Our democratic republic depends upon citizens willing to serve in public office, usually at a sacrifice to their own economic and personal welfare. This is certainly true at the county level, where dedicated officials perform their duties for minimal salaries. While Commissioners Courts may adjust county salaries, the 3.5 percent cap on annual property tax revenue prevents any meaningful ability to offset inflation and cost of living. County officers and employees often must rely upon other jobs or revenue to meet their family needs. However, the lack of adequate compensation is especially acute at the state legislative level and has reached a breaking point. The price of public service has become challenging on all levels.
Section 24, Article III, Texas Constitution sets the salary of a member of the legislature at $600 per month. This salary has remained unchanged since 1975. Although a 1991 provision would allow increases if recommended by the Texas Ethics Commission and approved by the voters, no increases have been proposed.
Over the years, the time and money required to serve in the legislature have changed drastically. A state senator represents over a million people, more than a member of Congress. A state representative district has over 200,000 population. Based solely upon this factor, there has been a huge increase in the demands of time to campaign and serve their constituents.
Besides duties in the districts, legislators are required to attend a 140-day regular session in odd-numbered years and any 30-day special sessions called by the governor. In most years, this leaves some opportunity to engage in a profession or business to supplement the meager state salary. However, in 2023, Gov. Greg Abbott imposed four special sessions in addition to the regular session. This has resulted in a record of 260 days of legislative sessions. The economic effect on legislators has been catastrophic, except for those who are independently wealthy or being compensated by special interests. Consequently, 15 members of the House of Representatives have announced that they will not seek re-election. Most of these are members dedicated to representing their districts and have not accepted funding and direction from special interests. The loss of these public servants will seriously erode the legislative support for county government and local decision making.
The lack of adequate compensation is not the only factor prompting the exodus of experienced legislators. At both the state and federal levels, the negative attitude among the members and the public are cited as creating a hostile atmosphere and discouraging reasonable public servants. Certainly, the “my way or no way” demands of certain state leaders have contributed to the exit by legislators who will not accede to these bullying tactics. It is difficult to implement rational policies when constantly attacked by radical elements and special interests.
Texans have been well-served in the past by part-time “citizen legislators” who were able to sustain their families without an adequate state salary. However, under the present conditions, we will soon be left with only wealthy members and those willing to sustain themselves by consulting contracts with special interests – the best legislature that money can buy. Members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000 per year, New York legislators are paid $142,000, and California members receive $122,694. We may not need to duplicate these salaries, but surely we can agree on the national average of $82,000.
Under the Texas Constitution, any adjustment in legislative salaries must begin with the Texas Ethics Commission and then approval by the voters. The current members of the Texas Ethic Commission are Chair Randall H. Erben, Vice-Chair Chris Flood, Chad M. Craycraft, Mary K. Kennedy, Patrick W. Mizell, Richard S. Schmidt, Joseph D. Slovacek, and Steven D. Wolens, and they may be contacted at:
Texas Ethics Commission
P.O. Box 12070
Austin TX 78711-2070
Please consider contacting them and requesting that they approve a proposal to increase legislative salaries to at least $82,000.