Pay for South Dakota legislators tied to state’s median income

For the first time in 20 years, South Dakota legislators are in line to receive a pay raise — big news in a state that has had one of the lowest legislative compensation levels in the nation. Starting next year, the salaries for South Dakota’s 105 part-time legislators will be adjusted annually to equal 20 percent of the state’s median household income. That means a jump in annual pay from $6,000 in 2018 to an estimated $10,200 in 2019.

“In my six years as a legislator, I never saw a clear pathway to increasing legislative pay because too many legislators either did not support it or would not vote for a pay increase,” says Rep. Leslie Heinemann, sponsor of HB 1311.

But this year, for the first time, he sensed a willingness by large numbers of legislators to take on and decide the pay issue themselves. (An alternative bill would have sent the proposal to voters.) Under the South Dakota Constitution, a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate is required to “fix the salary of any or all constitutional officers, including members of the Legislature.” HB 1311 comfortably met that threshold in both legislative chambers.
According to Heinemann, low legislative pay has had a negative impact on candidate recruitment in his home state. “Many of those who want to run just can’t do it because it’s too big of a sacrifice,” he says. His hope is that the wage boost gives more people the chance “to serve in the citizen Legislature.”
South Dakota is the first Midwestern state to tie legislative compensation to median household income. In Nebraska, where pay for legislators is set in the state Constitution, a proposed constitutional amendment (LR 295CA) was introduced this year to set these salaries at 50 percent of median income. This change would result in an increase from $12,000 a year to $28,000. The amendment, however, failed to advance.
In 2016, Minnesota voters approved a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that created an independent, citizen-run board to determine legislator pay. One year later, that board (the Legislative Salary Council) increased annual salaries from $31,140 to $45,000 — the first pay increase for Minnesota lawmakers since 1999. This state panel based the new compensation level on inflationary changes over the previous 18 years.
In most other Midwestern states, legislators vote on their own salary levels. However, Indiana uses a statutory formula that sets the pay of legislators at 18 percent of that of trial court judges; in Wisconsin, a joint legislative committee approves legislative pay by either adopting or amending recommendations made by the state’s director of employment relations.
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Stateline Midwest: May 20182.4 MB