By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS — How does nearly $36,000 a year with full health benefits sound for a job that technically lasts about half a year?
Like the idea? Then run for the Missouri General Assembly at your next available opportunity.
An examination of the pay and perks for Missouri’s lawmakers shows their part-time gig is pretty sweet, if not out of line with those in other states.
The exact pay for Missouri legislators is $35,915 per year plus a $104 a day per diem for miscellaneous costs such as food and lodging. The daily per diem is determined by roll call, so your area’s lawmakers won’t earn their lunch if playing hooky.
The actual number of days those lawmakers must work is not set in stone, although the Missouri Constitution requires them to start the session two days after the first Monday in January and end its regular session by May 30, with the possibility of a veto session later in the summer.
While the Missouri General Assembly meets from January to May, its members take some time off in between, including Fridays and a couple of weeks for a spring break.
Lauren Hieger, the communications director for the Missouri Senate Majority Caucus, said a regular session usually consists of about 70 days.
“There are actually not a certain number of days required to be in session for the Senate,” she told Missouri Watchdog.
Lawmakers in session for 70 days are getting more than $500 a day for their time in the Capitol.
Consider this: The average year has about 260 work days. Accounting for holidays, vacation time and sick days, the average employee will work around 240 of those days. If Missouri legislators earned their regular pay and worked that schedule, they would make about $123,000 a year in taxpayer-funded income.
David Stokes, a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, said many lawmakers put in a lot of time during the four-day Jefferson City workweek or outside of session when back home with constituents.
“Most legislators would tell you they work it like a full-time job,” Stokes said.
He doesn’t think the legislators’ pay is out-of-bounds, but the number of them may be.
“I do think we need fewer legislators. That’s where you could see some savings,” he said.
In total, the Missouri House of Representatives consists of 163 members; the Senate has 34 elected officials. Total size of Missouri General Assembly: 197. Total payroll: about $7 million.
The perks of governance
Looking at total pay, Missouri’s lawmakers rank 16th in the nation, but it’s somewhat of an apples and oranges comparison, considering some legislatures meet longer than others. For example, California legislators reap $95,291 a year but essentially work full-time.
Some neighboring states’ Capitol gangs make better comparisons.
Iowa’s Legislature meets for roughly the same amount of time as Missouri’s, earning $25,000 a year.
Illinois’ representatives and senators are handsomely rewarded, with annual pay of $67,836. That state’s 97th General Assembly, which adjourned in January, met for 135 days over two years, averaging about $1,000 per day of governance in Springfield.
Missouri is one of 30 states providing no extra compensation to serve as a committee chair. That extra pay amounts to thousands of extra dollars in some states, including up to $34,000 in New York.
The presiding officer in the House, now House Speaker Tim Jones, gets $208.34 a month in extra pay, while the majority and minority leaders each get $125 a month. Senate leaders do not get this extra compensation.
Lawmakers are required to participate in the Missouri State Employee Retirement System, which faces an ever-growing pension shortfall. Taxpayers will shell out an additional $55 million this year to help cut into the debt.
As with other state employees in the system, legislators weren’t required to contribute to their pensions until 2010. Now, 4 percent is deducted from the paychecks of MOSERS participants toward the retirement fund.
Lawmakers must have six years of service to collect retirement, beginning at age 55.
Their monthly pay is divided by 24 and multiplied by years of service, and the annual payout is capped at 100 percent of their annual salary. A lawmaker serving two terms in both the House and Senate, reaching the maximum term limits of 16 years, would get about $24,000 a year in pensions.
Lawmakers can increase that overall benefit by continuing in the government sector after their time in the General Assembly is up, as long as that state job falls under the MOSERS umbrella.
Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, wants to make his peers put in more time before collecting retirement benefits.
He introduced a bill this session that would require assembly members to serve 16 years in the body before collecting a pension, and would make them contribute at least 10 percent of their pay toward MOSERS.
Shelia Weinberg, founder of the Institute for Truth in Accounting, said that would seem to be a positive step.
“To fix your pension you need to bring more money in or take less money out,” she said. “That would seem to take less money out so on the surface that is a good thing.”
Legislators contribute to their health insurance, but taxpayers pick up most of the tab. The state also pays the full amount of life and disability insurance. Lawmakers can get extra life insurance coverage at their own expense. They are also on the hook for dental and vision coverage.
The total life insurance and long-term disability costs are nominal, about $10 and $80 per lawmaker per year, respectively, MOSERS benefit counselor Andrea Binkley told Watchdog.
Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan operates the medical side of lawmaker insurance. Emily Kampeter, spokeswoman for that organization, said a number of legislators use their existing insurance when they are elected, saving taxpayers from funding their health care.
“They can become a legislator and not use our health-care plan,” she said.
Kampeter wasn’t sure of the total cost of all lawmakers’ health-care plans, but said the most common MCHCP plan with a $600 deductible costs taxpayers about $460 a month.
Missouri’s legislators don’t get access to state cars, which some lawmakers in other states do. However, they get 37 cents a mile mileage allowance and a monthly expense allowance of $700 a month to cover “all reasonable and necessary business expenses.”
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