Wyoming Legislators To Consider Giving Themselves More Than 50% Raise

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By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
Leo@Cowboystatedaily.com

Wyoming lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase their salaries by 53%.

The Subcommittee on Legislator Compensation will consider draft legislation next week that would increase the per diem daily salary for state legislators by $80, bumping them from $150 to $230 per day.

There has not been a pay raise for the Legislature since 2005, when the per diem salary was raised to its current level from $125 a day.

The raise wouldn’t go into effect until January 2027.

Currently, Legislators now receive a monthly salary in the months outside of the session ranging roughly from $300-900 depending on their leadership position. 

With all legislative income included, the average lawmaker in Wyoming is compensated about $15,000 to $20,000 a year, said state Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette.

How Does Wyoming Compare?

Pay ranges vary widely throughout the nation’s state legislatures, with New Hampshire paying $100 a year to California, which pays $114,877 annually. Wyoming is one of eight states in the West (and nine overall) to pay legislators a daily rate while in session. Wyoming’s $150 rate is about the middle of the pack in this group.

But the statistic can be misleading as certain states with lower daily rates like Kansas and Nevada pay a per diem for each legislative day, including weekends, of a session. The Wyoming Legislature does not typically convene on weekends. 

Kansas also has passed pay raises in two of the last five years.

The Utah and Idaho constitutions require their legislative compensation commissions to adjust legislative salaries every two years. Colorado and Nevada statutes require legislator salaries to be adjusted at the beginning of each legislative term.

South Dakota pays its legislators at a rate, adjusted each year, of one-fifth of the state’s average household income. This year, that salary was $13,957, a rate of $348 per day over a 40-day session.

Nebraska, conversely, has not issued a raise for its lawmakers since 1988. Legislators there receive a flat monthly salary of $1,000.

Travel And Expenses

Legislators outside Cheyenne now receive a $109 per diem reimbursement on round-trip gas expenses from their hometowns to the Capitol for one trip per week while the Legislature is in session. 

They also receive a $109 daily per diem on expenses while in session. This has not increased since 2008, when it raised from $85 a day. For Cheyenne lawmakers, per diem paid during the session is taxable.

Legislators have the option to waive all or a portion of their per diem.

Since more senior legislators tend to be on more committees, they usually make more money than freshmen representatives and senators. Legislators are paid an additional salary to prepare for interim committee meetings at the rate of half-day salary for each day of the meeting.

State Rep. Mike Greear. R-Worland, said during a July committee meeting that it’s “very, very hard to compare” Wyoming to other states on per diem expenses because of the vast distances between cities in the Cowboy State and comparatively short legislative sessions.

“Our strict adherence to being a citizens’ legislature is in jeopardy with the amount of work that is expected of our individual legislators to do,” Greear said. 

In a separate piece of drafted legislation, this form of reimbursement would be bumped up to $155 a day. This would be increased yearly based on the most recent standard per diem rate established by the U.S. General Services Administration for travel within Wyoming. The change would go into effect in 2024.

Other Efforts

In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill that would have increased the per diem rate to match the federal standard that was $151 at the time. Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed the bill after an amendment was made that would have restricted per diem to a half rate for those who live within 25 miles of the Capitol. 

Connolly said the bill should be revisited without the amendment.

There also were two bills crafted during the 2020 session that would have initiated a $151 rate for per diem expenses, with the more successful of the two failing on a third reading in the Senate.

Overall, $150,000 is earmarked in the state budget each year for these legislator expenses and an additional $50,000 to paying expenses related to members of any state board, commission, council, authority or other state entity that meet throughout the year.

What The Compensation is For

Legislators typically rent a home while in session or stay at a motel or hotel. When all the numbers break down, they receive less than a minimum wage rate for the work they do while in session.

Legislators typically stay at hotels and motels while attending committee meetings throughout the year. Greear mentioned how a recent two-day stay at a mid-tier hotel in Casper cost him nearly $300 for his attendance at a Joint Minerals meeting. He said costs are even higher in other parts of the state.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, agreed, saying she previously felt the per diem rate was adequate, but no longer so because of inflation.

“The cosmic calculus is no longer working anymore,” she said. 

Also An Allowance

There also is a bill drafted that would increase legislator’s quarterly constituent allowance by an undetermined amount from the current $750 per quarter. 

“This allowance is intended to defray expenses incurred by each member in providing service to and on behalf of their constituents, which services are in addition to attending sessions of the legislature, attending meetings of interim committees and engaging in authorized interim work,” state law reads.

A separate piece of draft legislation allows legislators representing a district equal or greater to 2,000 square miles to receive an additional up to $750 per quarter reimbursement for mileage and lodging costs incurred in providing service to and on behalf of a member’s constituents. Legislators representing districts with multiple counties, municipalities, a community college district and multiple school districts may also be eligible for this reimbursement. 

Workload

In 2021, the Legislature averaged 155 working days, up from 103 in 2005.

“Legislators are dedicating more of their time to legislative duties throughout the year,” said Legislative Service Office Committee staffer Matt Obrecht.

The state Legislature only met every other year prior to 1972. 

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, an eight-year member of the Legislature, said she has noticed an increase in workload. She mentioned the vast amount of communications she has had to handle as a member of the Appropriation Committee in response to two canal breaches in her community.

“I feel like as citizen legislators, many times we’re reinventing the wheel because we don’t have that kind of consistent staff support that could maybe help us navigate these situations,” she said.

What About Staff?

She said consideration should also be given to increasing staff at the Legislature. 

The Legislative Services Office at the Capitol has grown from 30 staffers in 2006 to the 45 who work in the office now. Obrecht said he would like his office to ideally have 50-55 staff members.

Wyoming has 0.4 nonpartisan staffers for each legislator, compared to Nebraska and Nevada that have more than 4.5 staffers per legislator, and Colorado with 2.2. 

Greear there are certain committees that take up so much time and energy that they take away significant time from a legislator’s occupation and family life.

“These are things we have to consider,” he said, suggesting a decrease to the number of days the legislators convene each year. 

Barlow, who chairs the subcommittee, offered a similar sentiment, posing the idea of putting a cap on how many committees a legislator could sit on.

There is also a bill drafted that would make legislators eligible for the state’s prepaid group insurance plans. The state does not now offer insurance to legislators.

“I do think we’re seriously in a position where we’re lacking good quality candidates who can’t afford to step away from their full-time jobs because they can’t afford to lose their health insurance for themselves or their families,” said Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne. “Stepping away from a full job to serve in the Legislature costs a lot of us money.”

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