Since Civil Beat reported last week that generous pay raises have been proposed for Hawaii legislators and top executive branch members (but less so for judges and justices), I received a couple of emails wondering whether our legislators in particular get paid too much.

Assuming the Legislature does not reject the recommendations of the Hawaii Commission on Salaries, annual compensation of representatives and senators would rise over over the next six years from $62,604 to $74,160.

That works out to about $2,000 more each year, although the first pay increase for legislators does not start until 2021. The Senate president and House speaker would see their pay go from $70,104 to $83,052 — an increase of almost $13,000.

House Chambers Legislature opening 2019.

The House chambers on opening day of the 2019 session. Legislators may be getting raises starting in 2021.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Seeing those numbers prompted these comments from two readers:

“I vaguely recall when I was in the state House (eons ago when George W. Bush was president) there was a study that showed Hawaii legislators were the most richly compensated representatives in the U.S. on a per day basis — and this was back when the salary was $32,000 per year,” wrote Charles Djou, who is also a former congressman. “Just a suggestion, if you might want to follow up to see at $74,000 per year if this is still the case by a mile.”

Someone else complained the raises would be “wildly high” and suggested I take a look at the National Conference of State Legislators website page on legislator compensation.

Are Hawaii legislators paid much more than their mainland counterparts?

The answer is: It’s not so simple.

Base Salary

First, let’s look at base salary.

Using 2018 data, NCSL reports that legislators in California, the biggest state by population, make the most — $107,241. Four other large states also pay more than Hawaii currently does: Pennsylvania ($87,180), New York ($79,500), Michigan ($71,685) and Illinois ($67,836).

Hawaii’s $62,604 is comparable to Massachusetts ($62,548) and Ohio ($60,584) and more than Alaska ($50,400). The states with the lowest base salary for legislators are Maine ($10,131) and Nebraska ($12,000). New Mexico pays nothing.

Bottom line is that Hawaii legislators are among the better compensated in terms of base salary.

NCSL does not factor in how long legislators are in session, nor a state’s population. Same goes for cost of living.

Per Diem

There are other issues that complicate making useful state-by-state comparisons when it comes to legislative salaries.

The figures cited above are annual payments. But some states pay by the day (Wyoming, $150), some by the week (Vermont, $723.27), some by session (South Dakota, $6,000), some for a two-year term (New Hampshire, $200), and some by legislative day (Montana, $90.64).

Some pay the chambers themselves differently, too: In Virginia it’s $18,000 for the Senate and $17,640 for the House; in Washington state it’s $47,776 for the Senate and $48,731 for the House.

And here is something else that muddies the salary picture: per diem.

Daily expenses range from as low as nothing (New Hampshire, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware) to as high as $275 (Alaska). And while New Mexico may pay no base salary to lawmakers, they do provide $161 per diem.

Again, there are caveats.

In Arizona, for example, legislators who live in Maricopa County, where the Capitol in Phoenix is located, get per diem of $35, while those who live elsewhere get $60.

In Idaho, legislators who set up a second residency in the capital city of Boise get $129 per diem but just $25 if they don’t.

In Maine, legislators get $38 a day for lodging, or mileage and tolls up to $38 in lieu of housing.

You get the idea.

‘Non-Oahu’

Hawaii legislators get $225 per day, according to NCSL. But that’s not quite accurate.

According to the chief clerks of our state House and Senate, legislators on the neighbor islands receive a per diem of $225 per day while the Legislature is in session in Honolulu “to cover their living expenses such as lodging, food, and other incidentals.”

The chief clerks said that during the interim, legislators can claim per diem when they have to come to Oahu to conduct legislative business and have to stay overnight.

Per diem may also be claimed by any legislators, including those from Oahu, “if they travel on official business to an island other than their island of residence and have to stay overnight.”

To NCSL’s credit, its legislative salary data for 2017 does make clear the per diem is different for “non-Oahu” legislators, as they put it.

NCSL also conducts a broader survey covering not just salary but also benefits like health and retirement, even office staffing and phones. The latest data I could find is for 2016.

I won’t use this space to compare the states on all that except to say that, like salaries and per diem, it varies tremendously.

In Hawaii, for example, senators have a $350-$500 a day staffing allowance while House members have $5,000–$7,500 a month allocation for session staffing. Phones are to be used for “official state or legislative business only.”

New Mexico has no staff compensation or even an allowance for phones, however.

Way to go, Land of Enchantment.

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