Press "Enter" to skip to content

Current Lawmakers Don’t Deserve Raises, But Higher Legislative Pay Will Draw Better Legislators

We repeal your initiatives, ignore sexual harassment, and now we want you to raise our pay.

Such is the pitch the Legislature’s Executive Board wants to make to use voters. At yesterday’s meeting, the E-Board unanimously endorsed a constitutional amendment to raise legislator pay from the current $6,000 dollars a year, a salary unchanged for twenty years, to “one-fifth of the most recent South Dakota median household income as provided by law, which by 2015 figures would mean $10,191 a year. Legislators could just raise their pay statutorily, but given their poor track record, they understandably lack the courage to make that case to their constituents. Thus, the E-Board wants to write the 20%-median-household-income standard into the state constitution, which would require a public vote.

I want very much to look at Legislature’s IM22 repeal, its attempted youth-minimum-wage repeal, its transgender bathroom bills, its failure to get serious about corruption, and its lunatic fringers’ falling for online hoaxes about Sharia law and say, “More money for you guys? Not a chance!”

But I have to put on my free-market hat and agree with Speaker and E-Board chairman G. Mark Mickelson—we have to pay for talent:

If you’re not going to pay the folks very much, then you’re going to limit the pool of those who can serve to those who are retired or self-employed [G. Mark Mickelson, to Dana Ferguson, “State Panel Advances Request for 70 Percent Legislator Raise,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2017.11.13].

Mickelson’s market assessment is spot on. The Legislature is dominated by people who can take nine weeks off every winter, plus a scattering of days throughout the year for interim committee hearings, without suffering severe financial hardship. That means retirees and (mostly well-off) self-employed folks. And in recent years, that pool of applicants hasn’t been putting forward great statespeople or great results.

A 2016 FiveThirtyEight analysis agrees that low pay limits who serves, making legislatures less representative of the people and more reliant on lobbyists:

Low pay also puts limits on who can realistically serve in a legislature. In states like New Mexico that have short legislative sessions, lawmakers must leave their day jobs for one or two months every year and travel to the state capital — in addition to dealing with year-round demands from constituents. Many lawmakers must be independently wealthy or have flexible jobs that allow them to juggle politics and everyday work. Part-time legislators are also more likely than full-time legislators to be retirees, Moncrief said. It’s no surprise, then, that state lawmakers tend to be older than their constituents.

Lawmakers with less time to spare and no staff to guide them may rely more heavily on lobbyists to advise them about legislation, Squire said. A lawmaker in Missouri, a hybrid state, recently got into hot water when he declared that he sees lobbyists as “unpaid staff” [Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, “How Much Should State Legislators Get Paid?FiveThirtyEight, 2016.04.07].

If we want better legislators, we need to expand the candidate pool. One sure way to do that is make it more affordable for more people to serve in the Legislature.

The 70% pay raise, as Ferguson headlines it, seems drastic in raw dollar terms. But, as with teacher pay, what we pay legislators doesn’t reflect what the market in other states says this public service is worth. Thomson-DeVeaux’s analysis found that, by 2014 figures including $4,400 of per diem payments, South Dakota ranked 45th in the nation for legislator compensation as a percentage of state median household income. The E-Board’s proposed bump would leave us at 45th, still behind North Dakota. It would place us at about the median pay among the fourteen states with part-time legislatures.

And might we get from more pay? Maybe better government?

Using the U.S. Congress as a benchmark, Squire created a scale to assess professionalism. With this scale, he and other political scientists found that the state legislatures that meet for longer and give their legislators more resources (both in terms of staff and salary) are more efficient, passing a greater percentage of bills overall and enacting more bills per legislative day. They have more contact with constituents and are more attentive to their concerns. They are also more independent, both from party leadership and the governor, and more likely to take on government reforms and enact complex and innovative policies. “When you compensate a legislator well and give them a staff, they’re able to put more time into their work and actually develop some knowledge around different policies,” Squire said [Thomson-DeVeaux, 2016.04.07].

