Pay proposal covers Miss. elected officials but not state employees

Published 11:34 pm Saturday, February 9, 2008

Rep. Sherra Hillman Lane knows this won’t endear her to a lot of people outside the Capitol, but after two years in the Mississippi Legislature, she believes that she and her colleagues need a pay raise.

“When I first came here, I was against it because I thought this was a part-time job,” Lane, D-Waynesboro, said Friday. “Now I know how much work it is.”

A bill making its way through the state Capitol would authorize pay raises for a long list of Mississippi elected officials, from the governor to legislators to judges to county supervisors.

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The bill is expected to come up for debate in the House Appropriations Committee next week. It cleared the House Fees and Salaries Committee on Thursday.

This is the first year of officials’ four-year terms, and the proposed raises would take effect July 1.

House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said there is never a good time for legislators to consider increasing their own $10,000-a-year base pay. Members of the House and Senate also receive $1,500 a month when the Legislature is not in session. They’re usually in session three months and out of session nine. Lawmakers also are paid mileage and expenses.

The bill would set legislators’ new base pay at $15,000 and could increase the out-of-session pay to $2,500 a month.

“We’ve had some good members that had to quit because they couldn’t afford to serve,” Stringer said.

With salaries, out-of-session pay and expenses combined, many legislators received more than $40,000 each from May 2006 through April 2007, the period covered by the most recent state auditor’s report of legislative costs.

To compare: The 2006 per-capita income in Mississippi was $26,535, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Legislators are not expected to consider a broad-based pay raise for state employees during this tight budget year. The officials’ pay bill could cause contentious debate.

Freshman Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she has not had a chance to study the pay-raise bill but she opposes increasing the compensation for members of the House and Senate.

“I knew what the pay was when I ran,” said Currie, a nurse. “I didn’t come looking for a raise.”

Lane, who was visibly exhausted, headed back to southeast Mississippi on Friday after a hectic week. Her 18-hour work days included overlapping committee meetings and supervision of the two teenage pages from her home district.

During legislative sessions, Lane usually stays with a relative who lives in the Jackson area. Because the lawmaker was chaperoning the pages, she footed the bill for herself and the two girls to stay in a Hampton Inn. The cost for four nights was $510. She said she also bought the pages’ meals.

Back home, Lane is an attorney in solo private practice. She said that during the three-month legislative session, she has an employee who takes messages but she cannot afford to hire anyone to help with the legal work.

“I’m losing more than I’m making by missing cases,” Lane said.

Stringer said Mississippi’s statewide elected officials are making significantly less than their counterparts in other Southeastern states. Under the bill:

— The governor’s pay would go to $152,000, up from the current $101,800.

— The attorney general’s pay would be $140,000, up from $90,800.

— The pay for the secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, insurance commissioner and agriculture commissioner would be $120,000, up from $75,000.

— The pay for transportation commissioners and public service commissioners would be $108,000, up from $65,000.

Stringer said in some cases, state law says the elected official’s pay must be higher than the salaries of those working for the official. He said this has created problems for recruiting and retaining employees in the state auditor’s and treasurer’s offices, because people can easily make more working for private companies than they can working for state government.