TALLAHASSEE — Three out of four times this year, the Florida Legislature has failed to complete its work as planned, yet that is not stopping one prominent lawmaker from pushing for the single largest pay raise in state history.
The bill proposed by state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, the highest-ranking Democrat in the Florida Legislature, would jump most state lawmakers' pay 68 percent from $29,697 a year to $50,000 starting on July 1, 2017. If it passes, lawmakers would get their first pay increase since 2007 and would have the highest pay of any Southern state.
Joyner, the Senate minority leader, said she knows it will be a tough sell in the current political environment, but insists it is not about rewarding current legislators. The real issue, she said, is trying to get more working-class Floridians to run and serve in the Legislature. She said the current pay is so low that most people cannot afford to consider running.
"We need working-class people up here who know what it is like on the ground," Joyner said.
Joyner said the process now is filled largely with wealthier people or those who have jobs in which their employers are okay if they are out of town half the year — as was the case in 2015. The state needs a Legislature that looks more like the people it represents to better understand the issues they face, she said.
Joyner would not benefit from the pay increase. Her term in the Legislature ends in 2016, before the raise would go into effect if approved by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.
The base salary of the Florida Legislature now ranks 20th in the nation after Alabama raised its salary in 2014 for legislators to $42,829, equal to the median household income in that state. California has the highest base salary at $97,197 a year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania and New York are next, at $85,338 and $79,500 respectively.
If Florida raised its pay to $50,000, it would give Florida the 11th-highest legislative salary in the nation, behind Alaska at $50,400 and just ahead of New Jersey, which pays lawmakers $49,000 a year.
State Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican and the budget chairman in the Senate, said he doesn't want to derail Joyner's bill before it gets out of the starting gate, but acknowledged it will be a tough bill to pass because people will see it as a self-serving effort. Still, Lee, a Brandon Republican, said he's not against looking at ways to reduce the practice of legislators having to take jobs with colleges or other entities that have business before the Legislature. He said a higher salary might stop some from taking jobs that can have the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In 1969, Florida legislators made $12,000 a year. It remained that way until 1985, when the pay jumped to $18,000. But that year the Legislature also put into law an automatic pay increase system that boosted their pay any time they also increased the pay of other state employees.
By 2007, the salaries had grown to $31,932. Since then, legislators gave themselves a pay cut during the state's economic recession and have been stuck at $29,697 since 2009.
The pay increase plan comes as the Legislature has struggled even to pass a budget on time. In April, legislators could not pass a budget by the end of the regular spring session and had to meet in a special session to finish the job in June to avoid a shutdown. Then in September, the Legislature finished another special session without agreeing on a congressional redistricting map. Last week, the Legislature failed to pass a single Senate redistricting plan in another special session.
All told, the Legislature's three special sessions will likely cost taxpayers over $1 million.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.