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Report: Salaries of State: Modernizing State Legislatures through Compensation Commissions

Executive Summary

Legislative compensation is a determining factor in who runs for and stays in office. Low wages often mean only a subset of the population, often the retired and wealthy, can serve in office. Women lawmakers across states report salary as a key consideration when deciding whether to run for office or reelection. Systems strategies, such as compensation commissions (CCs), are viable solutions to the perennial pay problem. 

Legislative pay varies significantly from state to state, with New York having the highest-paid legislators at $142,000 a year. In contrast, legislators in New Mexico are virtually unpaid, earning only a per diem for the days they are in session. Existing research regarding state legislative salaries and their relationship with women’s representation has largely overlooked the potential of compensation commissions as a viable strategy to provide lawmakers with fair pay. 

Salaries of State: Modernizing State Legislatures through Compensation Commissions finds that compensation commissions remove many of the barriers legislators face when working to increase pay directly and facilitate a diverse political environment where more women are incentivized to run for office and have the means to stay once elected.

  1. State legislator compensation impacts who serves in office and how long. Low pay disincentivizes women from staying in office, as they often face additional domestic duties and financial costs, such as childcare. 
  2. Higher compensation levels create opportunities for women to run, however, they do not guarantee more women will win. Hence, a need for the implementation of other reforms to modernize state legislatures.
  3. Commission power and authority are pivotal in determining effectiveness. Legislators in states where recommendations take effect automatically are less likely to experience electoral backlash for a vote in favor of a pay increase.
  4. Voter education is critical to establishing and sustaining a commission. Misconceptions regarding state legislator compensation are common, and changes to legislator pay settings must center on transparency with voters.

Addressing the perennial pay problem must be done alongside solutions to the other barriers women face so that the privileged few who already serve in legislatures are not the only ones benefiting from pay increases. RepresentWomen’s future research into state legislature modernization will build upon the lessons learned from this analysis, further examining the factors impacting women’s ability to serve sustainably.  


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