Oklahoma panel slashes legislative pay
December 29, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Freshman state House member Meloyde Blancett planned to supplement her legislative salary by continuing her consulting work.
Between routine legislative duties, interim committee meetings, knocking doors in her district and meeting constituents, Blancett said she's had little time to nurture her business.
"While my legislative plan isn't solely my income, it's darn close to being it after this last 12 months," the Tulsa Democrat said. "While I went into this endeavor with eyes wide open and intent on trying to make a difference, I was naïve about what it truly required — monetarily, physically and emotionally."
For decades, legislating in Oklahoma has largely been perceived as a part-time gig. After spending four months a year at the state Capitol, lawmakers are typically expected to find a second job to supplement their state pay.
But many lawmakers report that ethics laws designed to prohibit conflicts of interest — along with a job market where fewer employers can afford to give an employee four months off each year — have made it more difficult to obtain supplemental income.
"This is the most full-time, part-time job I've ever seen," said retired teacher and state Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee.
The state's Legislative Compensation Board's Nov. 16 decision to slash annual lawmaker pay by nearly $3,400 — or 8.8 percent — starting next year has many legislators scrutinizing their family's bank balances to figure out how — or if — they can make ends meet.
"(Previous oversight boards) wanted to provide enough compensation that an average person could do this job and maintain a lifestyle, and be able to survive on it," Sharp said.
Over the past month, CNHI State Reporter contacted all 147 legislators to determine if they hold a second job and whether legislative pay is their primary source of income.
In all, 73 state lawmakers responded.
More than 60 percent said they don't rely on their legislative pay as their main source of income.
However, 17 lawmakers, including some former teachers, said they count on their $38,400 annual paycheck as their primary income.
Another 10 said they need both their legislative salary and the income from another job.
Justin Humphrey used to operate a business that provided supervision and drug testing for probationers and drug court participants.
As he grew increasingly frustrated with the state's stalled criminal justice reform efforts, Humphrey, R-Lane, wanted to make a difference by representing his sprawling district in southeastern Oklahoma.
Humphrey, a retired state probation officer, shuttered his business — Last Chance Supervision Services — so he couldn't be accused of trying to misuse his position for profit.
The decision cost him about $12,000 in extra income a year. He said he's now dependent on his legislative paycheck and his state retirement.
"I have had to cut back on things like vacations, eating out, etc., to be a rep," he said.
Oklahoma law prohibits legislators from collecting two government incomes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. While some states exempt teachers, Oklahoma does not. Lawmakers can collect state pensions or retirement or National Guard pay, according to the organization.
"I cannot work as a public school teacher while holding elected office," said state Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City. "Unfortunately, the state's Constitution also excludes me and other certified teachers from earning extra income as a substitute teacher."
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, had to resign his teaching job to work at the Capitol. He was making $35,000 a year as a teacher, so he said he actually saw his pay increase when he reported for work.
Now, Rosecrants said he needs a second job.
"I will be looking for a stable part-time job within the year, especially because our pay is to be cut," he said.
Many Oklahomans have supported legislative pay cuts.
"I heard a lot of positive reaction from Oklahomans that the committee made the right decision," said Wes Milbourn, who chairs the oversight board and serves as president and general manager of three television stations. He stands behind his vote to cut legislators' pay.
The cut will save the state about $500,000 a year, officials said.
Compensation board members, angry about legislative gridlock, argued that it was time to shift lawmaker pay more line with other regional legislatures. The vote marked the first time in nearly two decades that the citizen oversight board has adjusted legislative compensation.
With annual salary — plus $156 in daily expense money — Oklahoma lawmakers take home roughly $48,384 for about 64 days of work at the Capitol, officials said. This year, lawmakers have also had to spend additional days at the Capitol to attend two special sessions.
By regional comparison, Arkansas lawmakers take home $46,285 a year in salary and per diem. Texas pays $22,400. Missouri, $44,299; Colorado, $44,816; Kansas, $39,425; and New Mexico, $7,380, according to the state's analysis.
"I really supported those legislative pay cuts," said state Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie. "I always felt that it was wrong for Oklahoma to have some of the highest salaries for a part-time legislature. I never though I'd see the day when they'd go down. I thought it was a big win for the taxpayers."
Murphey, who works for a content management service, donates about $7,000 of his salary to charity, which he said is approximately the difference between legislative pay and the state's per capita pay.
"I tried to make a point that legislators could be fine just donating the differential back," he said.
Other lawmakers aren't as sure that's the case.
"Reducing pay is a misguided attempt to punish since it impacts future legislators," said state Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada. "They only narrowed and weakened the field of potential candidates. Ironically, it seems like they (the board) made a shortsighted decision that will have long-term negative consequences, which is kind of what they were frustrated by the Legislature for doing."
Thomsen, an area representative for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said his legislative pay is an important source of income for his family.
In order to serve at the Capitol, state Rep. John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon, has put his law career on hold. The lawmaker said he doesn't think he can do both jobs well simultaneously.
"My wife and I, we're legitimately looking at our household budget," Jordan said. "Because while $3,000 or $3,500 spread out over 12 years may not seem like much . it does make an impact when dealing with things like student loans, when dealing with the mortgage. It comes into play about having kids or adopting."
Because he lives less than 50 miles from the Capitol, Jordan said he is among the lawmakers prohibited from collecting expense money and claiming mileage. So like many Oklahomans, he said he commutes to and from work on his own dime each day.
Lawmakers holding outside jobs, meanwhile, reported employment struggles. Some legislators said their businesses, farms and ranches suffer when they aren't there to tend them.
"For many representatives, including a few that I have known personally, this makes it extremely difficult to hold another job," said state Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, who works as a farmer and rancher. "Sometimes these individuals are fired from their other job because they simply cannot commit enough time to it."
State Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, who owns a home care and hospice company in Ada and Norman, said his family finances suffered because he's had to hire people to cover his job while he's away.
With the looming prospect of losing $3,000 in legislative pay, "my family will feel it for sure," he said.
Certain lawmakers wonder if pay cuts may inadvertently exclude many qualified lower-income Oklahomans from running for office.
"This is my service to my state," said Rep. Steve Vaughan, R-Ponca City. "I'm not saying I'd do it for free, but it's not affecting me as much as other guys I know have families and have kids."
Vaughan, who is a retired from financial services career, still works as a rancher. Though he didn't name names, Vaughan said he's already heard a few lawmakers aren't sure they'll run again in 2018.
State Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said the pay cut was upsetting and demoralizing, given how much time the 60-year-old lawmaker devotes to his legislative service year-round.
"Am I able to do my outside job? No," he said. "I'm just thankful that my family can keep the family businesses rolling." His family owns a newspaper and an office supply and flower shop.
Although he believes his job evaluation ultimately comes every four years at the ballot box, he's committed to contact all nine compensation board members to explain what occurs beyond the Capitol walls. He's already had a cordial meeting with Milbourn.
Thompson said he's hopeful his efforts will eventually lead the board to reverse the cut.
"I'm very concerned because you're going to wind up up here with people who are either wealthy enough that they don't need the salary, or they're going to young enough that they're just starting their careers and without life experience," he said.
The Edmond Sun, Enid News & Eagle, Muskogee Phoenix, Tahlequah Daily Press, and Woodward News contributed to this story.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at [email protected]