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Legislature chamber

The Nebraska Legislature meets in the George W. Norris Chamber.

Since 1989, the consumer price index has more than doubled – but an important position in Nebraska has seen its salary unchanged for three decades.

The annual wage for a Nebraska state senator has been stuck on $12,000 for that long. Had that salary merely matched the Consumer Price Index, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that members of the Nebraska Legislature should be making $25,048.

Such a delay is ludicrous. It’s beyond time for members of Nebraska’s legislative branch to be paid commensurate with the importance of their jobs.

Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas is again leading the charge to put a pay raise for senators on the ballot in the November 2020 general election to take effect in 2021. His proposed constitutional amendment will prevent future lawmakers from having to go back to the people in search of a raise by tying it to half of the median household income for the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As things stand now, the resolution would bump up senators’ salaries to roughly $27,000 – a much more reasonable number that still falls behind the national average Vargas places at $35,000.

This topic matters because stagnant pay has prevented the citizen Legislature envisioned by George Norris from being truly representative of the state’s citizenry. Long hours and little pay have dissuaded many qualified candidates from seeking office, and the composition of the body accordingly skews toward the retired, young and independently wealthy.

Yes, this is technically a part-time job, given the 60- and 90-day sessions. But work outside of those settings is common, with committee and other special assignments year-round. This sacrifice in the name of public service is a profound one for those who choose to undertake it, especially for those who hold down another job while representing their districts.

Furthermore, 11 senators have signed onto Vargas’s bill as cosponsors. What’s noteworthy is that the laundry list of backers encompasses the entire political spectrum. Their involvement proves the need for a legislative pay raise transcends political ideology.

When Vargas introduced an identical measure last session, several conservative senators told their peers that they’d voted against previous pay hikes for the Legislature as fiscal prudence, only to realize their error once they began serving in it.

The Journal Star editorial board hopes their words don’t fall deaf ears, should this measure advance to the ballot. But history has not been kind to the idea of legislative pay raises in Nebraska, which saw all 93 counties reject the last iteration to reach voters in 2012.

Nebraskans want qualified, capable individuals to help write their laws and policies, yet abysmal pay is frequently cited as an impediment for those considering these positions.

Nebraska voters should give their senators a raise after three decades at $12,000 a year.

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