- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - An Arkansas panel advanced a proposal Monday to more than double legislators’ pay and substantially raise other elected officials’ salaries, but cautioned the plan could change if the thousands of dollars in expense reimbursements lawmakers currently receive aren’t eliminated.

The Independent Citizens Commission called for the pay hikes in an initial review of salaries for the state’s legislators, judges and constitutional officers. The seven-member panel, created by voters in November, plans a final vote in March.

The biggest pay raise under the plan would be for House and Senate members, who would see their salaries increase from $15,869 a year to $39,400. Salaries for the House speaker and Senate president would increase from $17,771 to $45,000.

The commission backed the legislative raise last week after House Speaker Jeremy Gillam and Senate President Jonathan Dismang agreed with the panel’s recommendation to the eliminate the up to $14,400 in reimbursements that lawmakers can receive for office expenses. The reimbursements have been the focus of criticism in recent years, with a lawsuit three years ago prompting the Legislature to agree to stricter accounting of lawmakers’ expense requests.

One member of the commission noted the panel could revisit the salaries if the expenses aren’t eliminated.

“I think our recourse is to come back at any time and reduce it,” Commissioner Mitch Berry said.

Unlike the pay levels, the commission’s recommendations on the Legislature’s per diem, mileage and expenses are nonbinding. The commission recommended no change in lawmakers’ mileage and per diem payments.

The panel is calling for raising pay for all of the state’s constitutional officers, except the lieutenant governor - whose salary would remain at $42,315. The governor’s pay would increase from $87,759 a year to $141,000, while the attorney general’s pay would rise from $73,132 to $130,000. The panel is calling for more modest raises for the state’s judges, including members of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The legislative salaries have already sparked some backlash, with the commission receiving more than a dozen emails complaining about the pay hikes since the proposal received preliminary approval on Friday. The emails included criticism that the move would create a full-time Legislature and that the pay hikes dwarf the cost-of-living raises state employees receive.

The commission was created through a constitutional amendment that eased term limits for lawmakers and imposed new ethics rules on elected officials. The salaries had previously been set in the constitution, which allowed the Legislature to make cost-of-living adjustments.

The commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes March 2, with a final vote planned for March 13. If approved, the salary changes will take effect 10 days later.

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Online:

Independent Citizens Commission: https://citizenscommission.ar.gov/

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo


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