Legislators get $20K per year, plus benefits

Published 8:59 am Monday, March 30, 2015

Legislator Pay Graphic

Members of Tennessee’s state Legislature are considered part-time lawmakers, but their salaries and benefits rival many full-time jobs across the state.

The annual salary of a Tennessee legislator — regardless of whether they serve in the House of Representatives or the Senate — is $20,884 and is paid in 12 monthly installments, said Connie Ridley, director of the Tennessee Office of Legislative Administration. That salary breaks down to a pay rate of $401.62 per week, or the equivalent of $10.04 per hour if the position were a 40-hour per week job.

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The Speaker of the House and Speaker of the Senate have a base salary higher than that of their fellow legislators.

“Whatever the base is for the regular members, the speakers of the two houses get three times that amount,” Ridley said.

Speaker of the Senate Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, whose district includes part of Carter County, and Speaker of the House Rep. Beth Harwell each make a base salary of $62,652 per year. That breaks down to a pay rate of $1,204.85 per week or $30.12 per hour if the position were a 40-hour per week job.

In addition to their base salaries, legislators receive additional expenses and benefits.

“They each receive $1,000 each month for home office services,” Ridley said. That stipend is paid for all 12 months of the near, not just those months when the Legislature is in session, she said. The total stipend equals out to $12,000 per year per legislator.

That stipend can be used to cover a variety of things such as rent, telephone services and utility bills for a district office, as well as office supplies, travel expenses or secretarial help, Ridley said. “It can cover anything they have to do to perform their duties as a legislator while not in Nashville,” she said.

Office staff and expenses for the legislator’s offices in Nashville is paid for and provided by Ridley’s office, she said.

State senators and representatives who live more than 50 miles away from the seat of government in Nashville, like those who represent Carter County, are also eligible for additional expenses, Ridley said.

On the days the Legislature is in session, the legislators receive $198 per day for expenses such as hotels, food and incidentals like baggage handling, Ridley said. “That rate is set by the federal government,” she added.

The Tennessee Legislature went into session Jan. 13 and will remain in session until April 17, barring any special sessions or needs for an extended session. Legislators attend full sessions as well as committee meetings Monday through Thursday each week while in session.

Legislators who live more than 50 miles away are also paid a travel mileage to and from Nashville at a rate of 47 cents per mile, which is set by the Tennessee Commissioner of Finance and Regulation.

“They are paid one round trip per week,” Ridley said.

State legislators are also eligible to take part in the state employee benefit package, which includes medical insurance, state retirement plan, a 401(k) plan, life insurance, disability insurance and a flexible spending account program for medical expenses, Ridley said. Legislators, like regular full-time state employees, pay 20 percent of the cost of their medical insurance premium, and the state picks up the tab for the remaining 80 percent of the cost. If they want, Ridley said the legislators can opt into vision and dental coverage plans, but they must pay the full premium because it is considered optional coverage.

While the members are considered part-time legislators, they are eligible for the state benefits package while regular state employees are only eligible if they are full-time.

Many members of the state legislature have jobs or other business interests which supplement the income they receive from the state.

Professions among the body cover a variety of fields including teachers, farmers, lawyers, advertising executives, doctors and insurance representatives.

“Most legislators have to wear a lot of hats,” said Rep. Timothy Hill, whose district includes part of Carter County.

When he is away from the legislature, Hill is a small business owner who heads an advertising and research agency. He is also in the progress of opening a restaurant, he said.

Even though he has to spend a lot of time away from his job either in Nashville or at home working at his duties as a representative, Hill said he does not think his business has seen too many negative impacts.

“I’ve got good people around me involved in those business endeavors,” he said.

Hill operates a district office to help service his constituents and while the $1,000 a month stipend from the state helps, he said it does not cover all of his expenses.

“I spend a lot of resources personally traveling the district and serving the constituents,” he said, adding that to him, the expense is worth it. “I love my job and I love the opportunity to serve.”

Being a part-time, or “citizen legislature,”actually benefits the state and its residents, Sen. Rusty Crowe, who represents Elizabethton, said.

“You’re there with the people and it really does help. It’s not like Washington, D.C.,” he said. “They’re up there more than they’re home, so sometimes they lose sight of what the people back home need and want.”

While the legislators are considered part-time, Crowe said it is still a full-time commitment.

“They say your legislator job is part-time, but when you’re home it’s something all the time,” he said, adding constituents contact him for help on a regular basis. “It’s a lot more full-time than it used to be.”

Balancing the duties of a legislator and a private citizen can be difficult at times, Crowe said. At his full-time job, Crowe contracts with Mountain States Health Alliance to consult physicians on wound care and hyperbaric medicine.

“For three and a half-months of the year I’m in Nashville,” Crowe said. “For the time I’m down there I schedule my work around that.”

For Crowe, that means early mornings on Mondays before he has to drive to the capital and then late nights on Thursdays when he returns home. He gets a full day of work in on Friday and often spends his Saturdays catching up on his paperwork, he said.

The pay for legislators is sufficient despite the effort it requires, Crowe said. “There was a bill that went through the legislature to raise our pay and I voted against it twice,” he said. “We don’t serve for the salary we get. It’s not the kind of job you do for the money, at least it shouldn’t be.”