Legislative staff salaries are out of sync with Austin’s cost-of-living

The following testimony was delivered to the House Committee on Appropriations on August 23, 2021.

Texas 2036 strongly supports funding for the Legislative branch of Texas government. We also encourage this body to use this rare focus on the Article X budget to review the impact that a rising cost of living in the Austin metro area is having on the Legislature, specifically its impact on recruitment and retention of a qualified workforce. As you review the Article X budget, we offer the following data points for consideration:

  • From 2000 to 2019, Austin area home prices and monthly rents have significantly outpaced the growth in Article X salaries when comparing across medians.Bar chart depicting percentage growth on Article X median salary, median rent, and median home price in 2019

    Source: Comptroller of Public Accounts, U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey
    Note: Article X Median Salary only includes full-time regular employees

  • The current median Article X staff salary is $55,923 annually. In Austin an individual making this much is earning only $500 more than the income threshold used by the City of Austin for subsidized housing eligibility.
  • While Austin housing costs have tripled since 2000, the proposed state spending on Article X is an inflation-adjusted 3.3% decrease from amounts appropriated two decades ago in 2000.

Although impacts of the rising cost of living may not be apparent now, the trend lines show a continued increase in the Austin metro area. Many Article X jobs functionally require staff to work in Austin, with little realistic opportunity to work outside of the increasingly pricey Austin metro area.

During the regular session, through the passage of Senate Bill 321 the Legislature made investments in the retirement fund for all state employees, which benefits all Article X staff. The Legislature should continue this approach and invest in our hardworking Article X staff.

Using several metrics to identify a sufficient annual salary in Austin, which is between $57,360 and $69,250, Texas 2036 estimates the Legislature would need to appropriate between $28 million – $51 million biennially in addition to the proposed funding in House Bill 1 to ensure all staffers can afford to live in the Capitol area. This additional appropriation would be less than 0.07% of the state’s overall general spending and impact all those staffers making below a sufficient salary.

Considering the recently released revenue estimate for the 87th Legislature, Second Called Session, which is estimated to be $7.85 billion, these additional appropriations for sufficient staff salaries are 0.4% to 0.7% of the projected ending General Revenue-Related balance for the 2022-23 biennium after subtracting the amount needed to maintain Article X funding ($315.9 million).

Investments in our Article X staff will yield long-term benefits and ensure the legislative branch of government is continuing to serve the taxpayers of Texas in the best way possible.  It has been said before that amidst every crisis, lies an opportunity to change. The recent unprecedented focus on Article X funding creates a time for reflection given the data that shows legislative staff salaries are clearly out of sync with Austin’s cost-of-living.