullify the initiative-and-referendum process that led to Initiated Measure 22, which sought to reform campaign and election laws. It was approved by voters and then killed by lawmakers.
In doing so, lawmakers like House Speaker Mark Mickelson have claimed the ballot process has turned voters into pawns of others and that they lack the intellectual capacity to understand ballot measures. Perhaps, he believes voters also won’t understand why lawmakers need a 97 percent pay raise and automatic annual pay increases.
It is a difficult argument to make. The reality is that it would take much higher pay to bring new blood into a Legislature now dominated by retirees, business owners and those who work for big companies with their own legislative agendas. The pay hike will not change that dynamic, however. Instead, it will be a pay raise for the current crop of lawmakers who this year have passed no significant legislation to improve health care, workforce development, education, mental health care or school safety despite the fact that more than 600 bills were introduced.
On the other hand, the pay hike will cost the state an additional $655,000 starting in 2019. Lawmakers also have not earmarked a source of revenue for their pay raises, which means in years when sales tax collections are down the money will be taken from other sources.
State employees, meanwhile, did not receive a pay raise in the last fiscal year due to lagging sales tax collections and may not again this year. Unlike what lawmakers want for themselves, they are not guaranteed a pay raise and don't get them every year. In fact, it was only eight years ago that Gov. Daugaard ordered a nearly 10 percent cut in state spending to balance the budget. Would state lawmakers pay be exempted from this if it happens again?
It is not unreasonable to consider pay hikes for state lawmakers. It is a demanding and important job. A 97 percent increase is too high, however, and automatic annual pay raises that no one else in state government receives seems entirely self-serving.
A governor who is in his final year in office and prides himself on fiscal responsibility should not sign this bill. The Legislature needs to consider a more reasonable bill next session, one that passes the South Dakota common-sense test.