After 55 minutes, four failed motions and a discussion about whether inflationary conditions are relevant when considering elected officials’ pay, the Board on Legislative Compensation voted 5-3 to keep rank-and-file lawmaker salaries flat and raise separate stipends for Oklahoma’s legislative leaders by 5 percent.
Bartlesville attorney Robert M. Kane — an appointee of Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) — made an initial motion to forgo any legislative pay raises again, the same decision made in 2021 when the board voted 7-1 to maintain the existing salary of elected legislators at $47,500 per year.
“I think the compensation compares very favorably to the other states in our region,” Kane said. “It’s very generous compared to the income of the people of Oklahoma. I think we can be proud of providing adequate compensation for our legislators as we stand now.”
With one of House Speaker Charles McCall’s appointees absent — TV personality Scott Mitchell — the board’s eight members split on Kane’s initial motion, causing it to fail 4-4. The same fate befell a subsequent motion from McCall appointee Evan Vincent, an Oklahoma City attorney. Vincent moved that the board study additional data about Oklahoma’s total compensation package compared to other states, but the motion also failed 4-4.
“We have enough information to make a decision,” said board member Robert DeNegri, an appointee of Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Stitt appointee Chip Carter then moved to approve a 10 percent base lawmaker pay raise and a 25 percent increase for legislative leadership stipends, but his motion failed for lack of a second.
Vincent spoke up again, moving for a 5 percent base pay raise and a 10 percent leadership stipend hike, but that vote also failed 4-4 along the same split of members. Joining Vincent in voting for a pay increase were Carter, Treat appointee Alan Jett and The Rev. Nathan Carr, a Stitt appointee who chaired Tuesday’s meeting.
Ultimately, Douglas moved to consider no increase in base lawmaker pay separately from the leadership stipend discussion. That convinced Jett to flip his prior vote and create a 5-3 majority. Jett then moved to increase the leadership stipend — paid only to a handful of top positions in the Legislature — by 5 percent. That motion, the day’s last, passed unanimously.
Stipends for the House speaker position and the Senate president pro tempore position had been $17,932 each, with stipends for other leadership positions sitting at $12,364. The 5 percent increases — $896.60 and $618.20, respectively — will take effect following the 2024 election.
Asked about his absence from the day’s meeting, Mitchell said he was “unable to be there.”
Kane casts votes despite cousin serving in House
With members appointed by the governor and both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature, the Board on Legislative Compensation meets every October in odd-numbered years to consider adjustments to lawmaker pay. For its second meeting in a row, all members of the Oklahoma Board on Legislative Compensation were male.
In 2019, the board approved a $12,749 raise for legislator pay, the first hike of lawmaker pay in 20 years. That came two years after the board cut legislators’ pay by 8.8 percent in 2017, a largely punitive decision made after the Legislature failed to address a significant budget shortfall during regular session.
Increasing compensation for state legislators can be a prickly topic. On the one hand, the public’s perception of politicians is often lukewarm. Favorability of the Oklahoma Legislature polled around 50 percent in March. With the state’s annual regular session running the four months of February through May, some view serving in the Legislature as a part-time job.
On the other hand, frequent special sessions, constituent relation obligations and time spent campaigning are often cited to support a view that serving in the Legislature is functionally a full-time job, particularly for committee chairpersons and other leaders.
That debate, however, garnered little discussion Tuesday. Unlike recent years, no sitting lawmaker attended Tuesday’s meeting of the Legislative Compensation Board. When Carr asked if any member of the public would like to speak during a public comment period, no one did.
During their remarks, Kane and Douglas said the legislators to whom they had spoken were pleased with their current compensation and did not see a need for an increase. After the meeting, Kane declined to identify any lawmaker with whom he had discussed the matter.
Asked if he might have talked about the topic with his cousin, freshman Rep. John Kane (R-Bartlesville), Robert Kane said, “It would make sense.”
Asked if he considered abstaining or stepping down from the Legislative Compensation Board owing to his cousin’s status as a legislator, Robert Kane said he had not.
“I don’t think that’s what the board’s point is. I obviously was not influenced to raise the compensation,” he said. “I think that we’re far enough removed in degrees of consanguinity that those kind of decisions are pretty remote.”
First cousins qualify as the fourth degree of consanguinity, a separation of relation beyond employment and appointment prohibitions in state law. However, in 2021, the Oklahoma State Senate changed its internal employment rules after a senator had hired his cousin as an executive assistant. According to an article from The Oklahoman at the time, the starting pay for Senate executive assistants was $48,402, a figure slightly hire than base pay for non-leadership legislators.
In recent years, some have argued that keeping legislative compensation low can benefit lawmakers of means since lower salaries limit the pool of people who might run against incumbents or wealthy individuals seeking open seats.
With historic interests in ranching and the legal sector, the Kane family is one of the most prominent families in Washington County, placing Rep. John Kane among the legislators who are more independently wealthy and less reliant on a legislative salary to support their families.
“I don’t know what that has to do with anything,” Robert Kane said.
Rep. John Kane did not respond to a voicemail left for him ahead of this story’s publication.
Judicial pay raise recommendation pending
Although legislators do not control their own pay, they do have input into the salaries of state judges.
In September, the separate Board on Judicial Compensation met and recommended a 17 percent across-the-board pay increase for all judges. State law directs that recommendation to take effect unless the Legislature modifies it or denies it outright.
Lawmakers will consider the 17 percent judicial pay raise proposal during the 2024 regular session, but recent allegations involving a pair of judges and a legislative leader’s lingering frustration over an effort to create a judicial evaluation program have complicated the topic.