- Associated Press - Friday, January 30, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas legislators’ pay would more than double and most constitutional officers and judges would see significant salary increases under a plan given initial approval Friday by an independent commission.

The Independent Citizens Commission, created by voters last year to set elected officials’ salaries, called for the pay hikes to be included in its initial review. The plan is far from final, with the panel set to vote on the review Monday and a final vote expected in March.

The panel voted to increase legislators’ pay from $15,869 a year to $39,400, and boost the salaries of the House speaker and Senate president from $17,771 to $45,000.

“I think it’s a good number to start with for the people of Arkansas based on all of the caveats and all of the other details that came about,” Chairman Larry Ross said after the vote.

The panel also recommended eliminating the up to $14,400 in reimbursements that lawmakers can currently receive for office expenses, while keeping their mileage and per diem flat. 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.

While the panel’s recommendations on expenses, per diem and mileage are nonbinding, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam and Senate President Jonathan Dismang told the commission they would agree to end the reimbursements.

The commission also called for raising six of the state’s seven constitutional officers, leaving the lieutenant governor’s pay flat at $42,315 a year since it’s considered a part-time position. The plan would raise Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s salary from $87,759 a year to $141,000. The panel also called for raising salaries for the state’s judges, including members of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The panel was created through a constitutional amendment voters approved in November that eased lawmakers’ term limits and imposed new ethics rules on elected officials. Salaries had previously been set by the constitution, which allowed the Legislature to make annual cost-of-living adjustments.

Members of the commission said the increases are needed to put Arkansas more in line with surrounding states and argued that low pay could deter many from seeking state office.

“My biggest concern is that with very low salaries I think we’re excluding a lot of people from running for office,” Commissioner Mitch Berry said during the panel’s meeting. “I think we’re excluding regular citizens to a large extent.”

The panel set a public hearing March 2 on the proposed salary changes, with a final vote expected on March 5. The pay hikes would take effect 10 days later, under the amendment.

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


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