MONTGOMERY — The pay cut Alabama voters approved for lawmakers Tuesday is expected to save the state more than $1 million a year.
But lawmakers in north Alabama say the reduction in pay, estimated to be about $7,200 a year per lawmaker, will be partially offset by an increase in travel expenses that previously came out of their pay.
Area lawmakers contacted Friday said the pay decrease shouldn’t deter anyone from running for office. In fact, they say the compensation is actually more equitable.
State Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, said earlier this year that when he added up all his expenses from the 2011 session and combined that total with the pay lost while he was away from his private-sector job during the session, he had earned about $12,000.
“Right now, it costs me thousands of dollars more to be a representative from north Alabama than it does to be one from Montgomery,” Henry said. “(The new structure) will level the playing field.”
The cuts, pushed by Republicans including Rep. Mike Ball, of Huntsville, ties legislators’ future pay to the state’s median household income, which was $40,474 in 2010. The amendment was a reaction to public criticism when legislators, led by Democrats, raised their pay by about 61 percent to $49,500 in 2007.
The pay raise provided annual cost-of-living raises that pushed compensation to $53,388, although some lawmakers have declined the raises.
In the Shoals, most lawmakers earn about $50,084 a year, except Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, who makes $30,000 after declining various raises.
Under the current pay structure, lawmakers all receive the same per diems, regardless of if they live in Montgomery, Mobile or Florence. The new rules say lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from Montgomery can receive overnight per diem at $75 per day for the 45 days of the legislative session, and all members could receive mileage at the same rate state employees do — 55 cents per mile. Estimates put the expected total compensation and reimbursements closer to $46,000 for the average lawmaker.
Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said the new expense reimbursement rules are more practical than current ones, in which lawmakers who live in or near Montgomery receive the same compensation without having the same travel expenses or time away from their regular jobs.
Black doesn’t expect the pay decrease will keep anyone from running for office. He added money should never have been motivation for the job.
“Anybody who chooses to run because of the financial compensation is fooling themselves because it is a burden to be away from their families and their jobs,” Black said. “It still is a part-time job, but you’re on call full time.”
Greg Burdine, D-Florence, estimates that at 55 cents a mile, he’ll receive about $3,700 in gas money during the 15-week legislative session. That’s a much better deal than the current one-time, 10-cents-a-mile reimbursement.
As far as the new $75 per diem, Burdine said most of that will go to the state-discounted, $69-a-night-hotel he stays at while in Montgomery.
Previously, that hotel cost, along with food and gasoline, would come out of his take-home pay as a lawmaker.
“What people have to understand is we’re just breaking even,” Burdine said.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said she was glad decisions about lawmakers’ pay are now out of their hands.
“This may not fully compensate us, but it gets us out of the decision-making process and is a reasonable amount,” Collins said.
Burdine warned, however, that lowering the pay too much could detract potential lawmakers.
“What you don’t want is for everyone to be rich or retired,” he said. “You want some young people, you want some working people.”
States vary on the amounts they pay their lawmakers, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
In 2010, Georgia lawmakers were paid $17,342 per year and a per diem of $173 during the legislative session. Mississippi paid $10,000 a year to lawmakers and a $116 per diem. California’s lawmakers appeared to be the highest paid in the country with a base salary of $95,291 a year and $173 a day while they’re in session.
Alabama’s new pay scale takes effect after the November 2014 election.