On the November ballot, Alabamians will vote on a state constitutional amendment to change the manner in which their legislators are compensated. Those who remember the Alabama Legislature’s 61 percent self-awarded pay raise in 2007 might be understandably skeptical about a ballot proposal created by legislators regarding their own pay. But a careful review of the legislative pay amendment should allay that skepticism.
The current legislative pay structure has left many Alabamians confused about what legislators are paid. Currently, legislative compensation includes $10 per day while the Legislature is in session and a monthly expense allowance of $4,174 with an automatic cost-of-living increase each April 1st. Between the official salary and the expense allowance, legislators are making an average of slightly less than $52,000. Other per diem and travel reimbursements only increase that amount for some legislators.
What confuses most Alabamians is that the expense allowance operates more like a salary than an expense account. Legislators presently receive the allowance regardless of whether they actually incur the costs.
Amendment 8 would tie legislative pay to Alabama’s median household income and require a more transparent reimbursement process for official expenses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, Alabama’s estimated median household income was $41,415.
Most Alabamians recognize that serving in the Legislature is a full time job even with the constitutional limits on the session. Alabamians will find that they are able to contact their respective legislators far more than 105 days out of the year. Whether meeting to develop legislation for an upcoming session, holding town hall meetings, being stopped by a neighbor at Walmart, or simply being asked at church about what is happening in Montgomery, many legislators extend their responsibilities well beyond the days the Legislature actually meets. More importantly, if Alabamians find that their legislators are not readily available or engaging their constituents year-round, they would be well advised to find new representation.
Alabamians also agree on the need for more transparency among our elected officials, not less. So what is transparent about the current system which provides legislators with an “expense allowance” more than 20 percent greater than the current median household income in Alabama without requiring clear documentation of official expenses?
Amendment 8 not only cleans up a confusing network of legislative pay provisions and the misleading “expense allowance”, it also marks a several thousand dollar decrease in actual annual pay.
Finally, some critics have noted that Amendment 8 leaves the determination of household income to the State Personnel Board. With so much scrutiny on legislative pay, any significant upward deviation from the widely accepted numbers of the U.S. Census Bureau would likely draw the ire of many voters.
Amendment 8 also leaves creation of reimbursement procedures up to the leadership of the Alabama House and Senate. However, common sense steps such as creating an expense cap and requiring receipts for reimbursements to be posted online will create more transparency and accountability for Alabama’s legislators.
Alabama’s legislative compensation has been handled poorly for far too long. In November, Alabamians have the opportunity to permanently remove the legislative pay issue from the hands of legislators. Voters will have to choose between a viable compensation alternative tied to the livelihood of Alabama’s families or a broken system that breeds confusion, limits transparency, and likely becomes more expensive every April 1st.