Ken Hare In Depth: Taxpayers get chance to cut legislative pay

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Back in 2007, Alabama legislators found a new way to anger the voters of Alabama -- they gave themselves a whopping 61 percent pay increase.

Now Alabama voters finally have a chance in the coming election to wipe out at least a portion of that pay increase by voting for a constitutional amendment to tie the pay of legislators to the median household income of Alabamians.

The sheer size of the increase in 2007 was enough to stir the ire of many of the state's taxpayers, but the way legislators did it only compounded the deed. Legislators voted for the increase on an unrecorded voice vote, without letting the taxpaying public have a voice in the matter.

But it didn't end there. The Legislature, then controlled by Democrats, also set up an automatic cost-of-living raise for themselves.  Probably by accident, but seemingly to rub it in, legislators made their cost-of-living pay increase effective each year on April Fool's Day.

Former Gov. Bob Riley vetoed the pay increase, but legislators easily overrode his veto. But at least they had to cast a recorded vote to override it. I suspect that many legislators believed that voters would forget the pay increase before the 2010 legislative elections, but that did not happen. Still angry,  voters tossed out several of the legislators who supported the pay increase. Other legislative candidates won after promising to repeal the pay hike.

But despite those promises, efforts by some legislators to turn back the clock on the pay raise failed to gain traction with a majority of lawmakers, many of whom argued that they deserved it.

Among the legislators who unsuccessfully pushed for a repeal was Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville. So Taylor and other lawmakers tried a different tack. They proposed allowing Alabamians to vote on a constitutional amendment that would link legislative pay to the median household income in Alabama while removing the ability of the Legislature to set its own pay. The Legislature approved placing that amendment on the ballot as Amendment 8 for the Nov. 6 general election.

If approved by voters, the amendment also would require legislators to file signed vouchers for reimbursement of expenses.

"I've never before heard of a legislature voting to cut its own pay," said Taylor.

The senator also said that the provision of the proposed new law to require lawmakers to file for reimbursement for expenses "would hold the Legislature publicly accountable."

Currently, the minimum compensation for legislators is about $52,000. Travel and other expense reimbursements bring that up to about $55,000, according to the Associated Press.

The Alabama median household income is currently more than $41,000. Adding in expense reimbursements for a typical legislator would bring that amount to almost $47,000, according to the AP. So if the amendment is approved, the typical Alabama legislator would see his or her total compensation reduced by about $8,100, according to the AP.

Also, if the amendment is approved, legislators would no longer have their little April Fool's Day joke on taxpayers by getting a cost-of-living increase.

However, even under the new plan, legislators often still would get an annual pay increase, but only in those years in which median household income in the state rose. Last year, for instance, the median household income in Alabama actually decreased by a few hundred dollars.

If Amendment 8 is approved by voters on Nov. 6, the new pay plan would go into effect in 2014.

Those voters who wish to read the full language of the amendment can do so by going to the following web site and clicking on Act No. 2012-269:

It's not often that the taxpayers are given the opportunity to vote to cut the pay of their legislators.  It is not a full repeal of the 61 percent pay increase, but it's probably the best that the public can hope for in the foreseeable future.


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site.

Copyright 2012  WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.