Oregon Senate moves closer to approving big pay increases for legislators

The proposed change would put Oregon among the top 10 highest-paying states

By: - February 22, 2022 4:46 pm

Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon legislators moved a step closer to giving themselves a large raise on Tuesday, with a Senate panel voting 3-2 to advance a proposal that would nearly double their pay and provide child care stipends.

After Tuesday’s vote by the Senate Rules Committee, Senate Bill 1566 still must clear the Senate’s budget-writing committee and pass the full Senate, before meeting the same scrutiny in the House. If it succeeds, the plan would raise legislative pay from just under $33,000 to about $58,500 beginning in January 2023. 

The proposal’s proponents, including advocacy groups for Asian-Americans and caregivers who asked senators to introduce the bill, described it as a way to make the Legislature look more like the people it represents. The Legislature is older, whiter and wealthier than the state, and proponents argue that low wages and long hours keep working people and parents out.

Sen. James Manning, a Eugene Democrat who supported the bill, said he believes the Oregon House loses between a third and half of its representatives each election because the Legislature doesn’t pay enough. 

He said he talked with one representative who works two part-time jobs to make ends meet, and he knows others have similar accounts. Personally, Manning said he’s gone through two cars since he was appointed to the Senate in 2016. He could afford that cost, but not everyone can, he said.

Raising legislative salaries and providing child care for the relatively small number of lawmakers with young children is the right thing to do, Manning said, though he acknowledged that it might not look good to people watching. 

“Any time you try to do the right thing, optics are going to be bad,” Manning said. “And if we account for everything we do based on optics, we might as well not even convene.” 

Without the proposed increase, Oregon legislators already earn more than lawmakers in at least 22 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers in seven other states – Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming – are paid per day or week they work and don’t have annual salaries.

The proposed increase would move Oregon into the top 10 highest-paying states. The eight that currently pay more – California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania – all have full-time legislatures. 

Oregon lawmakers meet for up to 160 days during their long session in odd-numbered years and up to 35 days in even years. They may also return to Salem throughout the year for interim committee meetings or to address emergencies in a special session. 

The committee amended the bill to use the state’s annual average wage, rather than the mean wage. That bumps the estimate from about $57,000 to about $58,500 annually.

Legislators could receive raises every two years if the average wage increases, but they’d be protected from experiencing the full effect of economic downturns. A lawmaker’s salary couldn’t decrease more than 2% in a given year. 

In addition, any lawmaker with a child younger than 13 would receive up to $9,000 for child care expenses during the two-year legislative cycle. 

Legislative fiscal analysts estimated the higher pay and stipends will cost the state almost $6 million in the two-year budget period that begins in July 2023. The state would start paying higher wages in January 2023, costing $1.5 million out of the current budget. 

In addition to their legislative salaries, lawmakers receive $151 daily for expenses while the Legislature is in session, $400 monthly during the months the Legislature isn’t in session and have access to campaign money for other job-related expenses. They also control hiring in their own offices, which some have historically used to pay spouses or children from state coffers.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican who began serving in the House in 1999, said the pay was about $18,000 when he was elected.

“It’s about a minimum wage job when you do this full time,” he said. “I know we tell people it’s not a full-time job, but that’s only when we’re recruiting them to run for office.” 

However, Knopp said, he has to stick to a principle that voters, not politicians, should set legislative salaries. If voters want legislators to be paid more, they should bring that issue to the ballot, he said. In the meantime, he intends to vote against any legislative proposal to raise his salary. 

The other Republican on the committee, Sen. Fred Girod of Stayton, said his constituents are frightened when the Legislature is in session. Higher pay seems like a step to a full-time Legislature, and he doesn’t want that, he said. 

“​​I just can’t get away from the fact that I don’t want people here,” he said. “I don’t want a full-time legislature. I just don’t want to move in that direction.”

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.