o-payraise

Of all the policies a state legislator could possibly advocate for, there are perhaps none that seem as shameless as trying to raise their own pay. Yet, there may also be no other budget item that costs the state so little money while having such a major impact on the citizen’s reputation.

Nebraska state senators are currently paid $12,000 each year for their service. In addition, legislators residing within 50 miles of the capitol receive a $55 per diem during the legislative session while legislators living more than 50 miles from the capitol receive a $151 per diem. 

For comparison, Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts earns $105,000 each year while the Douglas County Board of Commissioners will make at least $60,000 per year beginning in 2024.

The last time Nebraska’s legislators received a salary raise? 1988. A proposal in 2012 to increase legislative salaries to $22,500 was soundly defeated by Nebraska voters by a 68% to 31% margin. In other words, public support has to come a long way in order for Nebraskans to approve a raise for legislators any time soon. However, I hope public support eventually comes around because it is well past time the state begins paying its lawmakers more.

If this were only a matter of giving a raise to the current legislators in office, I may passively support such a measure, but I would not necessarily be passionate about giving state tax dollars to a group of people who are most likely college-educated lawyers and business owners who happen to be doing pretty alright for themselves. 

Instead, raising the salary is about who isn’t in the chamber — more specifically, the working class Nebraskans who would be unable to make ends meet under a legislative salary alone. 

And if this talk of working class involvement sounds like a left-wing affair, it’s important to note that even fiscal conservatives are on board with the increased spending. Doug Kagan, president of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom said in a 2018 AP News article that, “The people we want to run as conservatives, they have real jobs and can’t run for the Legislature because they can’t afford it.”

According to the U.S. inflation calculator, $12,000 in 1988 would be worth more than $28,000 today. It would serve both the legislators and the state well to enact an increase. 

The National Conference of State Legislatures classifies the Nebraska legislature as a Gray legislature, meaning that the job of a state senator is not quite a full-time affair, but it would be nearly impossible to take on another job during the session. The NCSL estimated that the average senator in a Gray legislature works 74% of a typical full-time job on their legislative work in session, constituent service, interim committee work and election campaigns. 

If a full-time job is assumed to be a 40 hour week, the senators who are getting paid $12,000 per year are only getting paid just over $8 an hour for their service, below the Nebraska minimum wage. And while this may be alright for those with law practices or other sources of income, this system makes it nearly impossible for anyone without other means of personal funding to consider running for the Unicameral. 

With only 49 state senators in one house, Nebraska has the fewest elected officials to pay in its state legislative branch, so such a change would be cheaper to enact than a similar measure in other states. Raising the salaries of each of the legislators to $28,000, for example, would only cost the state an additional $784,000 each year. This may seem like a lot to an average household, but for a state with a budget of $12.5 billion dollars, this would account for just over 0.006% of the state’s spending. 

However, the ultimate impact of enabling more people to feasibly run for office without having to worry about their personal economic future could make a major difference in the rest of the state’s spending. 

On Tuesday, the legislature fell one vote short of overriding Governor Ricketts’ veto of a bill that would force Ricketts to join the other 49 states and apply for $120 million in federal pandemic rental assistance. With the current salary in place, it would be difficult for anyone renting to find themselves in the chamber, and a lack of representation from the lower class could have a major impact on votes such as these. 

There are other barriers to overcome beyond lower pay for people of different backgrounds looking to get into politics, but raising the salary for Nebraska legislators is a good idea without much of a downside. Even though the optics of a raise for elected government officials may not look great, this only makes it all the more important for everyday citizens to lead the charge in making the change. 

If the state is willing to spend $700 million on water projects throughout the state — as I believe it should — then surely a legislative raise shouldn’t come as too much of a burden to overcome. 

Brian Beach is a junior journalism major. Reach him at brianbeach@dailynebraskan.com