Legislators were still grumbling last week about the veto of a back-door pay increase by Gov. Nikki Haley that was sustained by the Senate as the recent session came to an end. The extra $12,000 was pitched as an increase in local expense money, but it was clearly an attempt to hike legislative salaries without calling it that.
Gov. Haley called the proviso what it was. "I don't fault legislators for wanting a pay raise," the governor said in her veto message. "I fault the way that this was done."
Maybe legislators have learned their lesson. Local lawmakers interviewed by Columbia-based Post and Courier reporter Cynthia Roldan cited the need to come back to the issue next year, saying up front that legislators aren't getting paid enough.
Lawmakers receive $10,400 in salary, $12,000 for expenses (plus $3,400 for telephone, postage and office expenses), a generous per diem and mileage during session, and excellent retirement benefits - for a part time job.
Nevertheless, legislative pay is a reasonable subject for open debate, which would be in welcome contrast to the way this year's proposal was approached.
The proviso to double legislators' expense checks was quietly inserted in the budget. When challenged on the subject, a few senators talked about the need for more gas money to travel around their districts.
It subsequently was reported that legislators had even more quietly put in $60,000 in a previous budget for consultants to do a pay survey of other states. Those findings were used to justify the planned increase.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, decried the governor's veto as "a big publicity stunt on her part."
Certainly, it threw some welcome light, and public scrutiny, on the subject. Just as surely, the last thing that legislators wanted was publicity about their sneaky salary hike.
In the end, that's why the Senate sustained the governor's veto. Only 10 senators were willing to vote against the override, in contrast to the 24 who initially supported the budget proviso.
Rep. Eddie Southard, R-Moncks Corner, supported the pay hike, saying that more money is needed to ensure that legislators aren't all rich or retired.
"The problem is the people's perception of politicians," Rep. Southard said. "People don't hold politicians in very high esteem. They just lump them all together and say they are all crooked and corrupt."
Unfortunately, the Legislature fueled that perception by the way members attempted to get additional pay without calling it that and, initially, by doing so beneath the radar.
If lawmakers think they deserve a salary hike, they should say so, come up with a figure, publicly debate the issue during budget deliberations, and vote on it. The voters won't take offense so quickly if they believe that legislators are being forthright about the issue.
This year, though, give credit to Gov. Haley for keeping the Legislature honest on legislative pay.
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