Legislators haven’t had a raise since 1998, and haven’t had a chance at once since 2014. Here’s why.
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As a proposal that would have changed the process for increasing legislators’ salaries went down in flames, some lawmakers took some parting shots at the commission that’s tasked with referring those pay raises to the ballot.
During a debate last Monday in the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he was “very disappointed that the commission that is supposed to evaluate legislator salaries and refer them to the voters has just chosen not to do so. I think that’s a real problem.” Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said they wouldn’t be debating the policy if the commission had done its job.
“They’re not doing their job, obviously,” she said.
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It’s been years since that commission met. And it currently doesn’t have enough members to form the quorum needed for a meeting.
The commission they were referring to is the Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers. Created by the voters in 1970, the commission has the power to propose salary increases for statewide elected officials, members of the judiciary and lawmakers. Pay raises for lawmakers must go to the ballot for voter approval.
Eighteen times the commission has referred a legislative pay raise to the ballot, and only twice have voters approved those recommendations: In 1980, when they raised lawmakers’ pay to $15,000, and again in 1998, when they approved the current $24,000 salary. (Voters also approved a $6,000 salary in 1968, when the legislature referred the issue to the ballot.)
Since lawmakers got their last pay raise in 1998, voters have rejected proposed salary hikes six times, most recently in 2014. That the commission hasn’t referred a pay raise to the ballot since then is not sitting well with some lawmakers, as the March 28 hearing in the House Appropriations Committee demonstrated.
Created in 1970, the commission consists of five members: two appointed by the governor, including the chairman, and one apiece appointed by the Senate president, speaker of the House of Representatives and chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
Lawmakers’ salaries would have to be more than $49,000 to have the same buying power as it did when the current $24,000 salary was approved by voters in 1998.
Only two of these seats are currently filled. House Speaker Rusty Bowers appointed Amanda Reeve in 2019, and former Senate President Steve Yarbrough appointed Warde Nichols in 2017. Karen Fann, who succeeded Yarbrough after the 2018 election, has never made an appointment. She told the Arizona Mirror that her understanding is that the seat filled by the Senate president’s appointee hasn’t been vacant in the time she’s held the office.
Under state law, appointments to the commission are made on a biennial basis, though the Arizona Department of Administration said members’ terms don’t expire.
Inaction by Gov. Doug Ducey appears to be the main reason the commission doesn’t have enough members for a quorum. Ducey has only made one appointment in his two terms as governor, selecting attorney John Bouma as chairman in October 2015. Bouma died in 2019, and both of the governor’s seats have been vacant since then.
The chief justice’s seat is also vacant. It was last filled in 2017 when then-Chief Justice Scott Bales re-appointed Joe Kanefield, who’d been selected several years earlier by his predecessor. But Kanefield, now serving as Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s chief deputy, is no longer a member: The Arizona Constitution mandates that members of the commission be from “private life,” meaning Kanefield has been ineligible since going to work for the Attorney General’s Office in 2019.
Current Chief Justice Robert Brutinel hasn’t appointed anyone to fill the vacancy because the court’s policy is to wait until the governor indicates that the commission will be meeting and then to “update accordingly,” according to spokesman Alberto Rodriguez.
It’s unclear why Ducey hasn’t made an appointment since 2015. C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for the governor, was unsure. So was Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s former spokesman and chief of staff, who worked in the Ducey administration for nearly seven years.
Former Gov. Jan Brewer declined to appoint her two members to the commission to intentionally keep a legislative pay raise off the ballot in 2010. At the time, Arizona was still clawing its way back from the Great Recession, and she felt it would have been inappropriate to ask voters to increase lawmakers’ salaries in that economic climate.
The two current members haven’t heard anything about when a meeting might be. Nichols told the Mirror that he believes he’s still a member of the commission, but isn’t 100% certain. He was told when he was first appointed that no meetings would be needed unless an actual conversation about pay raises was going to take place. No one he asked knew who would initiate those conversations.
This low pay means the average citizen can’t serve as a legislator.
– Rep. John Kavanah, R-Fountain Hills
If a meeting is called, Nichols, a former lawmaker, said he’ll support referring a legislative pay raise to the ballot.
Reeve, also a former legislator, said she’s ready to serve when called upon.
“Whenever we have the quorum to do so, I’ll be there,” she said.
Kavanagh said he plans to ask Ducey to make his appointments to the commission.
“I’m going to pursue that, because we really should put something before the voters,” he told the Mirror.
Kavanagh said that, adjusted for inflation, legislative salaries should be around $39,500. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online inflation calculator, lawmakers’ salaries would have to be more than $49,000 to have the same buying power as it did when the current $24,000 salary was approved by voters in 1998. Kavanagh said he’d be happy with only adjustments for inflation.
The low pay for lawmakers limits who can hold the office, Kavanagh said. For the most part, the only people who are able to hold the positions, he said, are people who are independently wealthy, retired, business owners or people who are in unusual employment situations where their bosses are OK with them being gone for up to half the year.
“This low pay means the average citizen can’t serve as a legislator,” Kavanagh told the Arizona Mirror.
Cobb expressed similar dismay in the House Appropriations Committee. She noted that an unusually large number of lawmakers resigned their seats since the last election, and said the low pay is probably one of the reasons for that exodus. Because it’s so difficult to hold another job while serving in the legislature, lawmakers largely must either ”be independently wealthy or this is the best job you’re ever going to get.”
“So, you’ve got two ends of the spectrum. We needed something kind of in the middle, and I think that’s what makes for good legislators,” she said.
Cobb and Kavanagh made their remarks in the House Appropriations Committee during a debate over an amendment to Senate Bill 1180. The bill, and an accompanying amendment on Senate Concurrent Resolution 1018, would have altered the commission and given it the authority to set salaries for lawmakers without voter approval. The proposals would have made other changes as well, such as increases in reporting for lobbyists at the state Capitol. The committee rejected the proposal on a 5-8 vote.
***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had a headline stating that the legislative salary commission hadn’t met since 2014. However, it met in 2015 to consider judicial salaries only. The headline was changed for clarity.
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