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Do Oklahoma Legislators Make Too Much Money?

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Inside the Oklahoma State Capitol building. Inside the Oklahoma State Capitol building.
Representative Jason Murphey Representative Jason Murphey
Board chairman, Art Cotton. Board chairman, Art Cotton.

Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- They're the highest paid legislators in the region, their salaries are the 15th highest in the country and that has some of you questioning why Oklahoma legislators' base pay is $38,400. After all, they're in session for only four months a year.

"I think they're overpaid," said Brett Bryan, Edmond resident and taxpayer. "Makes me want to go into the legislature, so I can have a cushy job and easy money."

"It's quite a bit of pay for what they do, really," said David Gray, taxpayer.

While their base pay is nearly $7,000 more than the starting pay of teachers, many take home much more.

Legislators who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol receive $148 a day for per diem for lodging expenses, roughly $9,472, plus they get mileage reimbursement.

Ten members of leadership also take home bonuses between of either $17,932 or $12,364.

They include, Speaker Kris Steele ($17,932), Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman ($12,364), Majority Floor Leader Dan Sullivan ($12,364), Appropriations Chairman Earl Sears ($12,364), Minority Leader Scott Inman ($12,364), President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman ($17,932), Majority Floor Leader Mike Schulz ($12,364), Asset. Floor Leader Clark Jolley ($12,364), Minority Leader Andrew Rice ($12,364) and Appropriations Chairman David Myers ($12,364).

If you compare that to other states in the region, you'll see Oklahoma's at the top of the list.

When you look at salary alone, Kansas legislators receive $7,979 with bonuses ranging from $12,665 to $7,165 for leadership.

Texas legislators receive $7,200 in salary, $21,000 in per diem and office budgets of $138,000 or more.

Arkansas legislators receive a salary of $15,869 with about a $2,000 bonus for leadership and an extra $11,920 for per diem for those living more than 50 miles away.

Colorado legislators have a salary of $30,000 and per diem of $150 a day or $45 a day, depending on where you live.

In New Mexico, there is no salary. In the odd years, everyone receives $9,180 per diem and in the even years, they get $4,950.

Missouri legislators receive $35,914 plus $6,888 per diem. Legislative leaders get bonuses of $1,500 or $2,500.

Read Compensation Comparisons

Read Legislative Benefits Comparisons

Read Senate Leadership Comparisons

Read House Leadership Comparisons

Read Legislative Retirement Comparisons

Representative Jason Murphey is critical of the pay scale in Oklahoma.

"This is supposed to be about public service, this is not supposed to be about a career," said Rep. Jason Murphey, Republican from Guthrie. "Each year, I've proposed that the legislative pay should be no more than the average salary of the working Oklahoman."

Read Murphey's proposal

Right now, the average salary is about $2,000 less than what legislators make. Representative Murphey donates the difference between his salary and that of average Oklahomans to charity.

The Legislative Compensation Board sets legislators' salaries, every two years. The board is set to meet again in October.

"I think it would be refreshing, if at the very least, they said, lets reduce Oklahoma's legislative salary so that Oklahoma isn't the highest in the region anymore. I think that would send a good message," said Murphey.

The board chairman, Art Cotton, does not support that idea.

"It's one of those, you want to look out for the taxpayers of Oklahoma and do your fiduciary responsibility but, you also want to get, you get what you pay for sometimes," said Cotton. "It is pretty much a full time job, especially for rural legislators."

He points out, legislators have not received a pay increase since 1997. That's when pay went up 20%. Cotton was not on the board at the time and he doesn't know if he'll be on the board in October, at the next meeting. Governor Mary Fallin can change the gubernatorial appointees, if she chooses.

"I think, once you lower salaries, whether it's for a legislator or any individual, it's really hard to make that back. I think that would be unfair," said Cotton.

Cotton says he'll push for no raise, instead of lowering salaries, at the next meeting.

Representative Murphey insists he'll keep trying to cut the pay, until other legislators support the idea. His last bill aimed to abolish the Legislative Compensation Board and tie pay to the average pay of Oklahomans. His bill died in committee.

"I want to bring attention to the issue with the legislative initiative so, that hopefully at the very least, Oklahoma's salary will not increase," said Murphey. "If they (the board) view public service as an occupation, then I think a bad outcome results and I think historically, that's what has happened here."

Other legislators tell us they deserve the pay and they defend it. We spoke with several who say being a lawmaker is time consuming, all year long. Some even explain that they work harder when the legislature's not in session, dealing with constituent issues.

From Speaker of the House, Kris Steele:

"As established in the Oklahoma Constitution, the Board on Legislative Compensation – not the Legislature – sets legislator income. The base salary has not changed since the 1990s. The session may last four months, but a legislator's work goes well beyond session. Last week, for instance, legislators began the process of conducting interim studies in preparation for next session. Legislators are also busy in their districts developing policies, meeting with constituents and learning about local needs. In the House, we take seriously our roles as stewards of public dollars and believe in leading by example. In recent years, we have implemented a moratorium on out-of-state travel and significantly reduced our operating budget. This has been just a small part of our larger efforts to make government more efficient and effective."

From Senate Pro Tempore Brian Bingman:

"Legislators do not have an ability to change their compensation in Oklahoma. The last time legislative pay was changed happened to be over ten years ago, when Democrats held majorities in both chambers of the legislature, and they had no more ability to effect that change than we do today. When citizens elect a senator or representative, they are electing a full time citizen legislator. While session lasts from February to June, interim activities such as studies, task forces and constituent work continue throughout the year. I believe the citizen legislator concept to be very virtuous in our republican form of government. The work and representation that legislators provide their constituents depends on close interaction with those that they represent; which means elected officials should spend time in their districts going to the people. The voters of Oklahoma are very wise and they know when their elected representatives are working for them and when they are not. We must remain accountable and accessible to the people we represent, for that reason time away from the capitol doing in-district work is equally important to that is done during session."

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