Note that DeVeaux’s source says a longer session may need to go hand in hand with more resources for legislators. I won’t try saddling legislators with a longer Session yet (although I remain open to discussion of alternative calendars that stretch out the Session, make it easier for full-time workers to serve, and give the Legislature as a whole more time to gather information and consider complicated legislation). Right now, I’m willing to accept the Legislature’s invitation to us voters to discuss their compensation. Place that amendment on the ballot, and let us talk about how much lawmakers are worth. Give us the chance to vote for higher pay for legislators right alongside the chance 2018 gives us to elect all new legislators to earn that higher pay.

p.s.: Even the SDGOP spin blog agrees that low pay limits the legislative talent pool and that a Capitol pay raise is worth public discussion. Dang it.


  1. Rorschach 2017-11-14 13:31

    Finally something on which Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree. A job that has not offered a raise in 20 years should finally offer one. But voters will resist paying politicians anything extra. I predict they will kill this proposal by a wide margin if given the chance.

  2. Michael L. Wyland 2017-11-14 13:51

    One simple way to take at least some of the politics out of the issue is to enact a pay raise, including indexing for inflation, that excludes current legislators from qualifying. Would it survive a court challenge? Perhaps, perhaps not, but who wants to volunteer to be the legislator who brings the lawsuit?

  3. Joe Voigt 2017-11-14 13:52

    South Dakota has way too many seats in their legislative bodies.

    Cut them by half, jack up the salary, (should be making $40K a year) and give them benefits.

    Make them come to Pierre more than once a year.

    If you are going to keep it a parttime job, then just have it for like 2 weeks and Saturdays so others can do it (as a parttime job).

  4. o 2017-11-14 14:25

    How about merit pay: index raises to how much the GDP of the state rises in a year?

  5. o 2017-11-14 15:21

    Why are all legislators paid the same?

  6. Jenny 2017-11-14 15:38

    SD purposefully keeps its legislative pay low so quality people won’t run. It’s really an embarrassment. MN raised its legislature pay last year to $45000/yr.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-14 15:39

    O, does median household income provide as effective a measure of the economic merits or what the Legislature is doing as GDP?

    I do like the idea of reintroducing merit pay into the discussion, just to tweak these buggers and remind them how silly it was for them to propose merit pay for teachers.

    Why pay all legislators the same? I invite readers to suggest objective schemes by which we could justify paying some legislators more than others but which could not be hijacked by partisan interests or produce bad results.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-14 15:40

    Joe, do you want to reduce membership in each chamber, or would going unicameral scratch your staff-reduction itch?

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-14 15:45

    Michael, we could make the proposed amendment work the way you propose, denying the raise to any current legislator, by electing all new legislators in 2018. Or we could just ask any legislator who votes to place this amendment on the ballot to voluntarily surrender any pay raise the voters pass.

    Or we could get really creative and say that the only legislators who get the raise are those whose districts vote for it. If District 9 voters elect you, and District 9 voters also approve indexed legislator pay, then District 9 voters must want you to have more money.

    Oh! That reminds me: note that the amendment isn’t a guaranteed raise. If median household income goes down (and it has occasionally!), legislator pay goes down.

  10. Donald Pay 2017-11-14 15:55

    Go to a unicameral Senate with 45 seats. Increase pay, but not over what the current 105 members get. That would about double the salary.

  11. Joe 2017-11-14 16:00

    Either….. Way too many seats in Pierre. Way too many uncontested elections. Way too many elections that cost more than the 2 year salary for that position. Way too many of the same names/types of people.

    Go right around that 50 number and pay them. (Give them $40K with benefits)

    And then when you pay them, make them work for more than a 40 days. Have a 40 day winter session, a 20 day summer session and have 6-10 business days where they are required to be in Pierre throughout the year. Have each on a committee that works another 10 days out of the year. It should be something that someone can quit their job and do on a semi- fulltime basis

    You get what you pay for when it comes to elected officials, and since we don’t pay anything nothing ever changes

  12. o 2017-11-14 16:52

    I tweek because I care.

