South Dakota lawmakers believe they can do a better job if they get more money, which is what we usually hear when government officials make a case for improvements in service.
Lawmakers, famously stingy when distributing taxpayer funds, could be asking voters as soon as next year to increase their pay from $6,000 to $10,000 a year. This would be in addition to a per diem of $140 a day while they are working.
The Legislature’s Executive Board voted unanimously for the proposal that if approved by the entire Legislature would be presented to voters as a constitutional amendment. This, of course, would be the same voters who approved Initiated Measure 22 that sought to reform politics in Pierre and then watched lawmakers dismantle it at the start of the 2017 legislative session.
This pursuit of a pay raise also comes as ballot measures proliferate in South Dakota, suggesting a degree of frustration with a Republican supermajority that seemingly has little interest in considering legislation not tailored to its agenda.
It is interesting to note that unlike teachers who were the lowest paid in the nation when the Legislature narrowly passed a half-cent sales tax increase to boost their wages, South Dakota lawmakers earn more than their peers in several states.
North Dakota’s lawmakers, for example, only receive a per diem of $172 a day. It is the same in Montana —$82.64 a day — and Wyoming — $150. The lowest paid lawmakers are in New Hampshire, where they earn $200 for a two-year term. Lawmakers in Texas, which has a population of 28 million, earn $7,000 a year with a per diem of $190 a day.
Higher pay also doesn't come with a guarantee of better results if one looks at states like California and Illinois, which are frequent targets of conservative critics. California's lawmakers earn $100,113 a year, while in Illinois they earn $67,836. Both states also have year-round legislatures, breeding grounds for professional politicians.
The biggest paychecks and the most perks, however, are reserved for those lawmakers who work in the place President Trump calls "the swamp." House members and U.S. senators earn $174,000 a year and get wined and dined by lobbyists who contribute lavishly to their campaign funds. For their pay and an outstanding benefits package that includes a pension, federal lawmakers have delivered a partisan and polarizing style of governance that primarily only satisfies their very special interests.
So, it is difficult to make the case that paying more will pay off for middle-class individuals who feel the political class is more focused on those with the deepest pockets.
But even if evidence exists that paying lawmakers more will benefit the public, this is simply not the time to seek a pay raise.
Recently, Gov. Daugaard said that lagging sales tax collections in 2017 means he will recommend a lean spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. In other words, South Dakotans are spending less for goods and services while our local governments raise property taxes and fees.
On the other hand, maybe voters shouldn't be denied an opportunity to vote on a pay raise for lawmakers. It could be seen as a statewide referendum on their performance and that would be interesting, as well.