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Legislators ask for pay raise via constitutional amendment

Legislators ask for pay raise via constitutional amendment
Courtesy/ Legislature. Sen. Tony Vargas.

LINCOLN–Voters could give legislators a raise this November under a proposed constitutional amendment heard by the Executive Board Wednesday, Feb. 22.

If passed, Legislative Resolution 295CA, introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, would set lawmakers’ annual salary “equal to fifty percent of the median household income for the state of Nebraska” and would authorize pay adjustments every two years.

Under current law, legislators receive a $12,000 annual salary. The amendment would increase that salary to about $28,000 annually–giving lawmakers a 133 percent pay increase.

“At $12,000 per year, Nebraska falls far behind many states with similar costs of living,” Vargas said. “Now this low salary prevents many Nebraskans from participating in the government at the highest capacity.”

He said that passage of the amendment would open the political process to Nebraskans from all income levels and all districts.

No opposition to the amendment was presented to the board.

Support for the amendment echoed the desires to make it easier for all citizens to participate in the government, and a pay increase was seen as one tool to achieve that goal.

John Hansen, Nebraska Farmers Union president, stated his organization has supported nearly every potential boost in legislative pay over the past 28 years. He said the current salary is limiting those who might otherwise participate in the political process.

“I’ve talked to three different farmers this last week about different [legislative] vacancies,” he said. “They’ve all said the same thing: ‘I can’t hire somebody for $12,000 and take my place on the farm when I’m gone.”

LR 295CA was introduced amidst the backdrop of overarching financial concerns in Nebraska. The state is combating an estimated $300 million budget deficit. Gov. Pete Ricketts is also proposing income tax cuts and property tax cuts that would draw down potential revenue streams while he simultaneously refuses to increase taxes elsewhere to recover loses.

Asking for a pay raise in that environment may be a tough sell despite one board member’s support for the amendment.

“We really are the only level of politicians that the public can get even with for all the politicians they’re angry at, and I don’t believe that this thing is going to be successful,” Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said in response to Hansen’s testimony.

Nebraska voters were presented with a similar option to raise legislator salaries to $22,500 in 2012. It was denied by a wide margin. Nebraska legislators have not seen a pay raise since 1989.

But there are those who continue to push for lawmaker pay raises.

“It’s a sad thing when qualified, competent, independent, smart folks who…are well thought of by their communities cannot afford to serve in this position,” Hansen said, closing his testimony.

The Executive Board took no immediate action on LR 295CA.

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