Montana lawmakers consider raising their own pay 69 percent

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FILE - In this March 16, 2017 file photo, legislators in the Montana House debate the 2018-2019 state budget in Helena, Mont. Montana lawmakers are considering changing how their pay is calculated, which would result in a 69 percent pay raise compared to their current salary if approved. (AP Photo/Matt Volz, file)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) Montana lawmakers will consider giving themselves a 69 percent pay raise by changing the way their salaries are calculated when they meet in January.

The Legislative Council last month voted to draft a bill to base legislative pay on the average salaries of lawmakers in Montana and four surrounding states starting in 2021. The Aug. 23 meeting in Lewistown was not broadcast live, but a recording shows legislative leaders from both parties saying they're underpaid, especially when compared to the executive and judicial branches of government.

"It is beyond ironic that we make less than a teenager working in a McDonald's in Helena," said House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena.

Montana lawmakers are scheduled to make $92.46 a day for the 90-day 2019 legislative session.

That could jump to $156 a day if they vote to match the average of what lawmakers in Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana currently earn. That salary does not include $114 per day that lawmakers receive for expenses like lodging in Helena, a $3,000 stipend for constituent services and information technology expenses or a secondary reimbursement of up to $4,000 depending on the size of a legislator's district.

The salaries of Montana's governor, other statewide officeholders and Supreme Court justices are already based on the average salaries of the four neighboring states. It's only fair for lawmakers representing the third branch of government to be compensated the same way as the other two, said Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman.

"I think it's beyond time the legislature is more adequately compensated," he said.

Montana has a part-time citizen's legislature that meets every other year. State law sets lawmakers' pay at $11.33 per hour during the session, capped at eight hours a day, a rate that is adjusted when state workers receive a pay increase, as will happen in 2019.

But in reality, lawmakers work for hours each week on their legislative duties in between sessions and "don't see a dime for that time," Eck said.

"If we don't deal with this issue, we will get to the point where the only people who can afford to serve are independently wealthy or retired and that's not a good representation of the people in the state," she said.

Eck is not running for re-election and would not benefit from the pay raise. Sales would be termed out of office before it takes effect in 2021.

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