Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Indiana Senate keeping the health-care perk

Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Garton (R-Columbus) modified the health care perk for state senators, eliminating the perk for those who retire before age 50. The Indianapolis Star reports that "retired senators will have to join Medicare at age 65, which shifts some of their health-care costs onto that federally funded program."

Garton's plan will save taxpayers money, but he did not go as far as his counterpart in the House, Brian Bosma, who eliminated the health care perk for retired state representatives. Bosma got praise across the state for this bold move.

Legislators get a $11,600 base salary along with $128 per day when the Legislature is in session and $51.20 per day when the Legislature is not in session. If the Legislature does not spend one day in session, the actual base salary is $30,288 - not a bad deal at all. Between the base salary, per diem pay, and other pay, The Star reports that legislators made an average of $44,954 in 2005.

Both the House and Senate get a lot of criticism for the rather generous compensation package they have awarded themselves from taxpayer money. Most of this criticism is warranted, and for legislators to get perks and benefits unheard of in the private sector smacks of legislative arrogance.

However, there is another side to the story. The compensation package for state legislators has to be high enough to allow people to serve without bankrupting themselves. Most people cannot afford to just take months at a time off work, and if the legislative salary package is too low it serves as a barrier to middle-income people serving in public office. When you consider travel expenses for people who live in the far northern or southern parts of the state going to and from Indianapolis, this becomes even more apparent.

The question is where you draw the line. The health-care perk was over the line, but what about other compensation that goes to state legislators? Perhaps one answer is to set legislative salaries, benefits, and per-diem rates based on means testing. Someone who earns a lot of money as an attorney or a doctor would not get as much from serving in the legislature as a blue-collar worker.

Both houses of the Indiana Legislature need to have a frank and honest discussion with the people of Indiana about the legislative benefits package and the level of compensation legislators need. An election year is the perfect time to do that.