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SB 160: Legislators Seek $4,500 in Expenses Outside Session, $9,000 for Leaders

I haven’t heard my District 3 Senator David Novstrup taking any leadership in advocating for raising teacher pay. But he is taking the lead in advocating putting more money in his own pocket. Senator Novstrup has joined Senator Deb Peters (R-9/Hartford) in sponsoring Senate Bill 160, a measure to raise legislator pay.

Now hold on, David and Deb will tell you—SB 160 doesn’t say “legislator pay” anywhere. It leaves the statutory salary for legislators at $6,000 per year. It doesn’t change the $123 per diem they get during Session and the $129 per diem for interim committee meetings.

SB 160 does add a whole new per diem—er, per mensem—payment to cover legislators’ costs after Session. SB 160 would reimburse legislators for $4,500 worth of extra-Sessional “constituent service expenses”. That’s $500 a month, from April to December, for driving around the district, meeting people, sending letters, refilling the stapler, etc.

I take the same position on legislator pay that I do on teacher pay: public servants deserve compensation for doing the people’s work. Teachers work all year long, even when school is not in session; they deserve fair compensation for their summer expenses. Legislators should be working hard for their constituents all year long, studying issues, updating the public, soliciting ideas for legislation for the next session, (gee, sounds a lot like what I do every day blogging!). Legislators at least deserve reimbursement for their year-long expenses, if not a raise in their actual salaries. (Comparing legislator pay from state to state is tricky, but Georgia’s legislators meet for 40 days as ours do, and they get $17,342 a year plus $173 per diem.)

But if you accept that logic, voting for SB 160 requires accepting Deb and David’s argument that certain legislators exert themselves twice as hard as others. SB 160 doubles the constituent service expenses stipend for “the House majority leader, assistant House majority leader, speaker of the House, speaker pro tem of the House, House minority leader, assistant House minority leader, president pro tempore of the Senate, Senate majority leader, assistant Senate majority leader, Senate minority leader, assistant Senate minority leader, and all Senate and House members appointed to the appropriations committee.”

Senator Peters is chair of Appropriations. She’d get the the double-reimbursement of $9,000. Senator Novstrup has no leadership or Appropriations role; he’ll only get $4,500. I’m not convinced

I can live with reimbursing legislators for honest expenses (and, since I’m running for David’s job, I’ll tell you that I’ll work hard enough as your Senator to justify that $500 per month in expenses). But in addition to my concern about whether Legislative leaders really do twice as much public service as other legislators, I have three problems with this bill:

  1. SB 160 offers blind sums. It doesn’t hold legislators accountable by requiring that they document their expenses and prove they aren’t just putting their feet up and spending the $500 on beer and Skittles (do those even taste good together?). The per diem for Session and interim committee work can do without itemized expense sheets, since legislators’ public presence at those official meetings proves they did something. Instead of a monthly stipend, we should reimburse legislators for specific, documentable expenses outside of Session and interim meetings and publish their expense claims online.
  2. Incumbents could easily turn SB 160 funds into a public subsidy for their reëlection campaigns. SDCL 12-27-20 forbids the expenditure of public dollars to influence the election of any candidate; SB 160 hands incumbents $500 a month ($1,000 a month for leaders and appropriators!) that could all too easily mingle with campaign expenses. Without accountability, SB 160 becomes another Incumbent Protection Plan. Direct reimbursement for publicly itemized expenses would help us distinguish between genuine constituent service and driving out to a Rocky Mountain oyster feed in Bath just to raise one’s campaign profile.
  3. SB 160 includes an emergency clause, meaning David Novstrup and his colleagues are voting to put money in their own pockets this year, starting April 1 this year. Legislators might be wise to move that enactment date back a year, to April 1, 2017, and then let voters decide whether their legislators are working hard enough to deserve additional compensation after the election.

Of course, anyone who votes to give legislators more money will be expected to vote to give teachers more money. Send that memo to Rep. Mike Verchio (R-30/Hill City), who stood last Wednesday to delay the teacher-pay funding bill but is co-sponsoring SB 160.


  1. Greg 2016-02-15 10:42

    Before we add any more pay to our legislators we really need a white ribbon task force to study this for ten or more years to see if it is truly needed. That would be the only fair way to approach it. If it was found that more money is needed I am sure we could find a revenue source in 3 to 5 years.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-02-15 11:06

    Hee hee! Good point, Greg. We also need to wait until someone proves there is a crisis-level legislator shortage. Ten more studies! Ten more studies! :-D

  3. mike from iowa 2016-02-15 11:11

    You dare mock Satan’s handmaids?

  4. Loren 2016-02-15 11:12

    LOL! Perhaps we can get some of these legislators to become so fed up with the low pay that they relocate to another state with better pay! We can only hope…

  5. Mark Winegar 2016-02-15 12:11

    Legislators salaries are low in South Dakota. However, why not just raise the salary? Better yet, why not tie it to teacher pay increases?

  6. O 2016-02-15 12:14

    Let’s just pay the good ones.
    Why do we need to pay them more – all the positions are filled at the current pay rate.
    They are not in it for the money.
    SD is just a low-paying state.
    Locals could opt to raise local taxes to pay their legislators more if they choose to.

  7. Loren 2016-02-15 14:55

    And let us not forget the “quality of life” factor. Pay may be low, but it is such a great place to live. And that’s the way it is…

  8. Eve Fisher 2016-02-15 16:14

    Greg, Mark, O, Loren, and John all have the right idea.

  9. Lorri May 2016-02-15 16:36

    Let’s pay them teacher salaries, then they won’t have to work anywhere else (unless they have to take a second job to actually pay the bills and their mortgages), get nine months off (oh wait, they work less than three solid months), have 30 constituents apiece (no, again, they have more than that so should be paid more), and have to pay more in family health insurance premiums than “other” jobs, thus decreasing their pay even more. . . . Then maybe they’ll be a little more appreciative of what they’re getting now.

  10. Curt 2016-02-15 17:15

    Just the ridiculous $123 ‘per diem’ they receive exceeds what substitute teachers are paid in SD, let alone their statutory salary for approx. 38 days of actual work. Clearly Sens Peters and Novstrup have a higher opinion of their work than I do.

  11. grudznick 2016-02-15 17:28

    Indeed, Mr. Curt. These folks want to double their pay and do less for it. This bill is insaner than most. If it passes I will help you vote out the legislatures who take it just like the Pennington County commissioners will all be voted out.

  12. grudznick 2016-02-15 17:30

    Mr. O is right. Righter than right. Let us just pay the good legislatures.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-02-15 22:11

    Quality of Life? The Capitol is the most beautiful workplace in the state. One gets to gaze upon fine statuary, the bluffs of the Missouri, and live geese. Is not work in such gracious conditions compensation enough in itself?

    As Curt says, $123 a day is a good deal, and we give it to legislators tax-free. Before we tack on another $4,500 per year, let’s require some documentation of actual expenses, and let’s tighten that money up so it’s not spent on campaign activities.

  14. mike from iowa 2016-02-16 06:56

    Grudz-paying good legislatures would mean only Democrats get paid. Pay wingnuts what they are worth and they would end up owing the state billions.

  15. Joyce Janke 2016-02-17 08:30

    Only after they prove they have done the job. Living in state that can’t pay a respectable wage for educators, we certainly can’t afford this s b 160.

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