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January 22, 2019

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Lawmaker pay raises historically unpopular in Nevada

Legislature Opening Day

Lance Iversen / AP

Assembly members applaud Republican John Hambrick after he was voted speaker at the opening of the Legislature in Carson City, Monday, Feb. 2, 2015.

Nevada lawmakers are paid about $9,000 for their work during the legislative session, a figure that those same lawmakers have been reticent to raise, experts say.

Legislators are paid for the first half of the 120-day session held every two years, along with a daily allowance for expenses.

The pay is relatively low compared with some other states, such as California, where lawmakers are paid more than $100,000 per year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some political experts argue that higher pay makes it possible for people who otherwise couldn’t afford to take time away from their jobs to serve.

But other researchers say higher pay doesn’t automatically lead to more socioeconomic diversity in state legislatures and can encourage some lawmakers to make a career out of politics.

Nevada’s tight hold on legislative pay is tied up in a limited government mentality that stretches back to the constitutional convention, said Michael Green, UNLV associate history professor.

The original constitution approved in 1864 limited sessions to 60 days, paid lawmakers $60 per session for expenses and included a $2 per diem for the speaker of the Assembly, lieutenant governor and president of the Senate.

“It was partly that they didn’t expect the legislators to spend much time there, and it certainly wasn’t going to be their main job, so paying them only a little bit was not an issue,” Green said. “Second, I think part of the goal was to discourage people from staying there too long.”

Nevada lawmakers are paid about $150 a day for the first half of the session, with a $140 per diem for all 120 days. The state also sets aside money for interim committees that meet between legislative sessions to conduct studies, monitor legislation and make adjustments to projected versus actual revenue and expenses, among other duties.

In the past, the state has looked at lengthening sessions, making them annual and raising lawmakers’ pay.

Former state Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, sponsored a bill in 2013 to raise lawmakers’ pay from $8,777 to $24,000 per session. The bill would also have required annual sessions and meetings outside Carson City if the majority of each party agreed.

But efforts to raise lawmaker compensation have generally been unpopular in Nevada, Green said. Lawmakers increased pensions in 1989 and were met with heavy opposition, said Green and Michael Bowers, a UNLV political science professor.

“I think many have the attitude that candidates knew the pay when they ran and by running they implicitly accepted it,” Bowers said.

The state tried to move toward meeting annually in 1960 by adding a session devoted entirely to budget issues, but riders and special projects lawmakers tried to attach to the legislation helped thwart the change, Green said.

“Traditionally, it does not get a lot of traction,” Green said of such proposals. “I think that is a symptom of officials here figuring the public is not too keen on that.”

A study published in the American Political Science Review in November 2016 says the theory that higher pay leads to greater economic diversity in state legislatures “doesn’t hold much water,” wrote political scientists Nicholas Carnes of Duke University and Eric R. Hansen, now a professor at Loyola University Chicago.

The researchers found the working class was least represented in states that paid lawmakers salaries of more than $75,000, with similar results after adjusting for factors such as heavier workloads.

“Data on the makeup of state legislatures in the late 1970s, the mid-1990s, and the late 2000s suggest that in states that offer leaders higher salaries, working-class politicians are actually crowded out by career political professionals,” the report said.

Green said that while some research may challenge the link between higher pay and economic diversity, it may still be the case. Bowers said the time commitment is even more of an issue than pay in making legislatures more diverse when it comes to race, ethnicity and gender.

“Not many people can take four months away from their job every other year,” Bowers said. “Employers need them to be at their positions at all times.”

But such obstacles have not stopped the Nevada Legislature from becoming more diverse, Green said. The 2019 Legislature will be the first in the country represented by a majority of women.

“The diversity we’re now seeing I think reflects our society more than anything about the pay or anything related to it,” Green said.