Most voters disapprove of the very controversial 61 percent pay raise the legislature gave itself in 2007. That legislative vote, which occurred during the opening session of 2007 and increased legislative compensation from $36,660 annually to $53,338, has been a festering issue for over five years. The sustained outrage is extremely unusual. In past years, an egregious legislative act has been passed early in the quadrennium and late into the night usually on a voice vote. Historically, constituents become outraged but within a few weeks forget the legislative subterfuge. However, this has not been the case with this 2007 legislative pay raise. The voters remembered and remembered and remembered and finally, because of the continuous outcry from their constituents, our current legislators decided to act. Most of the present members of the legislature were not a part of the legislature at the time of the dastardly act, but they have felt the intense animosity derived from the infamous legislative pay raise.
The proposed constitutional amendment, which will be on the November General Election ballot, would tie legislative pay to the state’s median household income, and would give legislators the same travel reimbursement as state employees. This would lower the average annual compensation from about $53,000 to less than $46,000. Thus, the proposed amendment would cut the typical legislator’s compensation by about $7,000 annually.
Over the past five years some legislators have refused the raise altogether, and others have declined the annual cost of living raises. Some Republican legislative candidates made the pay raise an issue in the 2010 legislative elections and promised to repeal the resolution. Although Republicans took overwhelming control of the legislature, the new GOP majority did nothing about changing the 2007 pay raise passed by the Democrats. However, they finally acted this year and the issue is now before the voters.
The constitutional amendment would also prevent the legislature from raising its pay with a resolution like it has done in past years. Any change in pay or compensation would require a vote by the people.
If approved by the voters, the change in pay will take effect with the 2014 legislative elections. Huntsville Republican Rep. Mike Ball, the sponsor of this legislative compensation constitutional amendment said, “Before anybody runs in 2014 they will know what the pay is.” The 2014 effective date also addresses concerns of legislators who ran in 2010 expecting $53,000 during this four year term.
Over the years Alabama voters have displayed a keen astuteness when it comes to constitutional amendments. Their voting has been very discerning.
I am reminded of a quizzical scenario a couple of decades ago. The ultra-rich Jefferson County suburban enclave of Mountain Brook wanted to impose a property tax increase on itself for its school system. Mind you the proposed tax increase did not affect any Alabamian outside of Mountain Brook. However, because of Alabamians’ intense disdain for the wealthy City of Mountain Brook, they repeatedly voted it down simply because the name “Mountain Brook” appeared on the ballot.
I suspect that there is as much disdain for a legislative pay raise as there is animosity towards Mountain Brook. Therefore, my prediction is that Alabama voters will overwhelmingly approve a constitutional provision that reduces legislative compensation come November.
Speaking of constitutional amendments, the passage of the September 18th referendum to take $438 million from the oil and gas heritage fund gives the governor and legislature quite a reprieve. The budget year begins next week and had their plan failed, they would have been facing draconian cuts to basic functions of state government, especially prisons and Medicaid.
The approval of the legislative initiative to raid the Alabama Heritage Trust Fund by Alabama voters was not surprising. However, the margin of victory and the number of people who voted was shocking. The measure passed by a 65 to 35 margin, and close to 600,000 Alabamians showed up to vote.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in more than 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.