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Legislators vote selves pay hike
Riley promises to veto measure increasing expense allowances by 60 percent, but override is expected

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — With a robust economy, sufficient tax revenue available to balance budgets, and last year's election-year squabbles behind them, it was looking like this would be a fairly peaceful session for the Alabama Legislature.

That changed Wednesday, when 78-year-old House Speaker Pro Tem Demetrius Newton quietly took the microphone and asked for passage of a resolution on "legislative compensation."

By a voice vote, which has no record of how anyone votes, members decided to raise their pay by 60 percent.

The Senate also quickly adopted the resolution by voice vote. Bob Riley promised to veto it, but the House and Senate are expected to override it — with recorded votes.

The quick action on the resolution left some members crying foul because the resolution passed before they knew what was happening. Others said lawmakers have not had a pay adjustment since 1991 and need more money to pay for the rising cost of coming to Montgomery while in session.

Riley quickly cautioned lawmakers not to give themselves a pay raise and then reject his plan to reduce income taxes for those making less than $100,000 a year.

"If the House and Senate are going to give themselves a 61 percent raise, there is no reason — no reason in the world — that they won't give the workers who allowed them to do that a raise through these tax decreases," Riley said.

Riley said he expects his veto of the pay raise to be overridden in both chambers.

"We know that we don't have the votes," he said.

The House approved the resolution raising the annual compensation for lawmakers from $30,710 to $49,500 in an unrecorded voice vote shortly after going into session, and many members said they were not aware the pay raise was going to be introduced.

Folsom ignores shouts

The Senate quickly followed by passing the measure, also on an unrecorded voice vote. Several Republican senators tried to get a recorded vote, but the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., ignored their shouts and raised hands.

The resolution also provides for legislators' pay to be adjusted annually to reflect increases in the cost of living as indicated by the U.S. Department of Labor's Consumer Price Index. Legislators got their last pay raise in 1991. The Labor Department's index has gone up 54.2 percent since 1990.

The pay raise resolution now goes to Riley for his signature or veto. Riley has until Tuesday, March 20, to veto the bill and return it to lawmakers. Lawmakers can override the veto with a majority vote of all members — 53 votes in the House and 18 in the Senate — but this time it will be a recorded vote.

"The people that passed this resolution had the votes. They also have the votes to override my veto. I know that going in, but I think a 61 percent raise is excessive," Riley said.

House Speaker Seth Hammett said he did not take a recorded vote because no members requested one. Hammett said members deserve a raise because of the length of time that has passed since their pay was adjusted.

The General Fund budget presented to the Legislature by Gov. Riley does not include funds for a raise for state employees. Hammett was asked if it is fair to give lawmakers a raise and not one to state employees.

"We've been providing state employees with pay raises on a regular basis. Their pay has increased the last two years," Hammett said.

State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said lawmakers deserve a raise because they have not received one in so long.

"We've given everybody in the whole state a pay raise and we haven't gotten one," Rogers said, referring to pay increases given to teachers and state employees in recent years.

Some lawmakers complained the raise was too much and was passed without giving time for debate.

"It was done before we knew it was happening," said House Minority Leader Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn. Hubbard said if the House overrides the governor's veto, he doesn't plan to keep the extra money he will receive from the raise.

"I'm going to give the difference away to charity, including to my church and to scholarships at Auburn University," Hubbard said.

Expense allowances

The measure, sponsored in the House by Speaker Pro Tem Newton, D-Birmingham, raises the monthly expense allowance lawmakers receive from $2,280 to $3,850. Their other daily compensation for legislative meeting days remains the same.

Several lawmakers justified the raise, saying the cost of driving to Montgomery, food and living in a hotel for two or three days a week during sessions has increased dramatically in recent years.

Rep. Joseph Mitchell, D-Mobile, a self employed consultant and jazz musician, said he normally stays in budget motels and when first elected in 1994 could find a room in Montgomery for about $20, while now the cheapest rooms are at least $60. Mitchell said he usually brings food with him, because of the cost of eating in restaurants.

Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, was also elected in 1994. He said the price of gas was about $1.60 a gallon when he was elected and is now more than $2.30 a gallon. He said it now costs him about $80 a night to stay in a modest motel, compared to about $40 when first elected.

Some lawmakers said they would have voted "no" had there been a recorded vote.

"I knew what I was getting paid when I ran for office," said Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. Ward said he believes the current pay for lawmakers may be too low, but he doesn't believe most Alabama residents believe legislators need more money.

"I don't feel my constituents will support this," Ward said.

In the Senate, freshman Sen. Arthur Orr, D-Decatur, was among a group of Republicans shouting for a roll call vote rather than a voice vote.

"Doing a pay raise in this format tarnishes the image of the Senate," he said.

Between the House and Senate votes, the Legislature held a brief joint session to hear from Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, who was wrapping up a two-day visit to the state.

Klaus noted that in his country and any other democracy, it's commonplace for lawmakers to want to raise their pay and for the public to criticize it.

"This is a universal process I'm afraid in a democratic society," he said.

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