Legislative ROI: What States Are Giving Taxpayers Their Money’s Worth?

Written By Walter Yuhl on May 21, 2024 - Last Updated on May 29, 2024
Photo of an empty legislative chamber with text that says Best-Value State Legislatures

We hope our elected representatives work for us year-round. We know our federal legislators do, but what about on the state level? Many state legislatures begin working right after New Year’s Day, but others don’t start until April. A few work all year, and a handful take a full year off, yes, all year (Fiscal Note, 2023). But are taxpayers getting what they pay for?

Texas tops the list as the best-value legislature, especially considering they only convene every other year. On the other hand, Alaska pays a lot for very little productivity. Look at how your state stacks up to others and decide if you are getting your money’s worth.

Key takeaways

  • Every state compensates its lawmakers differently when it comes to salary. State legislature salaries range from $0 to more than $100,000 annually, plus per diem, expenses, and mileage.
  • Compensation does not necessarily correlate with productivity. New York taxpayers pay nearly twice as much for about the same impact as Texans.
  • Every state runs its legislative session on a different schedule. The length or frequency of a session did not have a noticeable impact on productivity.

Top 5 states with the best legislative value

Texas

They say everything’s bigger in Texas, and the value taxpayers are getting is no exception. The Texas legislature meets every other year and pays a modest salary, yet it introduces and passes more legislation, returning the best ROI in the nation.

New Jersey

Although New Jersey falls in the middle of the pack for pay, the volume of work this legislative body produces puts it at number two on our list.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts pays its legislators a salary and a daily session rate, which brings them to the top of the compensation pool. Looking at how effective bills move through the system, they top the list for the most introduced and fall to the bottom for the least passed. Even so, they come in third for most cost-effective.

New York

New York has the second-highest-paid legislature in the nation, following California, which is no surprise. However, unlike their West Coast counterpart, they also move bills effectively through the system.

Tennessee

Similarly to New Jersey, Tennessee doesn’t pay its legislators much money. Legislators are paid a per diem, which brings them to number five when paired with their overall productivity during the legislative session

These 5 states cost a lot for little return

Alaska

Even though Alaska is in the top ten for annual pay, its legislators do very little work. Alaskan lawmakers introduce and pass the least amount of legislation each year.

Wyoming

Coming in as the second least effective legislative body, Wyoming lawmakers also introduce and pass little legislation. Wyoming pays a session day rate plus a per diem and mileage as compensation.

New Mexico

New Mexico does not pay its state legislators a salary; the per diem pay provides small compensation. Although lawmakers aren’t churning out a large volume of bills, they aren’t passing many either.

Washington State

Washington State pays its legislative body a decent salary, putting it in the top ten for estimated annual pay. Yet, lawmakers in the Evergreen State are neither the most nor the least productive, reducing the overall effective rate.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin offers an average salary for its lawmakers. The lack of progress in getting new laws to the Governor’s desk for a signature makes it one of the least effective.

How much do state legislators make?

Most legislators receive an annual salary. New Mexico legislators do not, and New Hampshire pays only $100 a year. Maine has two sessions and pays per session. North Dakota pays monthly, and Vermont pays weekly. Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming pay by the day.

The varied way each state pays its legislators makes comparisons difficult. For example, Kentucky legislators receive $203.28 per day of the session. In odd years, the session has 30 days; in even years, it has 60 days. Legislators also make $188.22 per day outside of the session for attending committees. Nothing is simple in politics.

We converted session, monthly, weekly, and daily pay to an annual salary to compare annual base pay.

Top 10 annual base salaries:

  1. Washington D.C.: $154,438
  2. New York: $142,000
  3. California: $122,694
  4. Pennsylvania: $102,844
  5. Illinois: $85,000
  6. Massachusetts: $73,655
  7. Hawaii: $72,348
  8. Michigan: $71,685
  9. Ohio: $69,876
  10. Washington: $57,876

Bottom 10 annual base salaries:

  1. New Mexico: $0
  2. New Hampshire: $100
  3. North Dakota: $2,250
  4. Wyoming: $4,050
  5. Texas: $7,200
  6. South Carolina: $10,400
  7. Nebraska: $12,000
  8. Montana: $12,164
  9. North Carolina: $13,951
  10. South Dakota: $14,779

Per diem

In addition to the base pay, most legislators receive a per diem. Some per diem rates are simple. For example, Alaskan state representatives receive $307 each work (session) day. They can receive per diem outside of the session. Alaska has 126 session days. Thus, they receive $38,682 if they work all 126 days (more if they work out of session) and a $50,400 base salary.