    In all seriousness, so many in SD do the hard work, under-appreciated work, of making the state function for all who live here. I like that we have the discussion to recognize that good pay is the best (even if not the only) incentive to entice the best people in leadership, public service, and private industry to our state, and that it is essential for SD to draw the best people work here. I think it is also always a lesson to see how far behind we can be allowed to lapse with inattention.

    If there is frustration from the electorate with the legislature, then thinking along the lines of enticing more to enter the field, opening more options for the governed to select from seems smart as well. Creating competition for legislative positions seems to go hand in hand with the principles and practices of business.

  13. o 2017-11-14 17:00

    . . . and I should add that not only teachers, all public employees have been lashed to the whipping post of “merit pay” during discussions of pay and raises.

  14. Ryan 2017-11-14 17:04

    Seems like the pay at the national level is pretty decent for politicians, and yet the people elected each cycle seem to be as crooked or idiotic as the last bunch.

    Salary is probably a small part of the reason “better” people don’t run for office, but my humble little opinion is that the type of people who want to “rule” are crooked and idiotic and not necessarily driven by money.

    Here’s the newest best idea any of you have ever heard – and you’re hearing it here first, folks: legislation duty.

    Just like jury duty. We are all on a rotation. You don’t get paid more than a nominal per diem. An independent body oversees the transfer from one session to the next to make sure we don’t have any overly-crazy people swearing in (a little crazy is ok – at least it is representative!). Then the “fame” that comes with being a south dakota legislator goes away so people can focus on doing work instead of patting themselves on the back.

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-14 17:26

    Jenny, jeepers creepers! I need to come teach French in the Twin Cities and run for Legislature!

    Ryan—jury duty? Randomly drawn legislators? Actually, maybe we could explore that idea. Consider this reverse impact: Fix the pay for random legislators at the level described in the amendment, and maybe rich people would refuse to serve and seek deferments, while poor people would eagerly jump at the chance to serve and make more money than they’re getting at Walmart?

  16. grudznick 2017-11-14 17:46

    Cut them down to 30, total, bodies in the legislatures. Then triple the pay. Put them all in one of Mr. H’s unicameral rooms, probably the green one. You will have to have a little longer session so the committees can all be populated. That’s OK. Make them work 8 hours a day and have committees in the afternoons too. They are getting paid 3 times as much they can at least work twice as hard.

    Then, introduce the plausible denial vote. 3 of the 30 are randomly drawn by the computer and their votes don’t count. That way, it will be more confusing and on some votes they might still declare “it passes” but people could have plausible denial. Or, maybe the computer outs the 3 votes that don’t count, and this way the random factor of “HAH! 3 libbie votes that were pro-teacher are ignored on this vote!” It would make the legislatures more exciting.

  17. Roger Cornelius 2017-11-14 20:19


  18. leslie 2017-11-14 22:30

    what do they want, a living wage? :)

  19. Dana P 2017-11-15 08:07

    On a semi related note……

    Michelson’s statement on why increasing pay is important – is EXACTLY the same reason/justification showing that South Dakota wages are too low. But again, in typical GOP ways, they won’t recognize or admit their hypocrisy.

    That being said, I think all people no matter the job, should be paid competitively . (Hey Michelson, that includes ALL jobs in South Dakota) However, a big group of legislators that continually vote to overturn the South Dakota voters? A group that complains about “out of state” interference, yet attends/incorporates ALEC agenda? I’m hesitant to say yes to this. I can even support legislator pay raise even it is for the reps that I might disagree with. As long as they are working FOR the people.

  20. o 2017-11-15 08:12

    Is this a time when we confuse paying the individual with paying the position?

    I have been thinking about the mean SD income idea. Even though that would mean that 50% of the eligible people to run would be getting a pay increase to do so, do those jobs allow for the type of extended leave that legislative service requires? Serving in the legislature really is a yuge professional disruption.

  21. Rick Hauffe 2017-11-15 08:42

    I agree with your premise, but I also think the pay should be more reflective of the responsibilities we expect from elected leaders. The pay should be more in the neighborhood of $20,000 for a part time legislator. I’ve known legislators who just show and vote, but, by far, most lawmakers invest a major amount of time 12 months each year in various activities as elected leaders. And I’m not including the time and work they need to campaign for election.

