Oregon elected officials could see raises under Senate proposal for independent salary commission
The bipartisan effort follows former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan blaming her side gig on a low state salary
Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, and Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, work together in the Senate Committee on Rules on Thursday, June 15, 2023. They will both be on the new Joint Interim Committee on Adddiction and Community Safety Response. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Oregon lawmakers on Friday took an initial step toward eventually raising salaries for the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, lawmakers and other state elected officials, some of whom are among the lowest-paid in the country.
The Senate Rules Committee voted 3-0 to advance Senate Joint Resolution 34, which would ask voters to amend the state constitution and create a new commission to set salaries for elected officials. The measure still needs a vote from the full Senate and the House before voters would have a chance to weigh in during the November 2024 election.
“This is really about professionalizing, in some ways, how we do this and taking our own salaries out of the hands of politicians to set,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, as she introduced the bill. “I want to make sure that wage analyses are able to be done by human resource professionals who have an expertise in compensation.”
Oregon’s comparatively low salaries for elected officials came into sharp relief this spring, when Secretary of State Shemia Fagan resigned in disgrace over a $10,000-per-month consulting contract with a troubled cannabis company involved in an audit her office was conducting of the state agency that regulates marijuana. At the time, Fagan said her $77,000 annual salary as secretary of state wasn’t enough to make ends meet.
Fagan earned far less than her deputy – now acting secretary – Cheryl Myers, who made close to $240,000 last year. And Fagan made less than almost every other elected official doing that job across the country: Only the secretaries of state in Wisconsin and Arizona earned less.
Other elected officials are also near the bottom of the list. Gov. Tina Kotek earns $98,600 – less than governors in every state but Maine ($70,000), Colorado ($90,000) and Arizona ($95,000). Treasurer Tobias Read makes $77,000, less than his counterparts everywhere but Wisconsin and Arizona. And Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s $82,200 salary is the lowest in the nation.
Lawmakers earn an annual salary of $35,052, as well as a daily subsistence allowance of $157 during the legislative session. Their wages fall in the middle of the pack, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Efforts by lawmakers in recent years to raise their pay, which they said were to help attract more diverse candidates, repeatedly fizzled.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said it was important that people other than politicians set salaries. Earlier on Friday, he voted against a proposed budget for the legislative branch, as he has every other time he got the chance, because he felt like it was voting on his own salary.
“This request really is to take the decision-making authority on salaries out of the hands of people who potentially benefit from them,” Knopp said. “We just see too much conflict here.”
The proposed commission would set salaries for the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, state senators, state representatives, state Supreme Court justices and other state judges. The proposal also would allow lawmakers to identify other elected officials whose salaries should be set by a commission, and Knopp said he hopes to add district attorneys.
State employees, elected officials and lobbyists wouldn’t be allowed to serve on the commission, nor would their immediate family members.
Meagan Flynn, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, told lawmakers she supported the concept of an independent commission, but that the Legislature should also give judges a raise this year. Her 2023-25 budget request included 10% raises on July 1 and Jan. 1, 2024, costing more than $17 million. Those raises were not included in a budget bill approved by the Senate on Friday.
“We don’t need a commission to tell us that the salaries we pay to our judges have fallen far behind the salaries that are paid to other public officials (and) senior lawyers,” Flynn said. “And the Legislature doesn’t need to wait for a commission to make a down payment on closing that gap.”
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