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Kansas lawmakers advance a plan that lets an outside group raise their pay

 The Kansas House advanced a plan that would create an independent commission to study and set lawmaker pay in 2025. The base salary for legislators has not increased in nearly 20 years.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
The Kansas House advanced a plan that would create an independent commission to study and set lawmaker pay in 2025. The base salary for legislators has not increased in nearly 20 years.

The Kansas House approved a bill that would create an independent commission that sets the compensation package for lawmakers. Supporters argue the commission could increase pay to help more everyday Kansans to run for office.

Kansas lawmakers appear on path to grant themselves their first base pay hike in decades.

The Kansas House approved a bill that would create an independent bipartisan commission to study and set wage rates for lawmakers. It would also be able to recommend retirement benefit changes.

The lawmakers passed the bill with a 96-26 vote. It now heads to the Senate.

Republican state Rep. Blake Carpenter said lawmakers have discussed a pay increase for years. But they’ve not taken any action out of fear of angering voters and jeopardizing their reelection chances. He said the bill would put the decision in the hands of an outside group to decide on fair compensation.

“Some constituents believe we make nearly $200,000,” Carpenter said. “That would be nice, but it’s not the case. It couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Kansas lawmakers get paid a $88.66 daily salary for the 90 days they serve during the legislative session. That rate hasn’t increased since 2004. They also get $157 a day for food and housing in Topeka.

On average, lawmakers are paid roughly $22,000 a year. Meanwhile, elected legislators in the neighboring states of Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma all make much more.

But Kansas lawmakers receive significant retirement benefits. Under the state pension, they earn retirement funds as if they were full-time employees.

The proposed commission would begin work later this year to determine a four-year compensation package that would begin in 2025 — after each seat in the Legislature is up for election in 2024. It would then meet every four years to set the pay rates without the lawmakers voting on their own salary increases.

However, the Legislature could reject the commission’s rate change during the first 30 days of the following session and force the commission to try again. If the Legislature rejects the rate change a second time, the most recent rate would remain in effect.

The nine-person panel would be made up of people who are not current lawmakers, legislative staff or lobbyists. The governor and legislative leaders of both parties would appoint the commission members.

Both Republicans who control the Legislature and Democrats in the minority said the existing wages prevent lower-income Kansans from running for office. That, in turn, keeps the Legislature from being composed of everyday Kansans.

“This is supposed to be a citizen Legislature,” said Republican state Rep. Leah Howell. “It is important for us to have legislators who are electricians, plumbers, pest control workers or grocery store workers.”

The Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce lobbied for the bill. Jason Watkins, a lobbyist for the group and a former lawmaker, said his organization believes increasing pay would improve the state’s representative democracy.

“It’s our belief that nobody should get wealthy serving in the Legislature,” Watkins said. “At the same time, it’s our belief that nobody should face financial ruin, or extreme financial hardship, by being willing to serve their constituents.”

That’s a reality some lawmakers currently face. Democratic Rep. Rui Xu said he had to quit his full-time job when he was elected in 2018. He effectively took a 70% pay cut to serve in the Kansas House.

Xu said he takes part-time freelance work half of the year to make ends meet.

“It’s not easy and it’s not stable,” Xu said. “My wife and I are wondering what happens if those go away.”

Republican Rep. Pat Proctor is one of the few representatives who opposed the bill. He said on the House floor that legislators should remain part-time representatives who must make a living among their constituents.

Otherwise, Proctor said, state lawmakers would effectively become professional politicians. He argued that’s what has made national politics dysfunctional.

“Turning this from a public service to a job,” Proctor said, “is a bad move for Kansas and a bad move for Kansans.”

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

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Dylan Lysen