Conservatives rally behind pay raise for Nebraska lawmakers

(MGN)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Six years after Nebraska voters overwhelmingly rejected a pay increase for state lawmakers, a fresh crop of senators is asking again, and this time they have some conservative allies.

A legislative panel will review a proposed ballot measure Wednesday that would set lawmaker salaries at half of Nebraska's median household income, or currently about $28,000. Legislative pay would be adjusted every two years.

Nebraska lawmakers now earn $12,000 a year before taxes, placing them among the nation's lowest-paid state legislators.

Supporters say the raise would help diversify a Legislature dominated by retirees, lawyers, business owners, and those who are young and childless. Lawmakers are in session for 60 days during even-numbered years and 90 days in odd-numbered years, but they also travel throughout the year for constituent meetings and legislative hearings.

"I don't believe we're going to get true representatives of our community until we make the salary more affordable so that a working parent, a working individual, can be a state senator," said Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, who will present the measure to the Legislature's Executive Board.

Even some staunchly conservative groups support the idea. Lawmaker salaries lag so far behind normal wages that many political groups are struggling to recruit candidates, said Doug Kagan, president of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom.

Kagan said his organization previously opposed pay raises for senators "because we didn't think they were deserved," but changed its stance last year. Many potential candidates decide not to run until after their children are grown and they've retired, Kagan said.

"We think the Legislature right now is at a tipping point," he said. "The people we want to run as conservatives, they have real jobs and can't run for the Legislature because they can't afford it."

Even so, any attempt to raise lawmaker salaries will be a tough sell to voters. Kagan said he believes voters would be more likely to reject the increase if lawmakers don't pass major property tax cuts this year.

In addition to their salaries, Nebraska lawmakers receive a $144 per diem during the session if they live beyond a 50-mile radius of the Capitol, and $51 per day if they're within 50 miles. They receive a mileage reimbursement at the federal rate of 54.5 cents per mile, but those who live more than 50 miles away can only claim one trip per week. Nebraska governors earn $105,000 a year.

Lawmakers' last raise was in 1988, when voters increased their pay from $4,800. The most recent proposed increase in 2012 would have boosted their salaries to $22,500 a year, but voters overwhelmingly rejected it. Not one of Nebraska's 93 counties supported a raise, and the proposal went down by more than a 3-to-1 ratio in many areas.

The nation's highest pay is in California, where lawmakers get $104,118 annually and a $183 daily per diem when they're in session. New Mexico has the lowest pay, offering lawmakers nothing but a $164 per diem, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, a blunt-spoken fiscal conservative who still holds a job selling agricultural equipment, is among the biggest supporters of the pay raise. Groene said he voted against previous raises as a citizen because they didn't move in tandem with household incomes.

Groene said he has been drawing money from his retirement to help absorb the financial losses he has faced since his 2014 election. Because he lives 230 miles west of Lincoln, he maintains a condominium in the city and commutes to and from North Platte on weekends. On Friday, after a busy week in the Legislature, he drove to Greeley, Colorado, for a meeting with his customers.

"I don't think any of us should get rich at this, and I don't think we ought to have a retirement plan," Groene said. "But you ought to be able to pay your bills."

Rural lawmakers face additional financial strain because so much of their time is spent traveling within their districts, said Sen. Dan Hughes, a conservative Republican from Venango. Hughes said he "absolutely" made a financial sacrifice to serve in Lincoln, and could only do so because his adult children help run his family's farm.

"If you're in this for the money, you're doing it for the wrong reason," Hughes said. "But it shouldn't cost you money to do your job."

Sen. Lydia Brasch, who farms with her husband near Bancroft, said most voters likely don't understand the financial stresses lawmakers face. The 64-year-old said she will seek a new job when her term ends in January because she won't able to retire as she had hoped.

"My husband and I can feel the brunt of it with the farm economy right now," said Brasch, who works part-time as a consultant. "When times were good and the farm economy was helping to pay my way, it wasn't an issue. Now, my husband wants to make sure my next job isn't a volunteer one — and this job is pretty much volunteerism."

Still, she's not optimistic voters will approve a lawmaker raise.

"I don't think it's unreasonable," she said. "But I just don't think the public is there."

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