Columbia, SC (WLTX) South Carolina lawmakers should get big pay raises, according to a study that was commissioned two years ago but is just now getting attention because lawmakers are talking about it. The state Senate voted last week to give all state lawmakers an additional $12,000 a year for in-district expenses, things like traveling to meetings around their districts and running their local district offices. They already get $12,000 a year for in-district expenses.
Lawmakers commissioned a study in 2012 by an independent consulting firm, the Hay Group, to compare South Carolina lawmakers' pay to other states.
SC lawmakers make a base salary of $10,400 a year. The Southern region average is $21,109, while the national average is $31,643. But the study did not include the $12,000 SC lawmakers already get for in-district expenses, which is taxed as salary. Including that would raise their salary to $22,400, above the Southern region average but still below the national average.
Sen. John Scott, D-Columbia, brought up the study when senators were debating the in-district expense increase.
The study cost taxpayers more than $60,000, but Sen. Scott says it was necessary.
"Just to pull a figure out of the air to say, 'This is what we think needs to happen,' without any justification? The study is the justification. It shows what was going on in the Southern region. Even Alabama's outpacing South Carolina in terms of its pay for its members of its General Assembly," he says.
Alabama lawmakers make $28,920.
The government watchdog group Common Cause says South Carolina lawmakers might be underpaid, but it's difficult to say because there are a lot of variables. They're also paid mileage, which varies based on how far lawmakers have to drive to Columbia. Common Cause state director John Crangle says, "In addition to that, some legislators spend a lot of time on their job and some spend less. It depends on how much constituent service you're able and willing to do."
He thinks paying lawmakers more would increase competition and improve the quality of lawmakers. "A low-paid legislature may seem cheaper on the surface, but if you get a poor quality legislature that makes bad decisions, wastes money, is corrupt, engages in a lot of insider transactions, it may cost the taxpayer a great deal more," he says.
A lot of taxpayers were not happy about the idea of senators voting themselves pay raises, even if the money is supposed to cover expenses. Taxpayers say lawmakers knew when they ran for office what the pay was, and taxpayers can't vote themselves pay raises like lawmakers can.
To that Sen. Scott replies, "Yes, I knew what the pay was. But was I in agreement that the pay should not keep pace with the times? What I would also say to that person, would you accept the pay you received 20 years ago?"
The study recommends that lawmakers' pay should be raised $10,000 to $20,000 to compare to the Southern region average.
The $12,000 increase for in-district expenses is not definite yet. The House will also have to agree to it, and Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to veto the raise if it makes it to her desk.