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Nice work: Iowa lawmakers set their own salary and benefits

By   /   January 15, 2013  /   No Comments

By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES – Iowa lawmakers oversee a budget of roughly $6 billion in state taxpayer money annually, whether it be providing health care for the needy or luring companies to the state with millions of dollars in tax breaks and loans. They set policy that affects everything from state’s economy to the education of its children.

They also have the final say in setting their salary, health benefits and pensions — a luxury few private-sector jobs afford their employees.

Legislator pay in Iowa falls below average in similar states.

As legislators in the Hawkeye State flock to Des Moines this week to kick off the 2013 session, Iowa Watchdog took a look at what they earn and the perks of the work they will do during the next 110 days and beyond.

Interviews with lawmakers and state documents reveal state senators and representatives have raised their salaries twice in the past two decades. They, however, recently have increased other perks, such as health benefits and the per diem stipends they get during the legislative session and for the meetings they attend once it ends.

Specifically, the analysis showed:

  • Lawmakers in both the House and Senate receive a $25,000 a year salary. Party leaders receive an additional $2,000 to $12,500, depending on the position they hold. Sen. Mike Gronstal, leader of the Democratic Senate, earns $37,500 and is given at least one staffer.
  • While in session, legislators collect a $135 a day per diem for expenses regardless of whether they are in attendance. The figure, up from $118 a day in 2008, will amount to $14,850. Lawmakers from Polk County, where the Capitol is located, however, only receive $109 a day.
  • All lawmakers receive $300 a month for expenses related to reaching out to the people they represent, regardless of how much they actually spend.
  • Legislators are reimbursed mileage at a rate of 39-cents per mile  for a one round-trip to their homes each week of the session.
  • Legislators are eligible to receive fully paid state health benefits that don’t have a deductible. For instance, one of the plans offered has $750 out-of-pocket maximum for single plans, while it’s $1,500 for family plans. Those insured under the plan pay a $10 co-pay for primary doctor visits and a $50 co-pay for emergency room visits. If the person is admitted, the co-pay is waived. Co-payments for prescriptions under the plan range from $10 for generic drugs to $30 for those that are not preferred by the insurance company.
  • Iowa is one of 22 states that allow lawmakers to collect a pension while still in office, according to a report by USA Today. Lawmakers are covered under the Iowa Public Employee Retirement System and their benefits are based on their highest paying three years of services. They become vested in the system after four years, or upon reaching age 55. It’s unclear how many lawmakers receive pensions or the amount they receive, as Iowa law prohibits that information from being made public.
  • The state provides a $20,000 life insurance plan, but participants can choose to increase their coverage if they pay for it. Legislators are also eligible for disability coverage.

“Some might argue it’s too low or it’s too high,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “But it’s fair.”

For a representative like Paulsen, his yearly salary, daily and monthly stipends and mileage allowance would equate to $58,250 this fiscal year. That figure does not include the stipends he receives for attending committee and other state legislative meetings.

Comparatively, the state’s median average household income was just more than $49,500, according to figures from Iowa Workforce Development.

Iowa’s legislative pay falls in the middle when compare to other states. California’s salary tops the scale at just more than $95,000, a figure that doesn’t include a $141 a day stipend for each day the legislature is in session. At the low end, New Mexico doesn’t provide a flat salary, but gives lawmakers a $154 a day stipend during the session, according to figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The average compensation for legislators in states similar to Iowa is just more than $35,000, the NCSL figures showed.

“Our compensation has been increased two times in the past 20 years,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. “When the economy tanked we took a 10 percent pay cut because we were trying to lead by example. We don’t receive anything special or different than what other state employees get.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org.

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