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A 63 percent pay raise won't fly

While the 2019 Legislature grapples with rising pension costs and the need to make cuts in most state agency budgets, some senators are proposing a 63 percent pay raise for legislators. Before we get into why that is a spectacularly bad idea, let’s first note that legislative salaries already went up 28 percent on Feb. 1.

That increase, which brings legislators’ base pay to $31,200 a year, was automatic, based on a formula that ties lawmakers’ salaries to those of circuit court judges and other state officials. They get 17 percent of what judges make, or their pay is linked to compensation for some state management employees, whichever is higher.

Many Oregonians assume legislators make more than they do. But the state has always maintained what is known as a “citizen legislature,” in which its members work part-time and hold other jobs at the same time.

Compared with a professional private-sector job, $31,200 is not a great deal of money. But wait: During the long legislative sessions in odd-numbered years, legislators also get $149 a day in per diem payments intended to offset the costs of lodging and meals while in session — even if they live in Salem. That could total $23,840 this year, bringing their 2019 earnings to about $55,000. Then, they get $450 a month for expenses when the Legislature is out of session.

That’s still not a princely sum, and backers of the pay-raise proposal say it’s hard to attract highly qualified candidates who are not either retired or wealthy, leading to a legislature that does not reflect ordinary Oregonians.

The proposal, Senate Bill 959, would tie lawmakers’ salaries to the average salary of Oregonians statewide — $51,010 this year. Add per diem to that, and lawmakers could earn nearly $75,000 in odd-numbered years.

Backers say the time demands on a modern-day legislator — annual sessions, mandatory “Legislative Days” in Salem several times a year, plus interim committee hearings — make it very hard to hold down another job. Speaking of the annual sessions, if per diem makes sense in odd-numbered years, legislators should get it during the short session as well. That would be much less expensive than a huge pay raise.

What hasn’t been discussed in connection with this proposal is changing the loophole in Oregon law that allows lawmakers to spend campaign funds on virtually anything they wish — as long as it’s tied to their official duties. That includes meals and lodging while in session. Yes, legislators can cover those expenses with campaign dollars, and still collect the $149 a day in per diem. That double-dipping is perfectly legal, as long as the expenditures are reported.

Campaign funds also can pay for travel to conferences at posh resorts, as long as the legislator is there in an official capacity.

Needless to say, this means campaign donors are effectively supporting lawmakers’ lifestyles with their contributions — which, remember, are unlimited in Oregon.

Sponsors of the pay-raise bill would have a stronger argument if it weren’t for the loose rules about spending campaign funds. Before giving a big pay raise any consideration, lawmakers should forbid the use of campaign funds for anything but campaigning.

Even then, lawmakers should hardly be contemplating a big boost in their own pay while they debate tax increases, trim budgets and — on Wednesday — chip away at their constituents’ kicker rebates.