    If we place pathetically little value on the time of elected leaders, then we shouldn’t expect significant, higher quality results. If legislators don’t produce significant results, fire them at the next election.

  22. Jenny 2017-11-15 09:20

    Rick, it’s easy to say vote someone else in at the next election, but then we will just get the next old retired fuddy duddy. Pay them decently and quality people will run.

  23. Donald Pay 2017-11-15 09:44

    I think they should get paid for the work they do. By that measure they’re vastly overpaid. It’s not how many hours they put in that matters. It’s what they do, and don’t do. Mickelson spends most of his time making a fool of himself, running down state institutions and people who want to make the state better. I think he deserves a pay cut. And the legislators who put up with that kind of leadership are deplorable, and deserve nothing. That sort of leadership is why the state is a basket case of corruption. The state relies on the federal government to do the work it should be doing by itself. Face the facts: South Dakota is a basket case mostly because the elected leaders are corrupt.

    If I thought the corruption could be cleaned up by giving these guys a bump in salary, it would be worth it. But I’m afraid these guys would continue to take South Dakota down the path of being a third-world state.

    I think any pay increase should be tied to a House cleaning, shall we say. Reforming the Legislature is absolutely necessary. It needs to become a body that is independent of special intererests and the executive. It needs to value, not disparage and try to destroy, the initiative and referendum.

    Not one penny more for corruption.

  24. Ryan 2017-11-15 09:53

    Donald said it all.

  25. Robin 2017-11-16 09:40

    Right give us the money and then we’ll be better. Jobs don’t work that way. When they clean up their act then we can talk about a raise – like transparency , do something that actually improves the lives of SD – these bozos make $142 next to Montana’s $114 Montana has a much better legistion at a better price I refuse to give them another dime until they stop trying to bust up unions, stop trashing the bills the people vote for , stop denying healthcare workers living on $80 a raise , stop running corrupt politics. I am not paying a dime more to work against me.

  26. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-16 10:13

    As O said, don’t confuse the individuals with the position. The current legislators have worked against us. They don’t deserve another paycheck, let alone a bigger paycheck. Vote every one of them out, elect better legislators, and pay those better legislators what the position merits.

    I’m also thinking about Joe’s connection of uncontested seats to this issue. Maybe we could benefit from reducing the number of legislators, thus making the remaining races more competitive. I still like the bicameral system—two committee hearings, two floor debates, and maybe conference committee mean more opportunities for the public to testify, for legislators and journalists to review legislation and spot problems, and for activists to slow down bad bills. But I’m open to cutting membership in each chamber by half. 35 Reps, 17 Senators, double the pay… and while we’re at it, consider keeping reps in current districts by population, but designate Senators by territory: one from each of the nine largest counties (Minnehaha, Pennington, Lincoln, Brown, Brookings, Codington, Meade, Lawrence, Yankton, which currently include over half of South Dakota’s population), the other eight from combinations of adjacent counties.

  27. Roger Cornelius 2017-11-16 11:47

    This is the South Dakota legislature we’re talking about, a legislature that votes against the will of the people.
    Even if we vote down the legislators pay raise they will call an “emergency” session and grant themselves a pay raise anyway. The only question is, how much will they increase their pay.

  28. Robin 2017-11-16 12:59

    While your idea is appealing to cut the numbers Cory, it would leave a lot of towns without representation for the concerns that need to be addressed in their towns. Counties that have representives are not going to address the needs of counties without representatives. However they will have a one shoe fits all approach.

  29. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-17 07:01

    Robin, do you think Cresbard or Buffalo or Winner are getting represented equally with Sioux Falls or Rapid City now?

    Roger, I don’t think we’ll see a special session on legislator pay. Mickelson is gunning for the public vote specifically because, even with their supreme power, legislators are still too chicken to vote themselves a pay increase. They still feel some level of beholdenness to the voters… which makes me wonder just how badly the Republicans want this pay raise. As I noted above, the current system of insufficient pay weeding out good candidates suits their interests.

