Time for bipartisan conversations about legislative staff salaries given Austin’s rising cost of living

As discussed in our last blog, the recent veto of Article X (Legislative) funding provides a rare opportunity to closely examine the finance trends and salary pressures for Legislative staff. Article X staffers may lose their pay altogether if new funding is not passed by September. This analysis will examine the legislative discourse around state office budgets and discuss how — even if fully restored — Article X funding levels may be lower than they should be.

The median Article X staffer earns $55,923 annually. In Austin, an individual making this much is earning only $500 more, annually, than the income threshold used by the City of Austin to determine eligibility for subsidized housing.  

While Austin housing costs have tripled since 2000 (based on Texas 2036 analysis of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Housing Price Index), the proposed state spending on Article X is an inflation-adjusted 3.3% decrease from amounts appropriated two decades ago in 2000 (based on our analysis of the General Appropriations Act (2000-01) and Senate Bill 10/ House Bill 1, 87(1)).

Article X employees work in seven major agencies, including the Texas Senate and House of Representatives, that support the work of the Legislature.

The disconnect between staff salaries and local costs of living is especially stark in the House. The Legislature has not increased the budget for House staff since 2013, when monthly office budgets were increased from $12,500 to $13,500. By comparison, Senate office budgets last received an increase in 2019 from $39,000 to $41,000 in 2019.

Representative Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) has argued that investment in staff would be a good value for the state, suggesting that increases in legislative office budgets could enable legislators to retain high value staffers who could provide better oversight on a quarter-trillion dollar budget, and thus potentially lead to lower overall state expenditures. Rep. Schaefer has pushed his colleagues to open a dialogue on the sufficiency of House office budgets during the last two regular sessions, arguing that increased investment in staff pay could yield larger savings in other areas of the budget.

“When we lose people that have institutional knowledge, people that are skilled… that hurts our ability to save the state money,” Rep. Schaefer told the chamber in 2019 (44:18).

He followed up his statements in 2020, tweeting “In the restaurant business you would spend more money on equipment or staff if you knew it helped the bottom line, or increased efficiency. Especially if you could move the money from somewhere it didn’t need to be spent. Same here.”

Rep. Schaefer is not alone in this bipartisan conversation. Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) shared Rep. Shaefer’s concerns about retention, noting during floor debate in April 2021 (4:12:10) over a budget amendment that “good staff are hard to keep given the constraints of our office budgets,” and “institutional knowledge is invaluable to successfully serving our constituents.”

Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie) and Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio) also raised concerns along similar lines, stressing that their staffs are underpaid and overworked and that they would have to get rid of some of their stronger staff after Session due to budgetary constraints.

It is clear there is a concern that the increased cost of living in Austin has made it difficult to afford to live here on existing salaries for legislative staff. Many legislative staff have sought higher-paying jobs in state agencies or in the lobby.

Our next blog will take you through historical data comparing legislative staff salaries to the cost of living in Austin, highlighting the growing disconnect between the two.

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