Politics & Government

State lawmakers could see 11 percent raises

State lawmakers could get double-digit raises over the next two years, their first in seven years.

A salary-setting board wants to boost rank-and-file lawmakers’ salaries by 11.2 percent in two steps to $46,839 by September 2016.

The Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials voted 9-5 Tuesday to support the proposal, but won’t make its final decision until May.

The commission heard an appeal from Senate minority leader Sharon Nelson to consider an increase so the “best and the brightest” in Washington can afford to serve in the Legislature even if they aren’t wealthy.

“Since there hasn’t been that increase since 2008, this step will really help us (ensure) that legislators who are here are representatives of the vast majority of Washingtonians, and that’s working-class people,” Nelson, a Democrat from Maury Island, said Wednesday on learning of the proposal.

The commission studied a human-resources consultant’s research and elected officials’ job responsibilities in proposing the increases.

Voting Tuesday and Wednesday, the board proposed giving all state elected officials raises of at least 3 percent this year and 1 percent next year to adjust for cost of living. That would be the only increase some officials receive, including the governor.

Others would get bigger bumps, with the largest going to the state treasurer, whose pay would go up 7 percent this September and 5 percent a year later, including the cost-of-living change. Lawmakers would see the next-biggest increase, a total of 8 percent this year and 3 percent a year later.

Of 147 Washington lawmakers, 143 make $42,106, fifth highest in a group of 23 states with similar time commitments.

Drawing on the consultant’s research, the salary commission considered lawmakers’ duties comparable to those of a tier of nonunion state administrators whose salary range has a midpoint of about $75,000. Accounting for a legislative schedule considered about 70 percent of full-time, that comparison puts ideal pay for lawmakers at about $52,000. The raises would take a step in that direction by raising pay to $46,839.

Four legislative leaders have higher salaries. The House and Senate minority leaders would make $51,288 under the proposal, and the House speaker and Senate majority leader would make $55,738.

Lawmakers shouldn’t have to “take an oath of poverty” to serve, said Steve Isaac, a cattle rancher in the Yakima Valley serving his first term on the salary commission, who voted for the proposal.

Commission chairman Dick Walter, the business community’s representative on the commission, said he agrees lawmakers’ salaries should rise but that he voted against the proposal over concern about the speed of that increase.

“One of the things you have to think about is the relationship with state employees,” Walter said.

Unionized state employees have gone through a drought similar to lawmakers,’ with no general pay increase since 2008. They even took temporary cuts in pay and hours, which prompted some lawmakers to voluntarily return some of their own pay.

Those state employees, however, receive raises based on longevity. Lawmakers don’t — but they do receive daily stipends while in Olympia that rose by a third last year to $120. That makes them eligible to receive $19,800 over a two-year term with no special sessions or extra meetings.

Gov. Jay Inslee has negotiated contracts with many state employees that call for raises of 3 percent this July and another 1.8 percent a year later. Lawmakers are considering whether to fund those contracts.

A spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees said the union would make sure its members know about the proposed raises as they press lawmakers to approve their own.

“Our members will view this as the Legislature being treated as an elite group, getting a higher pay raise than we had to scrape and claw for months to negotiate,” Tim Welch said.

A voter-approved constitutional amendment handed salary-setting authority to the independent commission, which will now take public comment on its proposal.