Nebraska senators from across the aisle say low senator salary is impacting diversity in chamber

Nebraska senators from across the aisle say low senator salary is impacting diversity in chamber.
Published: Apr. 8, 2022 at 5:55 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Nebraska’s state senators have debated abortion, prison reform and tax cuts, all issues critical to Nebraskans. But the people tasked with making those decisions get paid less than half of the median income in the state.

In fact, the last time state senators got a pay raise, was in 1988, when the salary went from $400 a month to $1,000 a month.

This means Senators like Matt Hansen, representing Lincoln, is also a college professor.

“I go from being in session to grading papers online, or over lunch breaks because I have to work other jobs,” Hansen said.

Hansen isn’t alone, nearly every other senator who isn’t retired, also lists a second occupation in their district biography.

Lincoln Senator Adam Morfeld, who is a lawyer and founded Civic Nebraska, said that’s because $12,000 a year doesn’t give them much choice.

“You have to have a job outside of this,” Morfeld said. “Many have two or three jobs.”

Looking across the country, only four states pay senators less than Nebraska. Senators 10/11 NOW spoke to from both sides of the aisle said this isn’t about making money, it’s about access.

“There are people I visit with that don’t run because of the financial challenges of being here,” Gage County Senator Myron Dorn said. “If all you’re going to earn is $12,000, very few people can afford to be here.”

The state does pay senators a per diem, $55 a day for senators who live within 50 miles from the capitol and $151 a day for senators who live further than that. Senators said they only get that in session, so it adds up to between $3,300 and $9,060 for senators who are local to Lincoln and between $4,950 and $13,590 for those who commute. While senators said the per diem does help, it still doesn’t amount to a full-time income.

Senators 10/11 NOW spoke to like Dorn, Curt Friesen and Mark Kolterman said they were only able to run because they’re retired.

“But someone who is younger, in the prime of their work career, married and with a family, I don’t know how they could do it,” Kolterman said.

The senators said this limits the voices in the chamber. Data 10/11 NOW analyzed showed the average age of a Nebraska state senator is 56 and only 32% of the body is under 50 years old.

“I think there are times when you watch us on television and see us debating issues, it’d be good if there were different people in the room,” Friesen said.

It would take 60% of the legislature to agree to a raise to put the issue on the ballot and then it would be up to Nebraskans. There isn’t any current pending legislation to increase the pay, but there have been efforts over the years.

Most recently, in 2018 when Senator Tony Vargas proposed an increase to 50% of the median income in Nebraska to be adjusted every two years. That would have put the pay at $28,000. That proposal didn’t make it out of committee.

Past efforts in 2012 and 2006 proposed an increase to just over $21,000. That did make it on the ballot in both years but voters didn’t go for it.

A similar effort in 2010 also never made it on the ballot.

Senator Friesen said we’ve fallen too far behind for an easy increase.

“Now we should almost double it,” Friesen said. “Though I don’t know if voters would go for much more than that. But we should propose a flat pay increase and let voters decide.

Senators threw out a wide range of numbers, from doubling it to $24,000 or paying close to Nebraska’s median income, about $35,000, which is the average pay for senators across the country.

They said a raise wouldn’t only help get more voices in the room, it would help them do better work.

“Senators having two or three jobs gets in the way of getting everything done,” Morfefld said. “It’s a matter of dollars and cents, time and minutes.”

It would also attract more experienced and educated senators.

“If you want good-quality candidates, you have to be willing to pay them,” Kolterman said.

Senators said while being a senator isn’t a traditional full time job, senators put in well over 40 hours a week when in session and there’s a lot of opportunity to get more involved.

“It can be a full-time job,” Friesen said. “Just when you increase pay, increase what you ask of your senators along with it.”

As far as how to get voters on board if an increase ever did get on the ballot, Morfeld said it would take a bi-partisan education campaign, explaining the benefits to Nebraskans across the state.

10/11 NOW asked the senators what their plea to Nebraskans would be.

Hansen asked that Nebraskans put themselves in a senator’s shoes.

“Could you run and be successful with a $12,000 salary,” Hansen said. “Most would say no and that’s the point because people like you, like your peers couldn’t do it. That’s why it’s tough and that’s why the body looks the way it does.”

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