Wyoming lawmaker pay boost falters

By: 
Maya Shimizu Harris with the Casper Star-Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER – The Legislature’s Management Council advanced a bill Thursday that would allow lawmakers and their dependents to enroll in the state employees group health insurance plan. 

The council also moved along a bill to create an independent commission that would review compensation for lawmakers, but it killed legislation that would have boosted lawmaker salaries. 

The proposed bills come amid increasing workloads for lawmakers and concern that inadequate compensation bars people from serving in the Legislature. 

Some lawmakers consider the health insurance component to be the biggest game-changer in terms of compensation and benefits that would encourage a wider array of people to serve.

At an October subcommittee meeting on lawmaker compensation, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, shared with members that he knows a number of former lawmakers who left because of health insurance, and that he himself had to forgo health insurance for 10 of the 18 years that he’s been in the Legislature. 

“I think we have a very deeply self-selected group of legislators that can afford to be in the Legislature, for one reason or another,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said on Thursday, speaking in favor of the bill. “If we were to pass this legislation, I think we would open the door to a lot of folks in Wyoming that previously couldn’t serve, wouldn’t serve, wouldn’t even run for office.”

If the bill — sponsored by Speaker of the House Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette — makes it through the Legislature as written, it would go into effect on July 1. 

Another very similar bill to the one that the council advanced would have required lawmakers to pay the full cost of their premiums. 

No one moved to take action on that bill after the other one passed. 

While the lawmaker health insurance bill cleared the council with a 5-3 vote (Sen. Mike Greear, R-Worland, and Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, were excused), another that would have bumped lawmaker salaries failed to move forward. 

Lawmaker salaries haven’t increased since 2005, according to the Legislative Service Office. Right now, lawmakers get $150 for every day of the Legislative session, including weekends, as well as days they work during the interim session. 

One of the bills that the Management Council considered on Thursday would have boosted that amount to $230 per day starting Jan. 12, 2027. 

The council killed the legislation in a 3-3 vote. 

Greear and Hicks were excused from the vote, and Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, abstained. 

Lawmakers who spoke against the bill said increasing legislator salaries was already taken care of with another bill that the Management Council approved in October. That bill would increase lawmakers’ per diem compensation, or the daily allowance that covers their expenses related to serving, from $109 to $155 per day. 

Wyoming hasn’t raised that allowance since 2008, according to the Legislative Service Office. (The Management Council advanced another bill at its October meeting that would increase lawmakers’ constituent allowance from $750 to $1,000 per quarter, rates that have also stayed the same since 2008.) 

Laramie Democrat Rep. Cathy Connolly, who is retiring from service this year, argued that increasing the per diem rate is “not a pay raise,” and that the bill to boost lawmaker salaries would compensate for inflation. 

“We have talked extensively about the desire to increase the possibility of a broader spectrum of individuals to be able to participate in the Legislature, and this is one means to do it,” Connolly said of the bill. 

Passing legislation to increase salaries for lawmakers can be challenging on the optics side of things, since lawmakers themselves review the bills that would change how much legislators get paid. (Those increases, however, only impact future Legislatures.) 

Because of that, the Management Council also moved along a bill on Thursday that would make an independent commission to review lawmaker compensation, an idea suggested by Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, at the October subcommittee meeting on lawmaker compensation. 

The commission would also make salary recommendations for Wyoming’s five statewide officials, Supreme Court justices, district and circuit court judges and district attorneys. 

There would be seven members on the commission, jointly appointed by the governor, Senate president, speaker of the House and chief justice of the Supreme Court. Members on the commission would serve six-year terms for no more than two consecutive terms. They would meet at least twice during every term of the Legislature.

 

 

This story was published on Dec. 3, 2022.

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