EDITORIAL: Lawmakers’ pay raise plan a cynical end run

The cycle repeats itself in Carson City, no matter which party is in power. Men and women who eagerly sought election to the Legislature, people who raised tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to win their offices, griped about their salaries upon arriving in the state capital.

They knew they’d be working for what amounts to the minimum wage to gain maximum power over state government and the businesses and residents of Nevada. They wanted the job. Once they got the job, they wanted more money.

But there’s one thing they like less than their pay: being forced to vote on their pay. So a handful of legislators have conceived a politically expedient workaround. Assembly Joint Resolution 10, which was approved unanimously by the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, would boost their pay in two ways.

First, the resolution would repeal the state constitution’s provision that lawmakers be paid only for the first 60 days of each 120-day regular session. Currently, lawmakers are paid about $9,000 per regular session, plus living allowances that can push total pay to more than $26,000. Allowing lawmakers to be paid for every day they’re in session would bring total pay to about $35,000 for four months of work. (Southern Nevada lawmakers can collect an additional $10,000 in travel and moving expenses.)

Second, the resolution would create an appointed citizen commission to evaluate and set salaries, not only for state lawmakers, but for constitutional officers and judges as well. And who would appoint the seven members of the commission? The elected officials whose salaries would be set by the commission. Two members would be appointed by the Assembly speaker, two by the Senate majority leader, two by the governor and one by the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court.

The setup would allow elected officials who don’t want to vote on pay raises to appoint people who’ll give them raises, then claim they had nothing to do with their pay raises.

“I believe it is very difficult for elected officials to have a serious and fact-based discussion about their own compensation,” Assemblywoman Victoria Dooling, R-Henderson, said during testimony before the committee in March.

“The main idea is to say we as legislators should not be setting our own salaries,” co-sponsor Assemblyman David Gardner, R-Las Vegas, said. “It’s always awkward to be saying, ‘I want to vote myself a raise.’”

Of course it’s awkward, especially if you’re a freshman such as Ms. Dooling or Mr. Gardner. They were elected just five months ago, knowing full well what they they’d be paid. They haven’t even finished their first regular session, and they already want a raise?

If you want a pay raise, you have to ask your boss. Lawmakers work for the people. If lawmakers believe they should be paid more, they can ask the people to vote on a ballot question authorizing as much — as the first component of AJR10 does — or they can vote on the matter themselves after considering public testimony. But that would require lawmakers to say why they should be paid more, and why they sought the job even though they thought the pay stunk.

Awkward.

Lawmakers have another option: They can resign and let someone else take the job, because there is no shortage of good people who want to be legislators. Just look at how many people applied for vacant seats in the state Senate and state Assembly this winter, when sitting lawmakers resigned to accept other elected offices or other jobs. And look at the number of people who run for elected offices, from judgeships to executive-level positions, every other year.

In all of these jobs, the perceived paltry pay is more than offset by the influence that comes with the job, because that influence creates relationships that open doors to all kinds of career opportunities down the road — some legitimate and some juiced. It’s unsavory, but that’s the way our political system works.

So the last thing Nevada needs is another patronage panel with the sole function of putting more and more tax dollars into the pockets of elected officials. The citizen commission that would be created by AJR10 could increase — or decrease (fat chance!) — salaries by no more than 15 percent at a time. But who in the private sector gets a 15 percent raise — without asking their boss?

Mr. Gardner is wrong. Lawmakers should set their own salaries. They should have to vote in public to collect higher salaries, and answer for that vote. The full Assembly should reject AJR10.

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