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So far no big savings as lawmakers finish first session under new pay structure

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Alabama lawmakers have finished their first legislative session under a new pay structure that gives them a salary equal to the median household income in the state

Voters approved the change in 2012 following backlash over a lawmakers' giving themselves a hefty pay raise in 2007 and predictions that it would be a significant pay cut for lawmakers.

The new pay structure went into effect with the 2014 election and is not— at this point at least — resulting in savings in the Alabama Senate. But the legislator who sponsored the change said it is too soon to judge the impact.

Alabama legislators get a yearly salary of $42,849, equal to the median household income in the state, plus expense reimbursements the same as state employees. Lawmakers' total compensation under the old system, which gave them a tiny salary but a larger expensive allowance, could have hit as high as $56,868 depending on whether lawmakers accepted raises that were available to them.

However, records from the Alabama Senate show that it is, so far, costing slightly more because of the travel expenses and payroll taxes. The Alabama Senate spent $1.32 million on lawmakers pay and expenses so far this fiscal year. The Senate paid $1.26 million during the same time period last fiscal year.

"It's a little more. It's not a lot more, but it's more," Senate Secretary Pat Harris said.

However, Republican Rep. Mike Ball, who sponsored the legislation to make the change, said he thought it was too soon to compare the yearly costs. He said this first half of 2015 includes all of the travels costs for the Montgomery session. He said he believed the savings would materialize later in the year when lawmakers weren't traveling as much.

"I know that several of my colleagues have been complaining to me about their pay cut. That's probably a sign," Ball said.

Legislators used to be paid under a convoluted system that dated back to when lawmakers traveled by train to Montgomery. They got a $10-a-day salary set by the 1901 Alabama Constitution, $50 per day in expense money during session meeting days, a monthly expense allowance and mileage based on railroad miles for one round-trip to Montgomery each session.

Lawmakers in 2007 set off a political tempest when they approved a resolution, without a roll call vote, that increased their expense compensation by 61 percent and set up a system of annual automatic raises.

Individual legislator's pay under the old system varied whether they accepted the raises that were available to them or not. The maximum total compensation in 2014 was about $56,868, assuming they had taken the automatic increases available to them over the years.

Backlash over the self-approved pay raise helped fuel approval of the new method, which was advertised as a pay cut.

Comparative numbers for this session in the House were not available. House Clerk Jeff Woodard said he can't tell yet if the new system is saving money. In-state travel costs have risen considerably this fiscal year as legislators are paid expenses for travel to Montgomery.

The House paid nearly $396,000 in in-state travel this session for members to travel back and forth to Montgomery. Whether there is a significant savings could depend on how much lawmakers travel for the rest of the year.

Ball said he believes the new system is fairer because it links legislative pay to how Alabama families are faring. The law also wrote the pay into the Alabama Constitution, meaning lawmakers couldn't raise their own pay without a public vote

"A huge thing was to limit our ability to set our own salaries," Ball said.

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