Alabama is more complex. How far a legislator travels influences the per diem. Those who travel less than 5 hours 59 minutes do not receive a per diem. Legislators 6-12 hours away receive $12.75/day. Legislators who travel more than 12 hours without overnight receive $34/day.

Michigan has an ‘allowance’ of $10,800 annually for session and interim.

Connecticut, Delaware, Washington D.C., Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island do not pay per diem or ‘allowances’.

We used a variety of estimates and averages to determine the average per diem.

Top 10 per diem pay:

  1. Alaska: $307
  2. Georgia: $247
  3. Hawaii: $225
  4. Texas: $221
  5. California: $213
  6. Virginia: $209
  7. North Dakota: $205
  8. Kentucky: $203
  9. Tennessee: $196
  10. Indiana: $196

Bottom 10 per diem pay:

  1. Alabama: up to $34
  2. Arizona: $35
  3. New Mexico: $59
  4. Maryland: $63
  5. Vermont: $69
  6. Maine: $70
  7. Minnesota: $76
  8. South Dakota: $79
  9. Pennsylvania: $81
  10. Utah: $96

Mileage

All but one state, New Jersey, reimburses legislators for the commute to work and work-related trips (see table). Most states pay a flat rate per mile. Other states pay by type of transportation, such as car, boat, motorcycle, and airplane. Massachusetts pays an annual bonus, which may cover transportation expenses.

We did not include mileage in our final rankings; it’s too variable. However, we mention it because it is part of the representative’s pay, and taxpayers fund it.

Total average legislature annual pay by state

Given the variables and unknowns, calculating average pay is difficult. To get to comparative numbers, we added base pay and per diem.

We then incorporated data from Salary.com, which had an average pay for representatives from each state. The numbers from Salary.com had much less variation than other sources. We combined our calculations with Salary.com’s for a final number.

Top 10 highest average state representatives’ annual pay

State Estimated average annual pay
1. California $122,160
2. New York $103,673
3. Washington, D.C. $102,738
4. Hawaii $93,525
5. Pennsylvania $87,790
6. Illinois $76,553
7. Alaska $69,509
8. Michigan $63,872
9. Massachusetts $61,773
10. Washington $59,354

Top 10 lowest average state representatives’ annual pay

State Estimated average pay
1. New Mexico $22,024
2. New Hampshire $23,368
3. Wyoming $25,484
4. South Dakota $31,024
5. Utah $31,933
6. North Carolina $32,054
7. Rhode Island $32,750
8. West Virginia $34,385
9. North Dakota $35,509
10. Florida $35,678

Annual salary is only part of the story. The number of days legislators are in session ranges from as few as 27 to a full year. So, we calculated the average daily pay for each session.

Top 10 highest average state representatives’ pay per session day

State               Daily rate

1. Oregon $1,182
2. Arkansas $1,032
3. Washington $989
4. Wyoming $944
5. New Mexico $734
6. Indiana $717
7. Virginia $638
8. New York $617
9. Utah $614
10. Florida $605

Top 10 lowest average state representatives’ pay per session day

State               Daily rate

1. New Hampshire $131
2. New Jersey $139
3. Ohio $158
4. Massachusetts $170
5. Michigan $179
6. Rhode Island $192
7. Nebraska $220
8. Pennsylvania $264
9. South Carolina $274
10. Delaware $280

While California and Washington, D.C., legislators make more than $100,000 annually, they also work all year. Representatives in Oregon and Arkansas make less than half that but work far less. Oregon and Arkansas legislators bring in over $1,000 a day. How many days do you need to work at that rate?

Legislative effectiveness by state

The next step was to determine state legislature productivity. We looked at how many bills were introduced and passed in the 2023 session.

