State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, has proposed an amendment to the state constitution to raise legislator pay and tie it to teachers’ pay, saying it would give lawmakers a living wage and allow a broader range of Texans to serve.
Texas lawmakers are among the lowest paid in the nation, but one state lawmaker is trying to change that by tying future legislators’ salaries to the median salary of a public school teacher.
Many state legislators work other jobs when they aren’t in session since the Legislature meets 140 days every other year. The majority work as attorneys or business owners — including state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, an attorney.
“There are colleagues who believe [being a state legislator] should be part time, essentially a volunteer position. I think that was a noble sentiment, maybe a hundred years ago,” she said. “What it means today is that only those who are independently wealthy or own their own business can take off five to six months every two years from their work.”
Hinojosa recalled speaking to a group of young people about being a state lawmaker and feeling like a “fraud” because she knows that most Texans cannot afford to work for $7,200 a year.
“There is this old-school notion that we should not be paid a salary; it just doesn’t work in 2023,” she added. “It didn’t feel right to keep going around talking to young people about how they too could grow up to do what I do when there is such a barrier.”
Hinojosa’s bill would set legislators’ salaries equal to the median teacher salary and would only apply to future state lawmakers’ salaries — current lawmakers would continue to make $7,200 a year. Her bill was filed as an amendment to the state constitution; if passed by the Legislature, it would let Texans vote on the proposed amendment.
Hinojosa said she believes working as a state legislator is a full-time job because it comes with year-round responsibilities.
“Just because we’re not in session does not mean [that] we’re not working,” she said. “We take that interim time [between legislative sessions] to meet with constituents, meet with stakeholders, craft legislation and do research on legislation. This job is what you make it; for me it is a full-time job.”
Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said any attempt at raising lawmakers’ pay faces challenges heading into next year’s elections
“That’s going to be a very tricky sell to voters when you have inflation and people hurting in their wallets,” she said. “They don’t want to know about someone else getting a raise.”
Texas isn’t the only state where lawmakers are looking at increasing their pay. In New Mexico and Nebraska — which join Texas near the bottom of legislator salaries in the U.S. — lawmakers also are pushing for higher pay.
Meanwhile, Nebraska lawmakers are looking to raise their $12,000 salary just over a decade after voters there rejected a state constitutional amendment to raise their pay.
Hinojosa said many of her colleagues in the Legislature oppose the idea of a salary increase because they still believe serving in the Legislature should be a part-time position.
“We started the conversation. It will take time to get there,” she said.
As a former president of the Austin Independent School District school board, Hinojosa said she thinks tying legislators’ pay to teachers’ salary would open their eyes to the difficulties teachers face.
“Hopefully, their personal experience with living on a teacher’s salary will put them more in touch with the spending constraints that our teachers experience,” she said. “And perhaps convince them to do a little better by our teachers.”
Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, agreed.
“Having most [legislators] have to spend a month trying to figure out how to make it on an average teacher salary — I think [it] would help give them a perspective of what it is like,” he said.
“It would be nice to have these legislators go substitute in a school for a day or two,” he added. “I think most of them would run kicking and screaming out of the schools.”
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Photo: Texas House representatives gather for a photo on the House floor during session at the Texas Capitol on Jan. 11. An Austin lawmaker is proposing a pay raise for future members of the Legislature. If lawmakers approve the bill, the issue would go before Texas voters. Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune