As legislative workload balloons, Wyo lawmakers examine compensation

Governor Mark Gordon address the joint session of the 2020 Wyoming State Legislature. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

Many longtime legislators say serving has become progressively more demanding with interim topics and committee meeting days stacking up.

Maggie MullenWyoFile

Lawmakers have asked the Legislative Service Office to draft a bill that would increase their daily reimbursements.

The Subcommittee on Legislator Compensation met Friday to discuss changing lawmaker compensation in light of an ongoing increase in workloads.

Born from the Management Council, the subcommittee was created to examine the topic and draft legislation after data from the Legislative Service Office indicated a significant rise in the number of interim meeting days. In 2005 — the last time lawmaker salary was boosted — the Legislature met for a total of 103 days, according to the LSO. In 2021, there were 155 meeting days. Those numbers do not include regular sessions or special sessions, two of which have occurred since 2020.

Though pay has held steady, many longtime lawmakers say the nature of the job has changed, with increasingly complex interim topics stacking up. That’s raised questions about who has the means and ability to serve the state and who does not. That disparity is reflected in the demographics of the Legislature, which consists largely of retirees and the self-employed, who can absorb the additional costs or time away, according to Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland).

“People who are retired are very important, [they’re a] great segment of our state. However, we need younger people — we need younger people of both genders,” Greear said at the subcommittee meeting.

Wyoming is one of the few states that constitutionally requires legislative action to raise lawmakers’ salaries, so the Legislature will need to pass a bill in order to bump pay. That’s proven to be a challenge.

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Twenty bills have either been numbered or introduced since 2001 that would modify legislator compensation, per diem pay, constituent service allowances and other benefits, according to the LSO. Only five of those have become law. The most recent success came in 2020 when lawmakers passed a bill to provide workers compensation coverage for legislators. (Lawmakers will become eligible to enroll in that program in January.)

“We haven’t been able to do much as a body in terms of even talking about our per diem, salary, these benefits or lack thereof, because of what I’ve called ‘the optics’ of it appearing that we are raising our own salaries,” Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) said.

Regardless of appearances, lawmakers’ hands are somewhat tied by the state constitution. While they can increase the base salary for the next body of lawmakers, according to LSO’s Matt Obrecht, they cannot do so for themselves. In other words, the 67th Wyoming Legislature could not raise their own salaries, but could for the 68th.

Per diem rate refers to a daily allowance to cover the expenses associated with serving. Unlike salary, per diem rate is not considered as a constitutional compensation, so could be changed with the passage of a bill, effective immediately. In 2019, lawmakers passed a bill to adjust per diem rates based on the federal amount — a practice adopted by most states, according to the LSO.

Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed that bill since it cut those rates by 50% for lawmakers with primary residences within 25 miles of the Capitol Building in Cheyenne.

Since then, lawmakers’ per diem has remained at $109.

As for base salary, the state pays legislators $150 a day for each day they are in Cheyenne for a session, including weekends, and each day of an interim committee meeting. Lawmakers are paid $109 a day for travel to and from the session and for the days before and after interim meetings in the instance that they have to leave their hometowns to attend. Mileage compensation is pegged to the federal rate, currently 58 cents per mile. Lawmakers also receive some pay when not in session — though how many days of salary and at what rate depends on considerations like committee roles — as well as a $750 constituent service allowance per quarter, among other things.

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“Because of different constitutional setups, different statutory schemes, it’s never going to be a perfect comparison at all,” Obrecht told lawmakers in reference to how Wyoming stacks up against other states. Direct comparison of legislator daily salaries can be misleading since some states, such as Kansas and Nevada, pay lawmakers for each calendar day while others, like Utah, only pay for session and interim meeting days. The New Mexico Constitution, meantime, prohibits state legislators from receiving a salary or any compensation other than per diem and mileage reimbursement.

“Wyoming is one of nine states (Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming) that pay legislators a daily salary for session or interim calendar or legislative day,” according to the LSO. Among them, Wyoming’s compensation falls midpoint between the lowest state (Kansas with $88.66) and the highest (South Dakota with $348.94).

Wyoming’s average two-year legislator salary is about $26,355, according to the LSO. For comparison, that rate is about $61,500 for Colorado lawmakers, $24,000 in Nebraska and $35,700 in Idaho.

Direct comparison may be difficult, but there are other clear distinctions. Wyoming is the only state to not provide some type of insurance benefit. That’s one of the most glaring compensation issues, according to Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne).

“Speaking from a situation where my previous employer, I had to give up [health] insurance to come serve,” Brown said, “it was a big issue for me to step away.”

Idaho and Montana provide supplemental compensation to legislators with large districts. That’s something Connolly expressed interest in during Friday’s meeting. Other committee members, including Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) suggested a stipend-type offering to assist lawmakers in hiring contract work. Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) proposed a “cafeteria” plan, where lawmakers could pull from a general fund to use for something like contract work or to opt into the state health insurance plan.

The subcommittee plans to meet again in October to further discuss those options. In the meantime, LSO has been charged with drafting a bill to raise the per diem rate.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.