Commentary: What Ohio Legislators Are Giving Themselves This Holiday

Dec 19, 2018

Before I go off on the Ohio General Assembly for the seemingly self-serving, politics-as-usual act of recently attaching an amendment giving themselves pay raises to a bill dealing with survivor benefits for fallen police officers and firefighters, let me make one thing clear.

I do believe our state representatives and state senators deserve a raise.

They haven't gotten a raise in 10 years, although I could introduce them to some people in the private sector who have gone longer than that.

But it's not cheap being a state legislator.

The base pay of a legislator is now $60,584. With stipends and pay for committee chairs, the median pay is closer to $65,000. The speaker of the House and the Senate president make the most - $94,437.

Legislators don't get per diems for expenses. They pay the costs of endlessly driving back and forth to Columbus for legislative sessions. That may not be a burden if you are from, say, Delaware, Ohio, directly north of Columbus, but if you are from Ashtabula or the southwest corner of the state, it's a long haul.

And the IRS tax deduction that lawmakers used to be able to take for housing expenses was eliminated in the Trump tax bill.

If you believe it is necessary (especially those in leadership positions) to rent an apartment near the Statehouse to be on call 24/7, that can run into some money. That's why many legislators end up bunking together as roommates in close proximity to Capitol Square.

I don't say this to accuse anyone of wrongdoing – although I probably could, given recent and not-so-recent history of the Ohio General Assembly (see: ECOT; Cliff Rosenberger; among others) – a decent salary might just deter a legislator from falling prey to the temptation of friendly help from people with business before the legislators.

I've been asked about the pay of state and federal legislators many times when I am out giving talks to various groups. I always say the same thing:

Frankly, I think we, the taxpayers, should buy the politicians with our tax dollars – or at least try - before the bad guys buy them.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Green Township, has been pushing for legislative pay raises for some time now. Earlier this month, he proposed legislation increasing the base salary by 3 percent in 2019, 3 percent in 2020 and 4 percent over the following three years. Then, they would get 1.75 percent for the next six years.

And, voila!, they would have base pay of $67,493 by 2021 and then to $76,208 by 2028.  

And it would also mean pay raises for county commissioners, township trustees, election board members, county judges and prosecutors, sheriffs and other county office holders.

So, with the clock running out on 2018's legislative session, they needed to find a Christmas tree to hang this ornament on.

And the survivors' benefits bill just happened to be handy.

"I think it was a massive stroke of genius to get these two pieces of legislation married together,'' Seitz said. "I think this will guarantee the families of the first-responders get the compensation they deserve."

But why the big hurry on pay raises for elected officials?

Because legislators must pass the pay raise in this session of the legislature in order for lawmakers who start a new term next year to get their raises in 2019. There's also an emergency clause so that it would start immediately if the bill goes into effect.

The two-headed measure passed both the Senate and the House last week by large measures, but not everyone is happy.

Fraternal Order of Police officials have spoken out against tying survivors' benefits to legislative pay raises. State Sen. Frank LaRose, who will soon be taking over as Ohio Secretary of State and was an original sponsor of the survivors' benefits bill, tweeted out last week that "I oppose that 11th hour maneuver and, as a result, have asked the Senate to take my name off the bill."

Whether Kasich vetoes it is yet to be seen, but the governor – who will be leaving office in a few weeks – clearly doesn't like it.

"Nobody likes pay raises," Kasich told a gaggle of reporters in Columbus last week. "It would be one thing if they did it in the light of day, but it's another thing if you do it and just kind of sneak it through. I don't think people like that."

Seitz made the point that Kasich can't use a line-item veto – vetoing the legislative pay raise and allowing the survivors' benefits to become law – because it contains no appropriations.

"The time for Kasich to veto expires on Christmas Day,'' Seitz said. "Now, if the governor would like to veto compensation for the families of fallen police and fire on Christmas Day – well, Mr. Governor, you go right ahead."

Interesting point, Bill.

Do you think he would rather veto a bill stuffing legislators' stockings with cash on Christmas Day?

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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