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Orrock pay raise bill for legislators advances

State delegates will get a pay raise under a bill from Del. Bobby Orrock — in 2016.

The Senate Finance committee today approved Orrock’s bill, but not without some dissension over whether lawmakers deserve a pay boost — or whether their pay is so low it discourages candidates.

House of Delegates members make $17,640 in salary a year. Senators receive $18,000 a year.

It’s been that way, Orrock said, since 1990. That year, then-governor Doug Wilder cut state workers’ salaries, and legislators voted separately to cut their own pay by 3 percent. But the Senate put a sunset clause on its own salary cut, Orrock said, which meant that after a year, the cut vanished. That’s why senators make more than delegates.

Orrock’s bill says that after the next Senate election, in 2016, delegates’ pay will go back up by $360 a year, to be even with senators’ pay.

But it also allows both houses to get pay raises — or cuts — going forward after 2016, depending on what legislators do with state worker salaries.

Orrock’s bill makes state legislators — as state employees, which they technically are — subject to the same changes in compensation and benefits that lawmakers impose on state workers.

Orrock said he filed the bill because he’d been hearing complaints from home.

“I have heard from folks in my district that we’re above state employees, that we do things to them we don’t do to ourselves,” Orrock said in the committee.

Making legislators subject to whatever might be done to state workers also makes them eligible for pay raises. Under the bill, if state legislators give workers a pay raise — as both houses have proposed in their budget plans — the legislators would see a pay boost too, although it would always be delayed until after the following Senate election, due to constitutional rules. The same would apply to pay cuts, or changes in retirement or other benefits.

Orrock said the way the bill is written, the pay raises proposed in the current budget plans wouldn’t go to lawmakers — only raises (or cuts) made after 2016.

Senators had mixed reaction to his bill.

Some said this is not the time for legislators to raise their pay, even if it doesn’t kick in for several years.

“i find it somewhat ironic that we’re sitting here talking about our pay when there is a good likelihood we won’t have a budget,” said Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, adding that it’s also a bad time to raise legislative pay when the economy is still weak. “I think we’re underpaid for what we do and the time we spend here, but this isn’t the time to be talking about it.”

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, agreed.

“Especially as we have been the brunt of all kinds of late-night jokes, this will add to it,” Lucas said, referring to jokes from late-night comedians about abortion legislation, especially a bill requiring ultrasounds for abortions.

Lucas said constituents tend to think legislators are overpaid, and the way this session has gone, they might think “we ought to be paying them.”

But other senators said they had no qualms about a bill that allows future pay raises.

“People think we must somehow be on the take if we’re only getting $18,000 a year,” said Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said she has worked to recruit legislative candidates, and the low pay is a “huge barrier,” especially for young candidates with families to raise.

“It is such a burden on their family income,” Howell said.

Especially in Northern Virginia, she added, a person “can’t possibly live on $18,000 a year and raise a family.

“Having it so low is going to mean more and more of us are wealthy, and I think that skews the legislature,” Howell said.

In the end, the committee approved the bill on an 8-6 vote that cut across party lines. It will now go to the full Senate.