Bill That Would Raise Lawmakers’ Pay Would Also Violate Pay Equity Law, Legislative Counsel Says

The bill includes a provision for child care reimbursement, which runs afoul of fairness requirement.

Lawmakers are hustling to give themselves a pay increase in the current session, but the Legislature’s top lawyer says a new amendment tacked on to Senate Bill 1566, the pay hike bill, would violate existing Oregon law.

That’s because the amendment adopted by the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 22 includes additional compensation for any lawmaker who has one or more children under the age of 13.

The amendment would provide $1,000 per month per child under 13 for six months during odd-numbered years and $1,000 per month per child for three months during even years, when legislative sessions are shorter.

But on Feb. 21, in response to a question from some GOP senators, Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson said the amendment would conflict with a landmark pay equity law passed in 2017.

That law required equal pay for equal work and was aimed at ending long-standing discrepancies.

Johnson opined, however, that the amendment to SB 1566 would violate that law by creating a new discrepancy.

“If SB 1566, as amended by the -9 amendments, is enacted, a legislator with children or dependents under age 13 would receive greater compensation than a legislator without children who is also a member of a protected class,” Johnson wrote in his email. “That result is prohibited under the pay equity law.”

Despite that analysis from Johnson, the Legislature’s top lawyer, the five members of the Senate Rules Committee voted on Tuesday to adopt the amendment and send the bill to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

The issue underlying the bill is a thorny one: Oregon lawmakers make a base salary of just $32,839 a year. (They also get a per diem payment of $151 each day the Legislature is in session.) That’s not much considering the demands on their time and the responsibility of making policy and budget decisions for a state of 4.2 million people and a general fund budget of more than $12 billion annually.

SB 1566 would peg legislator pay to the average of Oregon salaries, which in 2021 was $$63,464.

The bill has strong backing from Democratic lawmakers and several interest groups, including Verde, Family Forward, the Urban League of Portland, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, the League of Women Voters and other groups. Supporters say higher pay would professionalize the Legislature; allow lawmakers to focus entirely on their duties; eliminate conflicts of interest; and broaden the range of people who could afford to run for seats, in addition to other benefits.

State Sen. James Manning (D-Eugene), a member of the Senate Rules Committee and an outspoken advocate for SB 1566, told his colleagues yesterday that the current pay is so low, he could envision lawmakers having to seek food stamps or other public support.

“What would it look like if a member of the Legislature went on public assistance?” Manning said. “What would it look like for our state?”

One of Manning’s colleagues on the committee, state Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend), said he’s long opposed the idea of lawmakers voting to give themselves a raise. (A bedrock principle of Oregon’s government ethics laws is that public officials cannot use their positions for financial gain.)

“I do recognize the [financial] difficulty that some people have serving in this building,” Knopp said. “If the voters want to raise the pay, they should do that, but I’m not going to vote to raise my own pay.”

The concerns Johnson expressed about the legality of the child care benefit amendment did not come up in the Rules Committee discussion and the bill moved to the Joint Committee Ways and Means.

Stephen Watson, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, says he’s not sure how widely Johnson’s analysis circulated.

“As far as I know, this concern was not raised by legislative counsel at the time of drafting the amendment,” Watson says. “We will keep this in mind as we work on the bill.”

Update 8:50 am on Feb. 24: After this story was written, the Legislative Fiscal Office published a new fiscal impact statement, which shows the average salary is $63,464, rather than $58,443, the figure in the earlier analysis.