Top 10 states—most bills introduced:

State Bills Introduced
1. New York 16,818
2. Massachusetts 13,454
3. Texas 11,138
4. New Jersey 10,778
5. Illinois 8,744
6. Virginia 6,387
7. Minnesota 5,474
8. Tennessee 4,981
9. Hawaii 4,333
10. Montana 3,378

Top 10 states—fewest bills introduced:

1. Alaska 436
2. Wyoming 441
3. South Dakota 550
4. Delaware 636
5. Colorado 678
6. Idaho 679
7. Vermont 749
8. Utah 792
9. Washington D.C. 799
10. Kansas 843

Top 10 states—most bills passed

State Bills Passed
1. Texas 3,849
2. Virginia 2,852
3. Tennessee 2,754
4. New York 2,425
5. Louisiana 1,133
6. Arkansas 1,126
7. Illinois 1,084
8. Georgia 1,053
9. Rhode Island 892
10. Maryland 770

Top 10 states—fewest bills passed:

1. Alaska 48
2. Massachusetts 55
3. Missouri 63
4. Minnesota 67
5. Pennsylvania 115
6. Wisconsin 121
7. North Carolina 129
8. Kansas 157
9. Wyoming 174
10. New Mexico 185

With this information, we ranked the states based on these two variables to assess productivity. We scaled the number of bills introduced from 100 to 0 and did the same for bills passed. We took an average to determine the most and least productive state legislators. We call the average score a ‘unit.’

Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas legislatures meet only every other year, so we halved their scores to reflect this. Productive Texas effectively moved from the number one spot to fourth place.

Top 10 most productive state legislatures:

Scaled score units    State

1. 81.46 New York
2. 56.01 Virginia
3. 50.55 Tennessee
4. 41.55 Texas
5. 40.70 Massachusetts
6. 40.04 Illinois
7. 37.85 New Jersey
8. 20.14 Arkansas
9. 19.89 Georgia
10. 19.65 Louisiana

 

1. 1.92 Alaska
2.              3.57 Wyoming
3.              4.54 Kansas
4.              4.84 South Dakota
5.              4.85 North Dakota
6.              5.07 Vermont
7.              5.08 Delaware
8.              5.15 New Mexico
9.              5.22 Wisconsin
10.           5.58 Nevada

States with the best and worst taxpayer ROI

In which states are taxpayers getting the best value for their dollar? To determine this, we took the average daily pay and compared it to the productivity of each legislature.

To illustrate, Alabama citizens pay far less for legislation compared to Alaskans.

State               Pay per day    Productivity ‘units’       $ per ‘unit’

Alabama          $469                13.15                           $35.67

Alaska             $552                1.92                             $287.50

Top 10 best-value legislatures:

State                 Dollars per production unit

1. Texas $3.58
2. New Jersey $3.68
3. Massachusetts $4.18
4. New York $7.57
5. Tennessee $8.43
6. Rhode Island $10.10
7. Virginia $11.39
8. Illinois $14.16
9. South Carolina $16.56
10. Montana $17.80

 

Top 10 worst-value state legislatures:

State                 Dollars per production unit

  1.        Alaska
$287.50
2.              Wyoming $236.00
3.              New Mexico $142.52
4.              Washington state $114.91
5.              Wisconsin $83.74
6.              South Dakota $83.47
7.              North Carolina $80.48
8.              Indiana $79.58
9.              Idaho $70.78
10.           Oregon $70.54

Texas has the most cost-effective legislature, doing the most work for the least amount of money. New Jersey and Massachusetts follow closely. Alaska and Wyoming have the least cost-effective legislatures.

The difference is significant. For every dollar spent in Texas to produce legislation, Alaska spends $80.

Remember that this balances the number of days legislators work and their pay. The calculations are averages, many of which are based on estimates.

Regardless of the specific number, the variability in the pay structure and productivity of state legislatures across the United States is significant. Some states pay legislators hefty salaries, but it does not necessarily reflect their productivity. On the contrary, some states with lower legislative salaries have higher productivity.

Methodology

We evaluated data from eight sources, including base pay, per diem, estimated annual pay, estimated daily pay, productivity, and cost-effectiveness.

We calculated base pay from data provided by the National Conference of State Legislators. We converted session, monthly, and weekly pay to annual income to compare annual base pay. We multiplied the day rate for those paid daily by the number of session days. Some representatives work only some days of the session, and some work additional days on committees outside the session.

We used an average for states that pay different rates based on distance or other factors. We calculated only the meal expense for states that pay separate meal and lodging rates.

We added the base pay to per diem for an estimated average pay. We scaled the results from 0 to 100. We then scaled the average representative’s pay from Salary.com from 0 to 100. We averaged the two data sets to arrive at a final number.

We used the daily or average daily rate multiplied by the number of session days to calculate daily pay.

