Law & Principles
Ray Carter | June 7, 2022
House lawmakers’ spending on themselves explodes
At the start of this year’s legislative session, House Speaker Charles McCall abruptly announced that if the Senate passed a major school-choice bill, he would kill it in the House by denying a hearing.
McCall said such parent-empowerment bills were “just not on the radar or the minds” of House lawmakers.
Now, four months later, Oklahomans are learning what was “on the radar” of House members instead—with increased spending on themselves among the most notable changes enacted this year.
The budget plan unveiled by legislative leaders in mid-May showed that appropriations to the Oklahoma House of Representatives were increased by 18 percent this year. In percentage terms, the House received a larger one-year increase in funding than 49 of the 68 agencies and boards highlighted in the budget plan.
That huge spending increase was not a one-year aberration. Records show that House lawmakers have increased their own funding dramatically in recent years.
In 2018, lawmakers approved hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases. Since those tax increases passed, House lawmakers have increased their own budget by 92 percent.
In fiscal year 2018, the last state-budget year prior to passage of many tax increases, the appropriation for the Oklahoma House of Representatives totaled $11.8 million. This year’s budget gives the House $22.7 million.
Spending on House lawmakers has far exceeded the growth seen in appropriations to the Oklahoma Senate during the same period.
The Senate’s FY 2018 appropriation was $8.82 million. The appropriation for FY 2023 is $12.78 million. That's an increase of 45 percent, less than half the rate of spending growth seen in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
It’s not known where much of the extra funding is going, except for one area—legislative pay raises. Beginning in November 2020, legislators’ pay surged from $35,021 per year to $47,500, an increase of 35 percent.
The pay raises accounted for roughly $1.2 million in increased funding in the House and just under $600,000 in the Senate.
Legislators’ pay is set by the Legislative Compensation Board, a group whose members are appointed by legislators and the governor.
According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), only 13 states provide legislators more in raw base pay. And, after accounting for cost-of-living differences, it appears Oklahoma legislators are paid more than their counterparts in all but eight states, based on the real purchasing power of their salaries.
In some states where lawmakers are paid less than Oklahoma’s politicians, legislative spending is instead devoted to funding a large staff. But it doesn’t appear the dramatic increase in funding for the Oklahoma House of Representatives has gone to that purpose.
NCSL data shows that the Oklahoma Legislature (both the House and Senate) employs 224 full-time staff. That’s less than most states. Only 15 state legislatures employ fewer full-time staff than Oklahoma.
And NCSL data indicates the number of legislative staff employed at the Oklahoma Legislature has actually declined in recent years. According to a census of legislative staff conducted by NCSL, the Oklahoma Legislature employed 299 staff in 2015, meaning today’s staff levels are 25-percent lower than in 2015.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs sought comment from McCall on the growth of House spending, including detail on how lawmakers have spent the significant increase in House funding. As of publication, McCall had not provided a response.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.