How much are your legislators paid?

August 23, 2013

Update: Salaries for Montana and South Dakota legislators were incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this post.

Want to get rich? Then serving in your state legislature probably isn’t the way to go. The vast majority of the 7,383 legislators around the country are paid well below a living wage.

That’s not a surprise, given that most legislature posts are part-time positions. Some meet for only a few weeks a year, and others meet only for short periods every other year. But the fact that many are paid so little virtually guarantees that they must hold outside jobs, which makes some watchdogs worry about potential conflicts of interest.

Legislators in seven states are paid $10,000 a year or less for their service. The 112 members of the New Mexico House and Senate receive no annual salary, while the 424 members of the New Hampshire legislature get only a token $100 a year. Lawmakers in Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, Alabama and Wyoming all take home less than five figures for their work.

On the other end of the spectrum, legislators in California are the best-paid in the nation. The 80 members of the state Assembly and the 40 senators take home $90,526 for their service in Sacramento, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania legislators gets a healthy $83,801 per year, while New York lawmakers receive $79,500 on an annual basis. Legislators in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts and Alaska all take home more than $50,000 a year. Six more states pay their legislators at least $40,000 a year.

It’s not like legislators are shelling out a lot of their own money to get to work. Most legislatures allow their members to claim a per diem in addition to their salaries, either based on the number of days lawmakers are in session or on the distance they must travel to get to work. Though New Mexico legislators don’t get a salary, they can claim up to $154 a day in expenses.

New York legislators get an additional $165 per full day worked, on top of their already-hefty salary. Michigan lawmakers can expense $10,800 on top of their $71,685 yearly salaries.

Alabama legislators only make $10 a day in actual salary, but they get $4,308 a month in expense budgets and $50 a day when the legislature meets. Arizona lawmakers who live outside of Maricopa County make $25 a day more than those who live in and around Phoenix, given the distances they have to travel to get to the capital.

Travel costs are big for Hawaii legislators, too. Those who live on the island of Oahu get $10 a day in travel costs, while those who live on other islands get $175 a day while the legislature is in session, presumably for hotel rooms and plane tickets. Legislators in Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, North Dakota, Nebraska, Vermont and Wyoming also get bonuses if they represent districts far away from the state capital.

A career in politics can be meaningful and rewarding, to be sure. Just don’t expect to get rich while serving as a state legislator.

A note on our methodology: Some legislatures pay their members every day they are in session in a given year. In Montana, legislators earn $82.64 per day, and the sessions last for 90 days. So, we multiplied the salary by the maximum number of days the legislature can be in session. That means a lot of these legislators are actually earning less than the maximum amount we’ve calculated, given the varying lengths of session by year.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · August 23, 2013