We determined productivity by the number of bills introduced and passed. With this information, we ranked the states based on these two variables to assess productivity. We scaled the number of bills introduced from 0 to 100  and did the same for bills passed. We took an average to determine the most and least productive state legislators. We labeled the average score a ‘unit.’

Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas legislatures meet only every other year, so their scores were halved to reflect this.

To determine the cost-effectiveness of each state legislature, we created a ratio of the average pay per session day to the productivity units.

Although Washington, D.C., is not officially a U.S. state, it has a legislative body that functions as one. As such, we included it in data calculations for this article.

Sources used in evaluating legislator value

Career Explorer

Fiscal Note: The Most Effective States 2021 Report

Fiscal Note: The 2024 State Legislative Sessions Calendar

ABC4 Utah

Kansas Reflector

National Conference Of State Legislators

VTDigger

Salary.com

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The complete state-by-state legislative value and rankings

For the raw data and calculations, email [email protected].

StateEstimated average payDays In SessionBills IntroducedBills PassedProductivity ScoreAverage pay per session dayStateProductivity Rate Per Session Day
Alabama$48,3551031,50866913.15$469$35.67
Alaska$69,509126436481.92$552$287.50
Arizona$36,5601091,90146511.67$335$28.70
Arkansas$45,419441,8651,12620.14$1,032$19.50
California$122,1603322,76824911.455$368$31.14
Colorado$53,7641196785519.155$452$49.38
Connecticut$44,647913,27436514.46$491$33.91
Delaware$48,5151736362465.08$280$55.16
Florida$35,678593,16331413.47$605$45.27
Georgia$43,997802,1001,05319.89$550$27.64
Hawaii$93,5252594,33351119.495$361$18.40
Idaho$36,806746793887.05$497$70.78
Illinois$76,5531358,7441,08440.04$567$14.16
Indiana$42,995601,2514089.01$717$79.58
Iowa$42,021992,1462039.01$424$47.17
Kansas$42,8651348431574.54$320$70.48
Kentucky$42,5121031,2644459.525$413$43.32
Louisiana$37,642851,6651,13319.645$443$22.57
Maine$39,9051041,81062313.46$384$28.39
Maryland$52,582882,36177017$598$35.18
Massachusetts$61,77336313,4545540.695$170$4.18
Michigan$63,8723562,1942569.84$179$18.15
Minnesota$53,092995,4746717.14$536$31.97
Mississippi$39,188892,96953415.75$440$27.94
Missouri$50,0001482,291637.63$338$44.30
Montana$37,4151163,37862618.165$323$17.80
Nebraska$36,0441641,0013117.01$220$31.38
Nevada$36,2441161,19758711.165$312$27.92
New Hampshire$23,3681791,0692226.055$131$21.64
New Jersey$49,62935710,77844837.845$139$3.68
New Mexico$22,024309261855.15$734$142.52
New York$103,67316816,8182,42581.455$617$7.57
North Carolina$32,054591,7061296.745$543$80.48
North Dakota$35,5091149145389.695$311$31.92
Ohio$57,3613649343096.785$158$23.27
Oklahoma$54,1981103,22565018.025$493$25.73
Oregon$43,725372,51971416.755$1,182$70.54
Pennsylvania$87,7903332,8191159.875$264$26.67
Rhode Island$32,7501712,50489219.02$192$10.10
South Carolina$39,5161442,36273416.545$274$16.56
South Dakota$31,024775502474.84$403$83.47
Tennessee$46,0181084,9812,75450.545$426$8.43
Texas$41,40613911,1383,84983.095$298$3.58
Utah$31,933527925189.08$614$67.64
Vermont$37,5291307492195.07$289$57.13
Virginia$38,267606,3872,85256.005$638$11.39
Washington D.C.$102,7383647994358.015$282$35.15
Washington state$59,354601,1683988.64$989$114.91
West Virginia$34,385602,42141212.545$573$45.91
Wisconsin$59,3131361,2281215.22$436$83.74
Wyoming$25,484274411744$944$236.00
Photo by Jennifer Montgomery / PlayMichigan
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Written by
Walter Yuhl

Walter (Way) Yuhl is a freelance writer and business professor. Way has written for the Arizona Daily Sun, Flagstaff Business News, Bangkok University, and Shandong University of Science and Technology as well as edited content for the U.N., Thailand International airports, and other organizations. He has worked with Cantena Media since 2019.

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