A symbolic drop in the bucket: Kan. lawmakers’ pay debated as they discuss budget woes

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Kan. lawmakers’ pay becomes issue amid budget woes

TOPEKA, Kan. — Every little bit helps, right?

That’s a subject of sometimes intense debate among Kansas legislators, as they consider whether they should freeze, cut or stop their pay in a symbolic gesture amid the state’s budget problems.

More than two dozen Kansas lawmakers have agreed to cut or stop their legislative pay. But when the Senate on Wednesday considered adding a freeze in legislative pay for two years to a proposed state budget, the vote was 26-14 against the idea.

“I’m having trouble balancing MY budget,” said Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Grinnell Republican. “I’m not going to apologize for the piddly little salary I get.”

That salary is $84 a day when lawmakers are in session, plus $116 for expenses.

Some lawmakers feel an obligation to take a hit to help with the budget. Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, knows stopping his salary at the end of the session is a drop in the bucket, but he said sharing the financial pain was the right thing to do.

“It’s symbolic,” Hineman told The Hays Daily News, “but it will amount to several hundred dollars.”

Hineman was one of about two dozen lawmakers who had agreed to stop their per-day pay. Twenty-one senators agreed to give up their $84 payments, and 19 of them also gave up a $116 daily subsistence payment. A handful of House representatives joined in.

“We’re in a budget crunch,” Rep. Charles Roth, a Salina Republican, told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “It costs $80,000 a day to run this place, keep the Legislature open. I figured I was going to be part of the cost savings and do my part and forgo my pay from Monday to when we finish.”

Lawmakers are normally paid for weekends during the session, regardless of whether they meet. But many lawmakers in both the House and Senate agreed to limit their pay last weekend, and many are likely to do so again this weekend should the session extend past its budgeted number of days.

Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, asked senators to skip their weekend pay.

“You can’t force people to do that,” Morris said. “Several people did.”

Not everyone was on board. Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, declined to request no pay for the weekend work.

“I have always thought that we should only get paid for the days we are actually here and actually work,” Kelly said. “That approach has not been received well by a number of my colleagues. At this stage of the game to present that and to make it optional just seemed gratuitous and political, and I just didn’t care to engage.”

Kelly voted against the proposal to freeze lawmakers’ pay and expense payments for two years, offered by Rep. Jim Barnett, an Emporia Republican. Without such language, both payments are adjusted each year for inflation.

He said his proposal would save between $100,000 and $200,000 during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Critics said it’s hard enough for the political parties to find good candidates because legislative pay is low. They also suggested that Barnett, who is running for Congress this year, had political motives.

Sen. Roger Reitz, a Manhattan Republican, said he and other legislators deserve their pay.

“We’re a little cut above the folks who sent us here,” he said.

But Barnett said Kansans expect legislators to make sacrifices in a budget crisis.

“I think they’re out of touch with the public,” he said of fellow senators.

Kansas Legislature: www.kslegislature.org

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