The Digressor

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I am new to this discussion, but it has hit me that the way that we pay our state legislators may be off.  Maybe its not, but I think it is worthwhile to review.  I really am not sure if it is better to pay them or not, so think of this essay as me working through how and why we pay legislators the way that we do.

To start, most state legislators do not get paid a lot of money.  Getting rich is really not going to happen while someone may be serving.  Opportunities for monetary gain will probably come after, but not during.  Yet, legislators work a lot.  During session, which varies in time but is often only a short few months, it is clear there is much to be done.  But even out of session there are still committee meetings and meetings with constituents.

And with that, many states offer only a per diem or a very small wage.  Only a few states, like California, Pennsylvania or New York, offer a high wage to its legislators.  In far more, like Wyoming, New Mexico and New Hampshire, legislators are barely paid anything at all.  In fact, only seven states pay their legislators at or above the state’s median wage, and only four more are within 10% of hitting that mark.  So, only eleven states pay their legislators at or equal the median wage for the given state.  (Source, from 2016: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-should-state-legislators-get-paid/)

With that in mind, I wonder how that effects who gets to run and their motivation while in office.  Let me start with motivation while in office.  This is a smaller deal to me, because part of the justification, which I think is noble, of lower pay or volunteer service is that you get people who are committed to serving.  They are not motivated to make it a career because they do not get paid.  I have no problem with that reason.

However, I do think the low pay does become a problem for the other reason: it becomes exclusionary.  The reality is that while anyone can run, only those who can afford not to work for the session and make time for committee meetings will likely run and hold office.  People have to put food on their table first and foremost, and most people work in jobs that won’t tolerate such long absences.  Therefore, only the rich can run and survive in this environment.

I am not complaining about rich people, but I am bringing up the observation that there are segments that automatically get excluded from representing our government.  And I am also not suggesting some populist or politically driven ideas are not being heard.  Beliefs of all stripes come from all stripes of people, and I just wonder if we should be more aware of including all stripes of people in this process.

I am not sure that such low wages and high opportunity costs (while in office) is truly beneficial, as it limits people who can run.  While I do not think it beneficial to have career politicians who just serve their entire lives, I do think opening the opportunities to serve to a broader class of people has a greater chance of improving the process than not.

Do legislators need to get paid a lot of money?  No, but just the same if we offer them a living wage to pay bills and feed a family we can improve.  We improve by bringing in issues we may not otherwise see or hear and bring in perspectives not currently seen.

As I write this, it certainly feels populist, though that is not my goal.  I generally do think we need limits on certain powers.  One of the biggest mistakes politically of the 20th century was the allowing of the popular vote of US Senators, I think.  Nonetheless, I do think paying legislators more will help bring in a wider voice and perhaps better people who choose to seek a paying job than the already limited system we have now.

So, what wage may be appropriate?  A little below the median state wage and do not offer per diems.

I am torn, though, and welcome input.  What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking How We Pay Legislators

  1. BrianR says:

    This is a very interesting topic.

    Much of your discussion seems to be based on the idea of a legislature that operates “full time”, and I think that style of government is part of the problem. In the era of the Founding, legislatures certainly didn’t do that except in cases of extreme distress, such as the Continental Congress during the Revolution.

    I think this country would be far better off if we had part-time/as-needed legislatures. Full-time legislatures have far too much time on their hands, and MUST be seen to be “doing something” since taxpayers would be pretty unhappy to be seeing a bunch of politicians being paid to sit around doing nothing.

    I also think unicorns are very pretty.

    So… how would you define that “living wage”? One guy’s living wage is another guy’s poverty line. And conversely, what some consider a “living wage” might be the lap of luxury to another. On top of all that, since defining and authorizing that living wage would be a function of the beneficiaries themselves — the legislators — how can such a thing be implemented in a way that can’t be abused?

    Aren’t those unicorns pretty?

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    1. MJP7200 says:

      A living wage is enough to pay basic functions such as basic living conditions (normal rent and/or a non-excessive mortgage), food, normal car, etc.

      We have a volunteer/part time legislature in Wyoming, and it works OK, but there are problems with it and it leads me to this very discussion. The people that can run and afford to do this are those who can afford to take the time off of their work getting a living wage to perform the tasks of being a legislature. And the time put in outside of session is significant. There are committee meetings and time with constituents that occur all year, not just January and February, when they meet. They mostly get a per diem to pay for hotel and food.

      Let’s also consider how much they work at that pay rate, and is it enough? Any other position would get far more for the 10+ hours a day while in session. And I do not think they should be “full time”. I am mostly concerned with the wage part of it.

      All the while, I do agree that keeping it from becoming a career in and of itself is a good thing.

      As to unicorns, I’ve never seen one, so I can’t say. For all I know, they could be horrible and ugly horse-like creatures with a hideous cord coming out of their head.

      Like

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