Bill would make New Jersey legislators among highest-paid in nation

By: - January 8, 2024 7:02 am

A bill that could get a final vote Monday would make New Jersey's legislators some of the highest-paid in the nation. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The push to raise New Jersey lawmakers’ salaries would make them the highest-paid part-time legislators in the nation.

If the proposed pay hike — from $49,000 to $82,000 — wins passage from the Legislature, only four other states would pay their lawmakers more. It would be the first salary hike for the Legislature since 2002.

The bill, which also includes pay hikes for senior legislative staff, cabinet officials, and some others, won approval from appropriations committees in both chambers on Thursday and could be approved by the full Legislature Monday (the current legislative session ends at noon on Tuesday). Its sponsor, Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex), said higher salaries would help New Jersey’s government retain workers who might otherwise flee for the private sector, while other Democrats in favor say it would help diversify the Legislature’s membership.

Henal Patel, law and policy director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said a better idea would be to transform the Legislature into a full-time body, one that does not permit outside employment.

“I think we acknowledge that we need a professional legislature, and that’s good. Then that one key part that would let us actually go to become a professional legislature is to have a full-time legislature with no outside sources of income, and that’s the part we’re not going to, which is the part we’ve refused to really discuss,” Patel said.

The states with the highest-paid lawmakers — California ($128,215), New York ($142,000), Pennsylvania ($106,000), and Illinois ($85,000) — have full-time legislatures, though as a matter of practice, some are less full-time than others.

Pennsylvania legislators meet in each month of the year, and they’re allowed to hold outside work. Legislatures in California and New York meet for only part of the year, and their members are allowed to hold outside employment, though New York lawmakers’ earnings from such work will be capped at $35,000 beginning in 2025.

Lawmakers in those four states — and in most other states — receive travel per diems, which are not afforded to New Jersey lawmakers, who also cannot receive state health benefits if they were elected after 2010.

Sen. Dick Codey said raising salaries among state workers would help keep the government from losing employees to the private sector. (Edwin J. Torres Governor’s Office)

Codey said he supports New Jersey moving toward a full-time Legislature but said such a shift is unlikely now.

“I’m open about it in my lifetime, but it will happen, and it should,” Codey said. “You’ll get a better Legislature.”

Though pay increases for lawmakers are typically politically unpopular, groups have urged lawmakers to boost their own pay and limit their ability to seek work outside of the Legislature, arguing such a move would allow more low-income and young residents to seek elected office while obviating ethics concerns posed by lawmakers’ outside gigs.

When the current Legislature was sworn in in early 2022, 27 of its 120 members were practicing attorneys, 17 worked for local or county governments, and 14 owned their own businesses. Twenty-eight held other private sector jobs, including six who worked in regulated industries like insurance or health care.

“It creates a structure designed for some levels of corruption. You don’t have a real representative democracy here where you have a legislature that really reflects the various jobs that people in New Jersey have,” Patel said.

Codey likewise said he believes higher salaries could enable more people of differing backgrounds to hold office and make ends meet, and both he and Patel back prohibiting outside employment for lawmakers (Codey owns a funeral home in Caldwell).

For the most part, New Jersey’s legislators are expected to show up in Trenton no more than twice a week, but members of leadership and those who sit on budget and appropriations panels in either chamber make more frequent visits to the Statehouse.

Periods of dense legislative activity — like the month of June, when legislators convene to pass an annual budget, and the lame-duck session that follows legislative elections — often force legislators to make more frequent trips to Trenton.

The result is that jobs with flexible hours are overrepresented in the Legislature.

“And this doesn’t include anything you need to do in your district,” Patel said, referring to constituent services.

Republicans who oppose the bill have questioned whether the $49,000 legislative salary is actually keeping people from running for office.

“In this last election cycle, 38 of the 40 general election races were contested. Lots of people want to be here in these seats,” Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) said during an appropriations hearing Thursday. “There’s a lot of competition in these seats, and if you think members of the Legislature are struggling, you need not go further than the legislative parking lot and look at the vehicles with Assembly license plates.”

Though the body seldom meets in July or August, and though its customary summer recess often extends into mid-November in legislative election years, the Legislature is still among the more professionalized ones in the country, featuring large staffs and a nonpartisan office. Its schedule, too, much resembles those of some full-time legislatures.

In practical terms, there’s little chance of New Jersey’s Legislature moving to a full-time model anytime soon.

While some legislators have spoken favorably about a move to a full-time model, it’s not clear how many members are willing to give up their day jobs and take a political hit over the even larger salary increase such a model would necessitate.

The idea also lacks support from at least one of Trenton’s top Democrats. In late December, Senate President Scutari (D-Union) said he opposes such a shift, joking he was already a full-time Senate president. (Scutari has a private law practice and is Union County Democratic chairman.)

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.