Oklahoma State Capitol (OSC)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma legislators are getting a 35.6% raise.

The citizen-led Board on Legislative Compensation voted 7-2 to increase lawmakers’ pay by nearly $12,500 a year. When the raise takes effect Nov. 18, 2020, lawmakers will earn an annual base salary of $47,500.

While board members fretted about public perception, most of the men agreed that such a raise was necessary to attract a diverse pool of the best and brightest to serve in the Legislature.

“We want to make sure the right people feel empowered to come and serve,” said board member James O’Dea, a Tulsa teacher. “I think compensation is very, very important, and we (need to) pay them fairly.”

Lawmakers spend four months a year serving at the Capitol.

Brandon Long, an Oklahoma City attorney, said the Legislature is attracting three types of people — those right out of college, those toward the end of their careers and those who are wealthy. He said he doesn’t want legislative service to be a financial sacrifice for families.

“It seems like it’s a huge sacrifice for me, and they’re not paid fairly,” Long said.

With a current $35,021 base annual salary — plus 63 days of daily expense money, a benefit allowance and state retirement contribution — the typical Oklahoma lawmaker makes about $54,992, state budget officials said.

By regional comparison, Colorado lawmakers make a base salary of $40,242. Arkansas pays its members $41,394. Missouri pays lawmakers $35,915. New Mexico doesn’t pay a salary, and Texas pays $7,200, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tuesday’s vote marked the first time in nearly two decades the oversight board increased legislative compensation.

Two years ago though, frustrated and fed up board members slashed lawmakers’ pay by nearly $3,400 a year — or 8.8%.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, Senate President Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, and Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt have since replaced those nine board members.

The board decided to pay the House speaker and Senate president about $18,000 a year more for their work. Other legislative leaders will see their base salaries boosted by about $12,300 a year.

State officials said they weren’t sure what the financial budget impact would be.

Robert DeNegri, a Norman resident and chief financial officer for Tyler Media, said Oklahomans are going to focus on the raise amount.

DeNegri said lawmakers deserved an increase but thought it should be less. He voted against the 35.6% raise.

“I think we need to understand that we need to do what’s best for the legislators in Oklahoma, but we also need to be sure we keep in mind what the citizens of Oklahoma are going to think,” he said.

He said a lot of Oklahomans have lost jobs.

The Oklahoma median household income in 2018 was about $52,000 a year, according to state analysts.

Board members said they also wanted to keep in mind the average public school teacher salary when setting pay. The average teacher salary was about $52,400 in 2018, state budget officials said.

John Budd, director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, also serves on the board as a non-voting member.

He said he’s surprised people want a Legislature that represents Oklahoma, but doesn’t pay like that.

Board member Jonathan Dodson, who owns an Oklahoma City theater, said the board needs to attract the next generation of leaders regardless of age.

He said pay should be enough to incentivize single parents and people with families to run.

“We’re trying to get the best and brightest from our state to run and represent,” he said.

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Stecklein is CNHI Oklahoma Capitol Bureau Chief for CNHI News Service publication newspapers. She can be reached at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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