  30. Robin 2017-11-17 19:12

    No Cory I don’t think they get represented now- So the answer is to reduce democracy further ? SD has a few honest politicians let’s not reduce their numbers. SD does not have a tax system or job sector that can support that kind of pay raise. Here is a fact that no one has brought up , How are they going to pay for it ? More money does not mean a better selection of candidates- In the end it’s the campaign donors who will choose because they ain’t about to let anyone in to disrupt their access to the public treasury.

  31. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-18 12:40

    Is democracy reduced if we reduce the number of seats and eliminate several which are not contested?

    A state of 850,000 people with an annual state general fund fund budget of $1.59 billion can’t afford $440,000 a year to increase legislator pay? Heck, we could front that amount with one EB-5 investment….

    Do you dispute the free-market notion that higher pay expands the applicant pool and offers a greater chance of recruiting better talent?

  32. Robin 2017-11-18 14:22

    Why don’t you make the youngest person in the house have all the representation (democracy) in your house for everyone for one week, and see how well that works out for you. Chances are you are too set in a rut to give it a go.
    Free Market is a myth so don’t go there and any economics professor will rightly tell you that. Sociology and Psychology has proven that higher pay does not equate with quality or quantity.
    Apathy is the issue in SD – When you look at the politics in SD vs other states you see no activity for South Dakotan’s to engage in to become active- It’s an activist free zone for the most part. States with groups regularly engaging in activism of the good or bad have better expansion in people wanting to run because they become engaged in an ideology.
    SD was $48 Million short in it’s 2017 budget according to the Federal numbers. Which already means it spent more than it took in. Pretty sure the numbers will continue to run in the minus since Gambling revenues continue to go down and stores are shuttering.
    Hit anyone with another tax and you will see less revenue- We see some of that impact each time the sales tax is raised.

  33. Donald Pay 2017-11-18 16:30

    Is democracy reduced by decreasing the number of seats? I think that would be an interesting mathematical/statistical study. I think a lot depends on how the election is done. In a highly gerrymandered, first-past-the-post election system, it would decrease democracy. There would be more people whose vote isn’t farily reflected in the outcome. But change the system to a proportional voting system at the same time you are decreasing the numbers and fairly draw the districts, then probably no.

    If we’re talkin about pay raises, I’d say the teachers need to get the rest of their promised raise. The Legislator’s don’t do their job and don’t respect the public. Not one more penny for corruption.

  34. grudznick 2017-11-18 17:37

    I say the legislatures need to punish those school districts who did not give all the money they got from the taxes on all of us just for them to the teachers. Some of those schools horded up the money and didn’t pass it all on to the teachers and I wouldn’t be surprised if they padded some fatcat administrators’ wallets. Those districts need punishing.

  35. Robert McTaggart 2017-11-18 20:02

    How big of a solar farm would one need to build to pay for the salary increases of legislators each year? Or to get teacher salaries up to the national average?

    I assume that the construction costs are not part of the calculation…I am only talking about monies collected from the delivery of solar energy to the grid. So one has to use solar data in South Dakota.

  36. Robert McTaggart 2017-11-18 21:02

    Found a site that estimates that in SD, for an 8kW setup at your home, you would save roughly $1200 per year given solar conditions and the price of electricity in SD.

    If you believe those numbers, a 1 MW solar farm (1000 kW = 1 MW) would “save” you $150,000 per year, and would require roughly 2.5 acres of land.

    Thus, every 1 MW solar farm located in SD would boost the salary of 37.5 people by $4000, which could be legislators or teachers.

    The 37.5 number assumes that monies for upfront construction and ongoing maintenance come from somewhere else.

  37. jerry 2017-11-18 21:03

    Actually, just a collector for each home’s needs should suffice. $200.00 per month per each subscriber, would more than offset the costs.

  38. Robert McTaggart 2017-11-18 21:13

    This site estimates it would cost $1 million to build a 1 MW solar farm, but it would not surprise me if the real number is bigger…but at least that gives you the ballpark number.

