Discussion

ANALYSIS: Should State Lawmakers Get a Pay Raise?

March 20, 2013, 5:09 PM HST
* Updated March 21, 1:23 PM
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Whether you’ve been watching the train wreck of controversy that is the Public Land Development Corporation, or have grimaced as lawmakers flogged the First Amendment on behalf of celebrities, it’s easy to think of our state Legislature as a group that occasionally messes up on the job.

That’s usually the first thing that comes to a boss’ mind when the issue of a pay raise comes up. And for our legislators, that’s right now.

Your average state legislator currently earns a little over $46,000 per year, not including the $150 per day bonus (for living expenses) our outer-island senators and representatives receive.

California lawmakers are the highest-paid in the nation.

California lawmakers are the highest-paid in the nation.

That figure pales in comparison to the $95,291 per year earned by California lawmakers (who also get a daily bonus of over $140 while in session).

However, Hawaii legislators certainly fare better than their New Mexico counterparts, who have a yearly salary of exactly zero. Lawmakers there only get paid while in session, earning an allowance totaling around $150 per day.

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On average, our state senators and representatives do better than most of their mainland counterparts. Currently, only eight other states provide salaries and bonuses higher than those found in Hawaii.

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By the beginning of next year, Hawaii lawmakers may be sitting even higher on the totem pole of earnings, with their pay scheduled to rise to $57,852.

That pay raise was actually approved back in 2007 by the state’s Commission on Salaries. Rather than allowing lawmakers to vote for their own raises, the commission approves legislative pay increases independently.

To their credit, Hawaii legislators voted to hold off on those raises, and gave themselves a pay cut of 5% in 2009.

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But those cuts will expire on Jan. 1 of 2014, and under the current scheme, lawmakers will see their pay hiked by around 25% to the previously mentioned $57,852. That would make them the sixth-highest paid Legislature in the nation (assuming no significant changes to legislator pay in other states).

Although a 25% hike sounds impressive, one does need to factor in the cost of living in Hawaii, which can heavily impact real earnings.

For instance, circuit court judges in Hawaii currently earn around $136,000. While that salary puts them in 24th place nationally, the National Center for State Courts estimates that they are actually the worst-paid in the nation when cost of living is factored in.

A high cost of living is a fact of life in Hawaii. But does it justify pay increases for legislators?

A high cost of living is a fact of life in Hawaii that needs to be factored into any calculation of pay raises.

But cost of living challenges affect every state resident, and the notion of a double-digit pay raise for lawmakers may not sit well with the Hawaii population whose own pay has only risen by an average of 1.9% this year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nevertheless, at their most recent meeting on March 18, the State Salary Commission recommended an additional 2% yearly raise through July of 2018. That is on top of the previously scheduled pay increases, and would bring the average legislator’s salary up to $62,604 in the next four years.

To prevent the pay increases, lawmakers would have to pass a concurrent resolution rejecting the commission’s proposal.

That means under current rules, if the Legislature finds the raises to be a fine idea, then their best course of action would be to do… nothing.

They just might pull this one off.

Editor’s note: Do you feel Hawaii lawmakers deserve a pay raise? Let us know what you think in our comment section below.

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