Keywords: legislative salaries
Description: State legislators are paid meager salaries. Senators and representatives alike earn only $7,200 per year, or $14,400 for a two-year legislative period. Some may consider this salary generous, since
State legislators are paid meager salaries. Senators and representatives alike earn only $7,200 per year, or $14,400 for a two-year legislative period. Some may consider this salary generous, since after all legislators work only for 140 days over two years. However, this salary equals just slightly over $100 per day. Even if our legislators worked only eight hours per day, this would equal only $12.86 per hour for the people who make our state laws and conduct oversight of executive branch offices.
The truth is that legislators work for many days leading up to the legislative session, and then work very long hours, seven days a week, once the session begins. Furthermore, legislators spend a lot of time campaigning for office and subsequently servicing constituents. This reduces hourly compensation to well below minimum wage.
For comparison, consider the data in this chapter's feature, Thinking Comparatively: Legislative Membership, Salaries, and Permanent Staff . Of the 43 states and territories (including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands) that pay their legislators an annual salary (as opposed to weekly or daily sums), Texas ranked third from the bottom. Texas ranked below much smaller, less urbanized and economically less dynamic states such as Maine, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Some of those states that pay weekly or daily sums, still pay a daily average that exceeds that of Texas legislators.
In addition to their annual salary all legislators and the lieutenant governor receive a per diem personal allowance of $128 for every day the legislature is in session (both regular and special sessions ). This adds up to $17,920 for the regular 140-day session. Annual compensation for the year in which the legislature is in session totals $25,120 which includes the $7,200 salary and $17,920 per diem allowance. For the biennial term, legislators earn $32,320, or a yearly average of $16,160.
Consider that the median annual household income in the United States was $44,389 in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Consider also that the "poverty" threshold, in official terms, was $19,307 for a family of four; $15,067 for a family of three; $12,334 for a family of two, and $9,645 for individuals that same year. According to the Census Bureau, the legislators of the second largest state in the union earn a salary below the national poverty level and far below the national median income.
Furthermore, legislators do not receive additional salary beyond the per diem allowance for special sessions. As politics in the state have become increasingly contentious, and as the state's growth requires more time to complete the state's legislative business, special sessions have become quite common in recent years. (See Special Sessions of the Texas Legislature in the Bureaucracy chapter of Texas Politics.) This puts a considerably greater burden on legislators, but with only minor compensation.
Critics and reformers argue that the low pay of state legislators limits their independence from well-funded special interests. This issue once again became front-page news in 2002 when the Travis County District Attorney launched an investigation of legislators who lobby the state bureaucracy. In response, Senator Jeff Wentworth (R. San Antonio) announced in October of that year that he would no longer lobby the bureaucracy on behalf of private clients.  The concern here is that legislators could use their legislative power over the bureaucracy to coerce departments and agencies to make regulatory and other decisions that would favor powerful interests who have hired the legislators to lobby privately on their behalf.
The people of Texas have made it clear that they want low-paid, part-time citizen-legislators representing them in the Texas Legislature by repeatedly voting against constitutional amendments aimed at increasing the $600 per month salary legislators are paid. As a result, legislators almost without exception have simply continued to earn a living doing the same thing they did before they were elected. In my case, that has been representing clients as a lawyer. 
So while the low pay awarded Texas legislators may preserve the spirit of the "citizen legislator" and the aspiration of limited government, the practice also creates ethical dilemmas and unintended consequences, such as the strengthening of well-organized interests who can afford to hire a wide array of lobbyists including legislators themselves.