  39. grudznick 2017-11-18 21:32

    Maybe the government could build these solar farms, I mean for free. Don’t charge any taxes, just do it. Don’t take away any money from good teachers, get it from somewhere else and then raise teacher salaries. Solar is free.

    How much does it cost to pump the juice into the grid, or move it from the solar farm to a big power line?

  40. Robert McTaggart 2017-11-18 21:46

    There are something like 9,500 k-12 teachers in the state, so at this rate you would need 253 1-MW solar farms to give everyone a $4000 pay bump.

    You also need to find at least $253 million to build those solar farms, and 632.5 acres to place the solar farms (which could be in one location or spread out).

    And that $4000 apparently would drop by 1% the first year, and then 0.5% each additional year according to jerry’s article, unless the cost of electricity goes up faster than that.

  41. Robert McTaggart 2017-11-18 22:03

    I think the legislator pay raises would be covered by 3 1-MW solar farms.

    So 9 of them should cover their salaries altogether (maybe for 30 years?). But that would require at least $9 million up front.

  42. grudznick 2017-11-18 22:04

    And there goes Dr. McTaggart with facts and pragmatism rubbing the cute and fuzzy solar bunny’s fur the wrong way, dag nabit!

    If the legislatures have the $253 million stashed away somewhere, I imagine the locating all the farms in one mega-farm would save on building transmission lines, but spreading the farms out across the state would give a certain chance of getting sun in Harding County when it was cloudy in Union County. I think 4 macro-farms would be a reasonable idea, probably in Lemmon, Edgemont, Lake Andes, and Gary.

  43. jerry 2017-11-18 22:23

    We taxpayers built the grid, we taxpayers installed the first REA power, so it makes sense that we want it back. By having it back into taxpayer hands, we could improve it to the point that we would be able to pay teachers what they are worth to educate our children for the future. Lawmakers should do the job for nothing right in the comfort of their homes via skype and webinar meetings. Build the systems we need locally and regionally for better service and better security.

  44. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-19 13:59

    I’m puzzled how Robin dismisses the concept of the free market. I’ll certainly agree that crony capitalism has perverted the free market in South Dakota, but I don’t think our failure to practice real free-market economics disproves the general idea that if we offer higher pay to legislators, more South Dakotans would be able to justify the expense of running for and serving in the Legislature, and that that expansion of the applicant pool would increase the number of good candidates whom voters could choose. Now it’s still on voters to pick good candidates, and of voters are going to keep voting for the same plutocrats, cronies, and yahoos they’ve been electing recently, then we’ll just be throwing more money down the tubes. But we need to give voters more candidates from whom to choose and more people the viable opportunity to serve.

  45. Robin 2017-11-19 19:19

    You are missing some important components to your free market theory- You haven’t factored in your coercive monopolies, you haven’t figured in your intervention by government policy, nor have you figured in the rentier.
    You are trying to create a yet new version of Laissez-faire economics and it’s not free market.

    When you get done figure out all the details you missed then I will tell why you misused the term free market.
    If you want to give the voters more to chose from then stop trying to conduct politics like a third world country. Try using engagement and democracy which has rocked without throwing good money in after bad money.

  46. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-11-20 15:58

    No, please, let’s not show off. Let’s focus on one simple question: does offering higher pay attract more applicants and more qualified applicants or not?

  47. Robin 2017-11-20 17:09

    It’s was never about showing off . No it will not- The lead provided 18 new candidates – You need to define exactly what a qualified applicant is in your eyes. Technically everyone is qualified . To attract more candidates you have to create a passion for accomplishing a goal- You see that the LEAD conference produced 18 women candidates-
    You want more candidates go down to any bar and start talking with anyone unhappy- form a group that will meet and let everyone address what they see needs changing in their community /state. Let them come up with solutions and empower them with speakers in any areas they don’t understand – Pretty much guarantee that if you get one area started you can get other districts to do the same eventually-It’s becoming real popular even MT went rogue with this idea and their candidates withing the group slammed it on less pay then SD gets. Get people to be part of the change and you will have an endless supply of passionate candidates- Republicans have been doing this for decades.

Comments are closed.