Granting an increase in pay or benefits for state lawmakers would send the wrong message to taxpayers, the chairman of the Legislative Compensation Board said Tuesday.
The board voted 7-0 Tuesday to keep legislative pay at the same level it's been the past 13 years.
Board members said a pay hike couldn't be justified with so many Oklahomans struggling financially as the state attempts to recover from the national recession.
“It was the wrong signal,” board Chairman Nick Williams said. “We live in an economic climate where businesses are going bankrupt, people are losing their jobs. ... It would send a horrible message.”
“This is a tough economy,” board member Bernard Jones said. “Constituents aren't receiving raises.
“I'm not even sure the state could afford it,” he said.
Legislators are paid $38,400 a year. Oklahoma legislators are the 16th-highest paid, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California is the highest, with an annual salary of $95,291.
Oklahoma ranks first in pay in the region that consists of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Oklahoma legislators are in session from early February through late May. Williams, new-car sales manager for Mercedes-Benz of Oklahoma City, said they're in session mostly Monday through Thursday and actually work 65 legislative days.
The board, which consists of members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, last approved a pay increase for legislators in 1997. The 20 percent raise, which increased the annual salary for lawmakers from $32,000, took effect after the November 1998 general election.
“I don't feel sorry for those guys who make $38,400,” Williams said. “It was their decision to be a public servant.”
Legislative leaders are paid extra. The speaker and president pro tempore are paid $56,332; floor leaders and budget committee chairmen are paid $50,764.
House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, had asked his two appointees to the nine-member board to not approve a compensation increase for legislators because of economic conditions. Both voted for keeping the salary the same.
“The board made the right decision,” Steele said. “Clearly they are in tune with the fiscal reality faced by Oklahoma, and I commend them for keeping the taxpayers' best interest in mind with their decision.”
The Board of Judicial Compensation voted last month to increase judges' pay by 6 percent, which would cost an additional $1.86 million in salaries alone. The salaries of the 11 statewide elected officials, along with the state's 27 district attorneys, also would go up 6 percent because they are tied to the judicial salaries. The salaries of district judges in Oklahoma rank 35th in the country and the state Supreme Court justices rank 32nd. The raises will take effect July 1 if the governor or the Legislature doesn't reject them.
The Legislative Compensation Board reviews pay and benefits for legislators every two years. Any changes approved Tuesday would have taken effect next year, after the November general election.
In addition to their salaries, legislators in 2011 were eligible to be reimbursed for mileage at 51 cents per mile. Lawmakers who live more than 50 miles away would get mileage for one round trip while lawmakers who live 50 miles or less from the state Capitol receive mileage for a round trip each day they make it to session.
All lawmakers are eligible to receive the state health, life dental and disability insurance, which costs the state $603.29 a month for each lawmaker, according to the state Finance Office. Lawmakers passed legislation this year that takes effect next month that would allow legislators to opt out of state insurance coverage if they have their own insurance.
Lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol also receive a per diem of $148 per day each day the Legislature is in session.
Oklahoma voters created the compensation board in 1968 to examine legislative salaries and decide whether to adjust them.
Board member Charles Ford, a former state senator, said lawmakers put in many hours away from the Capitol throughout the year, meeting with constituents and attending events.
Ford, who served in the Legislature 38 years, suggested the board give gradual increases instead of waiting several years and then giving a larger increase, which looks bad. Ford made the motion to keep salaries at their present level.
Williams said he would like to see some type of performance review for lawmakers established.
“If our education system is lacking and they don't do something about it, we still pay them?” he asked. “We still give them their full salary regardless of whether they made decisions that benefit Oklahoma?”
“My business and my job is performance-oriented,” Williams said. “If I don't perform, I don't get paid.”