The Montana Legislature should "take its lumps" and pass a long-overdue measure to raise future lawmakers' pay without worrying about the potential fallout from constituents who may see the measure as self-serving, the Senate president said.
Scott Sales, the GOP Senate president from Bozeman, volunteered to sponsor the legislation in the session that begins in January after hesitation by other members of the Legislative Council during a meeting last week. Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, questioned whether the proposal should be dropped for other priorities after news coverage led to questions and negative feedback from constituents.
"I think it is something that's important, and I could care less about what the press says about it," Sales said during the meeting. "Let's just take our lumps now and do it in one fell swoop, and hopefully we won't have to revisit it for a while."
The proposal would peg lawmakers' salaries to the average of neighboring states starting in 2021. It would boost Montana lawmakers' pay 69 percent, from $92 a day that they will make next year to $156 per day while in session. Sales would be termed out of his Senate seat before the measure takes effect, if it's passed.
The salary does not include $114 per day that lawmakers receive for expenses like lodging in Helena and additional money for constituent services and information technology expenses.
Legislators say they are woefully underpaid for how much work they put in during the 90-day session and over the interim between sessions. They say the low pay discourages would-be candidates from running, but they are also very sensitive to how their constituents view the legislation.
"If they want to talk about X percent of increase, yes it can shock people," said Sen. Ed Buttrey, a Republican from Great Falls. "But when you tell them the true facts about what we are doing up here and what we are paid and the time we put in, they get it."
The salaries of Montana's governor, other statewide officeholders and Supreme Court justices are already based on the average salaries of the four neighboring states.