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Kansas special committee leans harder toward raising legislators’ annual base salary to $45,000

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Kansas special committee leans harder toward raising legislators’ annual base salary to $45,000

Sep 22, 2023 | 6:41 pm ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Kansas special committee leans harder toward raising legislators’ annual base salary to $45,000
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Members of the bipartisan special legislative compensation committee, comprised mostly of former House and Senate members, expressed support for a new base salary of $45,000 annually. The committee has yet to resolve differences on how to handle legislator pension benefits and other details of a proposal to be submitted to the Legislature. (Screen capture of the Kansas Legislature's YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — The bipartisan committee predominantly comprised of former state House and Senate members built momentum for the idea of raising the annual base salary of legislators to $45,000 and delivering substantial compensation premiums for eight lawmakers in leadership positions.

The base salary idea mulled by the nine-person panel, and endorsed by at least five members, would provide the 165 legislators with 60% of the new annual salary during the initial five months of the year when typically in Topeka for the annual session. The remaining 40% would be spread over the subsequent seven months under a proposal put forth by former Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican and chairman of the committee.

“I’m not looking to freight-train this through,” Hutton said. “I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I think there is a general feeling that somewhere in that neighborhood is kind of what our target is.”

This tentative blueprint would earmark $27,000 to cover the period in which legislators would be in session at the Capitol, which begins in January and usually concluded by May. Legislators would receive $18,000 in salary over the other seven months in recognition of ongoing constituent work. Members would be paid a daily rate if called to a special session of the Legislature or when appointed to an interim legislative committee.

The compensation committee was formed to largely withdraw current senators and representatives from taking responsibility for modernizing a system recognized as overdue for change. While intent on boosting compensation of Kansas lawmakers, there is a commitment to maintaining a citizen legislative body rather opening the door to a generation of career politicians. Once the commission submits a report to the Legislature, the House and Senate has the option of rejecting the plan but wouldn’t be able to modify it. If defeated, the commission could try again.

“Really what we’re trying to do is make this job fair for people who are losing income in their regular employment,” said former Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat.

The goal has been to implement changes Jan. 1, 2025, which would be after the next election cycle in which voters decide who fills all 40 Senate seats and all 125 House seats.

One sticking point in the committee’s discussion has been the problem of inflating the January salary of legislators and supercharging benefit calculations for people enrolled in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. Several members of the committee want to find a fix that didn’t provide an extraordinary benefit to legislators who were members of KPERS.

During the committee’s meeting Thursday at the Capitol, there was conversation about setting significantly higher salaries for the Senate president, majority and minority party leaders and budget committee chairman. That sentiment would carry across the rotunda to the House speaker, speaker pro tem, majority and minority party leaders, and the budget committee chairman.

The upward adjustments would range from a boost of 50% or $38,250 for the House speaker and Senate president to a premium of 33% or $14,850 for the Senate vice president and House speaker pro tem. Extended bonuses to chairs of seven other House and Senate committees generated controversy.

Clark Shultz, who served 18 years in the House or Senate, said he wasn’t interested in deciding whether a limited list of committee chairs warranted $4,500 or $11,250 salary bumps. The proposal didn’t recommend additional pay for the top Democrat on the select committees, he said.

“I feel uncomfortable getting so granular that we’re going to give additional compensation for this job or that job,” he said. “I don’t want legislators wanting a specific committee so they can receive additional compensation.”

Still under debate among compensation committee members was whether to change per diem compensation for travel or hotel expenses for legislators under a system managed by the Kansas Department of Administration.

Former Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, urged colleagues to establish a system that allocated additional compensation to legislators with geographically massive districts. For example, one Senate district covered 13 counties in western Kansas spread over 14,000 square miles. Instead of a 20-minute drive in Johnson County to a public meeting, some lawmakers must drive hours for a comparable meeting.

One proposal on the table would allocate $1,000 to $1,500 monthly stipends to legislators based on relative size of a district. No consensus on that issue has emerged.

Currently, state legislators in Kansas earn about $27,000 annually, meaning the potential increase to a base salary of $45,000 would equate to a 40% raise.

Former Wichita Rep. Mark Kahrs said the $45,000 amount would be slightly above one-fourth of the $174,000 earned annually by a member of Congress. A typical state legislative session in Kansas lasted 90 days, he said, so something approximating $43,500 per year would be reasonable.

“They serve three months of the year, so we given them 25% of what federal congressional pay is,” Kahrs said.

Hutton, the chairman, said the average annual wage in Kansas was around $57,000 in 2022. If that annually updated figure was used as an index for legislative compensation, but modified by subtracting 20% to reflect the part-time role of a state lawmaker, that would justify the salary of $45,000. Adjustments driven by changes in statewide income would help sustain the goal of maintaining a citizen Legislature, Hutton said.

Meanwhile, former Republican Sen. Steve Abrams of Arkansas City said the index for legislative salary ought to be associated with annual fluctuation in the average income of Kansans. He preferred that figure be calculated by state legislative staff rather than depend on a federal government report that might not be as accurate.

He said he wouldn’t be opposed to an indexing system that dropped legislative pay if that’s what transpired within the Kansas economy.

Former Democratic Rep. Ed McKechnie, of Pittsburg, said he would prefer the index be linked to what the Legislature did each year to upgrade state employee salaries. He anticipated political problems if the Legislature was granted a wage hike and those same House and Senate members declined to boost compensation for other state workers.

“There’s got to be a nexus between the two or there’s going to be a whole bunch of arrows shot,” McKechnie said. “I think that would be seen as incredibly distasteful.”

Abrams, Hutton and McKechnie also delved into whether they believed the Legislature intended the committee to broadly or narrowly define legislative compensation. There was some discussion about the committee not wading into complexities of the KPERS pension system.

“What’s in the basket?” Hutton said. “What’s out?”

“That’s our decision,” McKechnie said. “I believe our jurisdiction is broader. Ultimately, we’re the ones who have to vote to make this work.”

Abrams: “I would agree. I thought we were instructed to be very broad in our understanding of this.”