PIERRE (AP) – South Dakota lawmakers are debating asking voters to give them a major pay raise, which would spare them from taking politically awkward votes to hike their own salaries in the future.
A state House committee voted Wednesday to advance the proposed constitutional amendment to the chamber’s floor. With voter approval, South Dakota would join at least two other states that tie legislators’ base pay to state median household income.
South Dakota lawmakers currently set their own salaries, and they haven’t gotten a raise since 1998, although their per diem payments have risen.
At least two states – Alabama and Massachusetts – link lawmakers’ salaries to household earnings. Most states leave salaries up to the Legislature, while some use outside compensation commissions to directly set pay or give recommendations, said John Mahoney, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
If it’s up to a legislature, salaries don’t tend to change much because it’s a “very politically sensitive issue,” Mahoney said.
The South Dakota resolution’s backers say low pay limits the pool of people who can serve as legislators.
“There isn’t enough of us in the Legislature that have a backbone to be able to vote for an increase, and I don’t see that changing,” Republican Rep. Leslie Heinemann said. “We need to have other people here to add to the pool, so I’m going to support this resolution because I don’t see any alternative.”
South Dakota legislators are paid $6,000 per session plus the per diem allowance. The proposed change that would set legislators’ salaries at one-fifth of the South Dakota median household income.
It would amount to a 70 percent raise for the state’s 105 lawmakers, to nearly $10,200 per session, according to U.S. Census numbers for 2015. Based on that figure, it would cost taxpayers about $440,000.
House Speaker Mark Mickelson, a supporter, said the proposal would tie the wages to the economic prospects of the people they represent.
“I think it’s time that we do move forward on this,” said Mickelson, a Republican. “You’re not setting your pay if you choose to vote for this. You’re asking the people to set your pay.”
Nobody in the audience spoke out against the plan. But Republican Rep. David Lust said lawmakers should make the decision instead of leaving it to voters because lawmakers can easily justify a raise.
Lust cast doubt on the constitutional amendment’s chances with the voters.
“This is going to become a referendum on politics in general,” he said. “It’s going to get beaten badly at the ballot, and that will have set the cause back to raise salaries immensely because no legislator in the next 10 years after this fails is going to want to touch that thing because the people will have spoken.”
Photo: In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, South Dakota State Rep. G. Mark Mickelson talks with attendees at the Minnehaha GOP Republican election party in Sioux Falls. A measure that would ask voters to give South Dakota lawmakers a significant pay raise cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday. House Speaker Mickelson, a supporter, said the proposal would tie lawmakers' salaries to the economic prospects of the people they represent. (Jay Pickthorn/The Argus Leader via AP, File)