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Editorial: SC legislators can claim overtime pay to finish their work; they shouldn't

South Carolina Legislature-Massey (copy)

S.C. Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey (standing) and Sen. Mike Gambrell wait for the Legislature to end its session on Thursday. Lawmakers should reject the extra pay they're allowed because the governor had to call them back to finish their work. Jeffrey Collins/AP

State law sets legislators’ annual salary at $10,400, and because of a provision in the S.C. Constitution that says legislators can only be paid for 40 days a year, that amount doesn’t go up regardless of how many days a legislative session lasts.

With the exception of the pandemic, the session has always lasted a lot longer than 40 days. This year, for instance, the Senate was in session 54 days, the House 46.

The session would have lasted even longer — a couple of days under normal circumstances, maybe a week or two if they had decided to continue the abortion debate — if lawmakers had agreed to extend their session past the second Thursday in May to wrap up loose ends, as they normally do.

But they didn’t. Because the state needed a new comptroller to sign state paychecks after Richard Eckstrom resigned and because senators wanted to avoid electing former Rep. Kirkman Finlay to that position, the Legislature simply adjourned, which let the governor appoint a new one.

The result of these machinations was that Gov. Henry McMaster had to convene an extra session of the General Assembly — which the constitution says entitles legislators to pay for a whole new legislative session. Not the full $10,400, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 1935, but a pro-rated salary, which comes to $260 per day ($10,400 divided by 40 days).

This is, to be clear, $260 a day for attending session as they would have done for no additional pay had they followed the pattern they have followed for the past two decades — and indeed, for most years before that.

They should not accept the overtime pay.

We’re not talking about the $223.17 per day our legislators receive in subsistence pay, to cover lodging and meals. They receive that amount, based on the average daily hotel rate in downtown Columbia, every day the Legislature is in session, whether it's the regular annual session or what the constitution calls an "extraordinary" session, no matter how many days any session lasts. We're also not talking about the mileage reimbursement they receive to drive to and from Columbia once a week; they get that every week the Legislature meets as well.

To be clear, we’re not arguing that our legislators are overpaid. There are legitimate arguments for raising their salaries, and we have no objection to lawmakers having that debate. Increasing the legislative salary might turn out to be a bargain.

But a raise is something that, under our constitution, can’t take place until after the legislators who approve it stand for reelection again. And it’s something that needs to be passed openly, with a public debate and vote — not something that’s just slipped in without the public realizing what’s going on.

We’re not suggesting that legislators forced the governor to call an extra session in order to increase their pay: We believe they made a calculated decision about our next comptroller, and indeed one that looks like it will benefit our state. But we are suggesting that they should refuse to accept the extra pay, for work they had already intended, and indeed were obligated, to do.

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