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Surprise: Idaho doesn't always come in last

Marty Trillhaase
January 30, 2013
Lewiston Tribune

Whenever the states are ranked, Idaho sinks to the bottom - with one notable exception.

Idaho pays its state lawmakers $16,116 a year - plus $122 a day in expense money every day the Legislature is in session. There's state health insurance for those who want it and a state pension that can become quite lucrative for the legislative veteran who ends his career at a high-paying state administrative post.

So when it comes to legislative compensation, Idaho scores fairly well. Last summer, the Spokesman-Review reported the Gem State scored 28th among 42 states that pay annual compensation.

That puts Idaho lawmakers ahead of their colleagues in Arkansas ($15,362), Maine ($13,526), Mississippi ($10,000), Nebraska ($12,000), North Carolina ($13,951), Rhode Island ($13,089), South Carolina ($10,400), South Dakota ($12,000), Texas ($7,200), as well as New Mexico (nothing) and New Hampshire ($100).

Idaho comes in behind Washington, where lawmakers earn $42,106, and Oregon, which pays $21,612.

Plus the 105 people now inhabiting the state Capitol are due for a slight bump. A citizen commission in charge of legislative pay last summer recommended a 2 percent increase - to $16,438. Not much, but it's more than state workers and teachers can expect. Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter's budget has no money for raises.

If lawmakers don't act by Thursday, it takes effect automatically.

Lawmakers declined a proposed 5 percent raise in 2009 when they were cutting other budgets. No raise was recommended two years ago. So far, nobody has so much as made a whimper about rejecting this pay increase.

Not to begrudge lawmakers their compensation. As Idaho grows, the job becomes more complex and demanding. Even after the annual session ends, legislative service involves year-round assignments.

If you scrimp on legislative salaries, the only people who can afford to serve are the wealthy and the retired. That's hardly something you want to encourage in a state where 56 percent of its legislators are near or at retirement age.

But why is legislative pay the exception to the rule in a state that is ranked:

* 51st (out of 50 states and the District of Columbia) in median individual earnings. That's down eight notches since the recession hit.

* 51st (out of 50 states and D.C.) in per-capita spending for mental health. Idaho comes in at $39.55 compared to Montana ($173.59), Nevada ($68.32), Oregon ($157.08), Utah ($64.17), Washington ($113.57) and Wyoming ($133.24).

* 50th (out of 50 states and D.C.) in per-pupil expenditures. In the last 20 years, it has been overtaken by perennial bottom-dwellers Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

* 49th among 50 states in per capita income. Eight states caught up and surpassed Idaho since 2006.

* 49th in the amount of money per capita invested in research and development.

* 46th in the amount of money spent per each of its full-time higher education students.

* 41st in terms of the percentage of its ninth-graders who will enter college by age 19.

* 41st in the percentage of its young adults who have a four-year college degree.

* 34th in average teacher pay - ahead of Montana (37th) and Utah (39th), but far behind the neighboring states of Washington (21st), Nevada (20th), Wyoming (16th) and Oregon (15th).

So why does Idaho reward its lawmakers so well? Perhaps it's because the citizen commission dispassionately determines a fair market rate for legislators, thereby taking the politics out of it.

It may be that other states are stingier with legislative pay.

Or it could just be that legislative compensation gets more attention in Idaho.

In any event, it's one of the few places where Gem State isn't bringing up the rear.

Unless, of course, you talk about prisons.

At 474 per 100,000 people, the Gem State's incarceration rate is 12th highest in the nation and tops in the Northwest.

Who sets such priorities, anyway?

Originally posted at

The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

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