Pay for legislators in Idaho actually is on the low end among the states, at $16,116 a year, though there are some quite a bit lower. That compares to $41,280 a year in Washington, and at the top end, $116,098 in California. Montana, on the other hand, pays just $82.67 per legislative day, which means lawmakers are paid only when they're in session, and their sessions are every other year. Utah pays $130 a day, with sessions limited to 45 days, so that's just $5,850 a year.
But the operations of state legislatures are so different that it's sometimes hard to compare them. The National Conference of State Legislatures divides states into three groups: Full-time legislatures, where lawmakers spend 80 percent or more of their time on lawmaking and really can't hold another job (like California); hybrids, like Washington, where legislators work two-thirds time but still have other income sources; and citizen legislatures, where lawmakers work half-time and have other jobs - like Idaho. In that bottom third, Idaho's legislative pay is very close to the average of $15,984.
"Idaho is right there - they're getting paid the average salary," said Morgan Cullen, an analyst with NCSL who studies legislative pay. "The pay shouldn't be the reason that somebody serves in the legislature. But at the same time, you don't want pay to be the reason that somebody can't serve in the legislature. So it's trying to just find a compensation level that allows all citizens from a particular state the opportunity to run for public office." He noted, "If the legislative salary is so low that it's only wealthy people or retired people that are able to serve, that doesn't necessarily reflect the population as a whole."
Pay increases, like the one Idaho lawmakers are now considering rejecting, are a tough proposition for legislatures, Cullen said. A few states, Florida, Massachusetts and Illinois, have their legislative salaries tied to a cost-of-living index, so they go up automatically. Other states, like Idaho, have a commission to set salaries; some leave the decision entirely up to lawmakers themselves. "It's always difficult politically to increase your own salary," Cullen said. "It's tough to do in most states."