LINCOLN — Amanda McGill buys only discounted clothes, moonlights as an $8-an-hour sales clerk at Target and gave up cable TV to finance her other job — Nebraska state senator.
The position, which pays $12,000 annually, requires the 31-year-old McGill to adhere to a strict household budget, which excludes luxuries like movies and Starbucks coffee.
"I do a lot of mac and cheese," she said.
McGill, a former TV broadcaster and an Omaha native, said she isn't complaining. She loves being a state senator and she loves her other part-time jobs, which include outreach work for the Lincoln YWCA.
Nevertheless, McGill is one of several lawmakers who believe it's time that Nebraskans reconsider a raise for senators.
"What we pay now is way, way, way too low for what we expect of people," said Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh. "We seriously limit who can serve. When we're in session, the rest of our lives grind to a halt."
Lautenbaugh introduced one of this session's proposals aimed at raising legislative pay. His proposed constitutional amendment, which requires voter approval, would raise senators' annual salaries to $32,000, an amount that other lawmakers say is about $10,000 too high.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery introduced a pair of proposals that would take legislative pay out of the state constitution, thus removing the politically high hurdle of voter approval for every raise.
Instead, Avery would have a governor-appointed commission decide compensation for senators and other constitutional officers, as is done in Alaska. State senators would then vote to approve or reject the commission's recommendation.
"It would free the Legislature of the issue that we're trying to feather our own nest," Avery said. "Sometimes legislators have difficulty dealing with some issues, and raising our own salary is one of them."
Only six states pay their legislators less than Nebraska, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
One of those states, New Mexico, pays no salary, only a $153 per-diem stipend when lawmakers meet. California has the highest salaries, $95,290 a year. Iowa lawmakers receive a base salary of $25,000.
Nebraska last raised lawmakers' salaries 24 years ago, from $4,800 to $12,000. Voters rejected a $9,000 raise and automatic cost-of-living adjustments in 2006.
Two years ago, lawmakers pulled back a proposal for a hike to $22,000, believing that suggesting an 83-percent raise during the height of the recession was poor timing.
But now even Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk — who asked lawmakers to shelve the 2010 proposal — thinks it's time to reconsider.
"Paying legislators more makes sense, but it should be a modest increase. In the long term, it's an issue that needs to be addressed," he said.
Flood and others say that the current low pay discourages potential candidates.
Lexington Sen. John Wightman believes 50 percent to 90 percent of people who might run, don't. He said that leaves only two groups: those well-established in their careers, like himself; and some younger people willing to accept the low pay to advance their careers.
Lautenbaugh, a former Douglas County election commissioner, said he often was asked how to increase voter participation and voter turnout. His answers included increased pay for state legislators, thus making it more attractive to more candidates, which would attract more voter interest.
But several senators said an almost-threefold salary increase, to $32,000, is excessive. An amount around $22,000 would be more amenable to voters, they said.
Lautenbaugh said he is willing to trim his figure. He said he came up with the $32,000 figure because that's about what county commissioners and city council members receive in the state's largest counties.
Douglas County Board members, for instance, receive $36,217. The annual salary for Omaha City Council members is $35,232, with a raise to $36,289 scheduled next year.
Lincoln City Council members receive $24,000 annually. Lancaster County Board members get $38,047.
Salaries for Lancaster County elected officials are established in a way much like that suggested by Avery for state officials: A citizen committee looks at comparable wages of elected officials and recommends an appropriate salary. The county board then decides.
Kerry Eagen, chief administrative officer for Lancaster County, said the county board post is considered a half-time job.
The number of hours state legislators work varies greatly. Some senators are in their offices regularly even when the Legislature isn't in session. For others, it's a part-time job that competes with a regular job and family obligations.
Beyond the yearly legislative sessions, which last either 60 days or 90 days, senators attend interim hearings and special sessions. They meet with constituents and lobbyists, and they research legislative issues.
Committee chairmen generally put in more time to guide interim studies and meet with special-interest groups.
"The reality is, senators do a lot more work than showing up 150 days over two years," said Bellevue Sen. Scott Price.
Senators don't receive paid health insurance or other state benefits, though they are reimbursed for expenses.
The 39 senators who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol receive $123 per diem during the legislative session to cover lodging and incidental expenses. Those living within 50 miles are paid $46 per day.
Lawmakers also are reimbursed 55.5 cents per mile for mileage, though those living more than 50 miles away can claim only one round trip a week.
Nationally, there's been more chatter about lowering or freezing legislative salaries than increasing them.
Five states cut lawmakers' wages in 2010.
Last year, Alabama cut legislators' salaries by 15 percent, to $45,252. Pennsylvania representatives, who are paid $79,613, debated whether to turn down a cost-of-living increase.
A public firestorm usually erupts when there's a proposal to raise legislative salaries. As a result, states go years between pay hikes, which means salaries don't keep pace with workload, said Morgan Cullen of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some Nebraska senators said that the economy has improved enough to ask voters for a pay hike.
Lautenbaugh said the state can find the extra $980,000 needed to finance the raise he proposed. The Legislature shouldn't have shelved the last pay-raise proposal two years ago, he said.
"I don't know when the right time is or what the right amount is," the senator said. "That's up to everyone."