TOPEKA —  Increasing long-stagnant legislative pay could revolutionize state politics, allowing Kansans from all backgrounds a chance to serve —  but top legislative Republicans also urge caution in the pay raise.  

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said low pay has been a longstanding barrier for many Kansans. But Masterson also warned against raising pay to the point where Kansans have a marked financial incentive to serve in the Legislature. 

“The truth is, for years now, it’s been a hurdle for large segments of our population to even attempt and represent their neighbors in this way,” Masterson said during a Thursday legislative meeting on compensation. “We’d like to see us make that hurdle go away. However, I also don’t believe it should be a career. There needs to be some level of service. Public service, at some level does have sacrifice to it, and I think that should exist but there needs to be balance.”

Low compensation and long hours have blocked many Kansans from entering the field, leaving retired Kansans or those with independent income or extremely flexible jobs facing less competition for seats. In past sessions, critics of the system have said the pay barrier allows affluent Kansans to have a much greater voice in state policy than those from other economic backgrounds. 

State legislators are currently paid a base salary of $88.66 for every day during the session, a salary that hasn’t changed since 2009. Starting in October, lawmakers will receive a per diem allowance of $166 per day to offset food and lodging costs during the session. In an average 92-day session, the pay works out to about $23,429 per year, with additional compensation for leadership positions. 

The state ranked in the bottom third for legislative compensation in a 2019 legislative study of 14 other states. The study found Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado paid their lawmakers about $48,000 per year. The lowest state compensation was between $12,000 and $13,000 per year, in Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, shared Masterson’s sentiments. 

He estimated lawmakers spend about 10-15 hours per week outside of the 92-day session on constituent needs or community engagement, with another 15 hours of work for anyone who heads a committee. 

“We don’t have a normal job as legislators,” Hawkins said. “I wouldn’t call our job normal at all in any stretch of the imagination. We are working all the time. … Truly, it is a huge level of service but we love the people we serve, and that’s what we’re really trying to do is just serve and do the best job we can.” 

While Hawkins said compensation rates needed to be adjusted, he also warned against raising pay too high. 

“There has to be a level of service,” Hawkins said. “We’re a citizen legislature so we don’t want people just to consider that their main job. We need to go back home and go to work. And so there’s always going to be a balance.” 

The re-evaluation of legislative pay is a result of a law passed in the 2023 session. Senate Bill 229, a legislative pay adjustment proposal, established a nine-person independent commission tasked with studying compensation rates for state officials. 

The first round of compensation rates and salary will be decided by Dec. 1, 2023, and implemented in the 2025 legislative session, with rates set to be readjusted every four years. 

Jason Watkins from the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, a former state representative who introduced the initial bill content on behalf of the chamber, said better pay would equalize the field. 

“One of the reasons that we introduced this legislation is we believe in representative democracy,” Watkins said. “The Legislature should look like a cross section of the state of Kansas and folks from all walks of life should be able to serve.” 

During his time as a representative, Watkins said he knew several people who could only serve one or two terms before leaving due to financial constraints. Watkins said lawmakers would joke that the term limits for Kansas lawmakers were decided by when they went  bankrupt. 

“A lot of folks that have served in the Legislature really experienced financial hardship,” Watkins said. “And listen, nobody should get rich serving at any level of government. But people shouldn’t have to go broke either. And that’s the stark truth.”