SANDERS COLUMN: Legislative pay raise was needed

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 6, 2007

I wanted somebody, anybody, to say something to me about the legislative expense allowance increase (pay raise). I wanted to explain. No one said anything except once, and that was within the context of the Enterprise School Bill. I received one letter, which I responded to. I still want to explain so I am sharing my thoughts with you.

For me and most other legislators, this is an overtime position, not a full time position and certainly not a part-time one.

I serve nine counties specifically, and Alabama in general.

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It’s an overtime position by any stretch of the imagination.

I am called upon any time, any place, any circumstance. I cannot even go shopping to purchase a few items. I try very late at night or very early in the morning, but I often have to stop to deal with citizens’ concerns, causing further suffering to my already painful knees. I respond because it’s my duty to be on call at all times. I work seven days a week, usually late into the night. It’s an overtime position by any measurement.

There are always phone calls and letters and someone to meet with and meetings to attend. There is always so much to do whether in or out of session. It’s an overtime position however you cut it.

The framers of the 1901 Alabama Constitution tried to make sure that only the rich served. They placed a provision in the Constitution limiting pay to $10 per legislative day. For me, that amounts to about $300 per year. Another provision limits payments of travel to one round trip per session at 10 cents per mile. For me, that’s $10.00 for a 30-day session stretched over 105 days.

One Senator has a round trip of 420 miles each week. If he received the regular state employees rate, he would receive about $180 each week ($2700 per legislative session year) instead of $42 for an entire legislative session.

The expense allowance covers a vast array of necessities; hotel; food; travel all over the district and beyond; and faxes, copying and other things outside the State House. It’s not only an overtime position; it comes with great expenses and costs.

The Constitution also prohibits legislators from receiving health insurance like other state employees. If we want state health insurance, it costs nearly $7680 a year for a family compared to $2160 for state employees; individual coverage cost state employees $0 per year while legislators must pay $5520. The 1901 Constitution also prohibits retirement, which other state employees receive. Other states provide retirement and health insurance for legislators, but not Alabama.

Our income is often adversely impacted by service in the Alabama Legislature. Our businesses suffer because legislative duties claim virtually every moment. We are often prohibited from pursuing certain opportunities. We lose going and coming in this overtime job.

Families suffer from our serving in the Alabama Legislature. They suffer from too little time spent with them; from constant attacks on us; and sometimes from personal attacks on them because of us.

There are money and other requests all the time from organizations and individuals. The requests never cease, but we cannot ignore them. We try to help.

Thirty thousand dollars in 1991 is worth only $20,000 in 2007. It takes nearly $46,000 in 2007 to equal $30,000 in 1991. Considering inflation, this raise brought us just a little beyond real income in 1991. The consumer index provision will only keep us even. It may be another 16 years before another real raise is passed by the Legislature.

We are attacked viciously any time an expense allowance (pay raise) is mentioned. That’s why there have been no raises since 1991. The attacks are part of the mentality manifested in the 1901 Constitution.

Think of what the Alabama Legislature would be like if only the rich could serve and if the full poison of the 1901 Constitution prevailed.

The world has changed so much since 1901, but Alabama is still strapped and bound by the letter and spirit of these constitutional provisions.

Our service is worth every dime and more. Even with an increase, we still come up on the short end of the stick.

We accept this challenge because we are called to serve. Still, a minimum subsistence is necessary to serve effectively. Now run and tell this!

Sen. Hank Sanders is a contributing columnist to The Times.