Lawmakers’ base salaries don’t include the little-known extras

By GINGER GIBSON – Sunday October 18, 2009

The News Journal

Compared with state legislatures across the nation, Delaware lawmakers pay themselves a pretty penny.

The salary for members of the General Assembly ranks 12th-highest in the United States, topping states that are larger and where lawmakers meet more frequently.

If you don’t count nine states in which full-time legislatures meet year-round, Delaware’s part-time lawmakers get the third-highest pay in the nation, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, only Maryland and Hawaii paid more.

This year, Delaware lawmakers will be paid a base rate of $41,680 — about $947.27 for each day they are in session. Most days, they begin at 2 p.m. and wrap up by 6 p.m.

Pay rates in Delaware haven’t been a secret: They’re printed annually in the budget bill. But when the Legislature subjected itself to the Freedom of Information Act, it opened access to the details of little-known forms of compensation: gas reimbursement, a communication stipend and, for one lawmaker, a tuition refund.

In addition to a base pay of $41,680, lawmakers in leadership positions or who serve on large committees receive an additional stipend. Speaker of the House Bob Gilligan, D-Sherwood Park, and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Anthony DeLuca, D-Varlano, each receive an additional $19,393.28. Those positions are considered full-time.

The members of the Joint Finance, Bond Bill and Sunset committees and the leadership in each chamber also receive stipends. JFC co-chairmen get the most, $11,172, and Bond Bill and Sunset co-chairmen get an additional $4,464.

All lawmakers receive a separate stipend of $7,105.75 to be used for newsletters or constituent communications, but the money is automatically added to their paychecks. Lawmakers do not have to provide receipts to show how the money was spent.

Getting to Dover

In 2008, 61 lawmakers received $126,148.29 in in-state travel reimbursement for getting to and from Legislative Hall. The average reimbursement was $2,068.00.

The smallest request in 2008 was $82 by former Republican Sen. John Still, who lived in Dover and served only part of the year, followed by Republican Sen. Colin Bonini, who also lives in Dover.

The largest requests in 2008 were $3,997.60 by former Republican Rep. Pam Maier, who lived in Newark, and $3,797.60 by Republican Rep. Joe Miro, who lives in Pike Creek.

The legislative mileage reimbursement — which is budgeted at $112,300 this year for both chambers — is controlled by the state’s per-mile rate. That rate is 40 cents and set by state law. By comparison, the federal mileage rate is 55 cents a mile.

During the three years analyzed by The News Journal, former Rep. Vince Lofink, R-Glasgow, was the only lawmaker who received a tuition reimbursement, $10,162.50 for two years. The free-tuition policy was instituted by former Republican House Speaker Terry Spence. The payments were to get master’s of education counseling from Wilmington University, Lofink said. He was the Education Committee chairman at the time.

House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said the pay for lawmakers in Delaware is fair for the amount of work they do in Dover and in their home districts. A former state trooper, Schwartzkopf said when he decided to run, he took a pay cut. Schwartzkopf collects a pension from his years as a state trooper.

“I could not have run for election under the circumstances if it was for much less money,” Schwartzkopf said. “When you don’t pay a decent salary, you’re not going to get a lot of decent people.”

No public vote

Lawmaker pay is determined by the state’s Compensation Commission — a group that sets salaries for all elected officials and judges. The commission is meant to keep politics out of pay decisions and prohibit lawmakers from retaliating by slashing pay. But it also allows lawmakers to get a raise without having to vote for it publicly.

Rense Johnson, chairman of Citizens for Term Limits, based in Oklahoma, said his group thinks high salaries like Delaware’s and unlimited terms for lawmakers turn legislators into career politicians.

Johnson, whose organization successfully lobbied for term limits for lawmakers in Louisiana, said you get a better group of legislators when it’s a volunteer position.

“You get a whole different type of legislator,” Johnson said. “You get people who go to serve their neighbors and country instead of serving themselves,”

But Lawrence Dodd, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said higher legislative pay encourages lawmakers to stick around and become experts on policy topics, allowing for more thoughtful legislation. He said when lawmakers don’t know the details of a policy debate, they depend on outside interests, such as lobbyists and bureaucrats.

“You get what you pay for,” Dodd said.

SALARY COMPARISON IN 2008

DELAWARE: $42,750; part-time: Jan. 8 to July 1

NEW JERSEY: $49,000; full-time Legislature

MARYLAND: $43,500; part-time: Jan. 14 to April 13

PENNSYLVANIA: $78,315; full-time Legislature

CONNECTICUT: $28,000; part-time: Jan. 7 to June 3

NEW HAMPSHIRE: $200; part-time: Jan. 7 to July 1

DELAWARE EMPLOYEES THIS YEAR

Lawmakers: $41,680 (Delaware lawmakers took a 2.5 percent pay cut along with the rest of the state’s work force.)

Governor: $171,000

Lieutenant governor: $74,345

High school cafeteria manager/15 years’ experience: $29,275

Contact Ginger Gibson at 324-2794 or gigibson@delawareonline.com