A couple of months ago I was talking to a fellow activist about some possible future open seats in the state legislature. “Maybe you should run,” he said. I told him I’m not cut out for public office — I don’t suffer fools gladly. “Besides, I’d have to take a pay cut. You should run,” I suggested.
“Hey, maybe I will. I can survive on thirty-one thousand a year! I’ve been doing it forever!”
While that comment got an immediate laugh from those present, including me, it kind of bothered me. Any good joke has a nugget of truth in it. And while my activist friend would make a superb legislator, not every good potential candidate can survive on a legislator’s salary. It’s understood that nobody gets rich working as an activist for a cause like clean water, or voting rights, or women’s health — but those jobs are entirely voluntary. They are held by people who care passionately enough about their cause to sacrifice their economic well-being to some degree, at least for a period of time. But I’d imagine that bright youngsters with massive school loans might think twice, or even three times, before running for the state house.
I wonder: are we so stingy about compensating our elected leaders that we are sacrificing the best and brightest among us for careers in public service? What creative energies are we missing out on, what bold new ideas for solving problems are never brought to light? We are constantly being told by the opposition that government should behave more like business. Business does everything it can to find, and then compensates to retain, the very best people it can get — the A-players — as the single most important tool for on-going success. Government has to compete in the same marketplace for the best people it can get, but that principle only seems to count for direct hires, not for elected leaders. Aren’t the state’s elected leaders more important?
Economic self-sacrifice is not a criteria that we openly demand of our legislators, but it is something that we impose on them. Not only do we ask our legislators to sacrifice a portion of their regular annual income when the legislature is in session, but then we underpay them for the work they do while they are working for the benefit of the people who elected them. At the same time, we put them through a grueling application process, with dozens of often hostile or challenging interviews in candidate forums and town halls over the course of several months, to ferret out the best and the brightest. The fact that so many people are willing to make that economic sacrifice is a credit to their character and a testament to how much our society values the institution.
While some argue that $31,000 for four months of work is adequate, even generous, that statement like so many others is entirely self-referencing. It doesn’t take into account the opportunity cost of an individual being able to dedicate his or her efforts entirely to a single career path. I’m sure it must be the case that business opportunities, promotions, high-visibility/high-reward projects, etc. have been lost because a given legislator couldn’t be counted on by their employer due to the four-month work hiatus imposed every year by legislative work. So it doesn’t take into account how much a legislator might have to sacrifice simply in order to serve.
At the same time, that argument doesn’t take into account the fact that constituents have need of representative services year-round. Accordingly, the quality of public service work by legislators across the state is inconsistent. Some legislators attempt to live on a $31,000 annual salary so they can perform constituent services, such as mediation and advocacy. One legislator I spoke with said she considers her advocacy and constituent work to be equally as important as her session work. But since she can’t do constituency work while the legislature is in session, she has to do it during the rest of the year. Work, by the way, for which she receives not one dime of compensation according to those who think the 31K salary is entirely for four months of session work.
It’s important to note that not every legislator even does constituency work. When the legislative session is over, some return to their jobs as a country lawyer, or real estate broker, or insurance salesman, and allow any constituents who might need help to fend for themselves. Of course, they have a right to do the job that way, since a $31,000 annual salary would be comparable to a entry-level office staff position at 3M or General Mills, and since session work might already impose a pay cut on them, not to mention any opportunity costs incurred. But doesn’t it then follow that some Minnesotans enjoy much better representation than others do — including a fuller access to available government services and resources? And isn’t that better representation and fuller access based entirely on how a particular legislator happens to view the duties of their office; in short, how dedicated they are to the people they serve? Isn’t it inherently unfair, if not irrational, that some Minnesotans enjoy better representation than others do based on how willing, or how able, their elected leader is to endure economic sacrifice? Accordingly, is that a question voters should be asking of our legislators during campaigns, whether they intend to perform constituent services off-session, as a measure of how dedicated they are? Is it fair to ask a candidate as a criteria of election whether they intend to dedicate themselves entirely to the people they serve during the period they hold office, or only for that portion of the year that the legislature is in session? Should a candidate’s answer influence how a voter votes?
Then too I wonder if the annual legislative session is ever really over. Posted here is a copy of an email that I receive once a week about house and senate committee meetings. As you can see, while the 2015 legislative session has long been over, committees still meet frequently outside of session. Presumably, committee members receive per diem payments for their off-session work. But doesn’t the fact that house and senate committees meet nearly every week outside of session prove that the work our legislators perform off-session, even outside of any constituency work, is presumed to be year-round, so the compensation provided should be regarded as annual compensation based not on hours or days of service, like piecework payment, but based on total services rendered and total value received?
If government were behaving more like a business, that exactly how legislators would be compensated.
It bothers me that Minnesota ranks ninth among the ten richest states based on residents’ median annual income, and that over the past several years we’ve become the economic engine of the upper mid-west by any measure you care to apply, but we pay our legislators less than Wisconsin does ($49,943/year), a state that is slowly circling the bowl under tripartite GOP leadership.
It bothers me that low-balling our legislators also creates conditions that could potentially make offers of sweetheart deals, or even outright bribery, attractive to those who might find themselves in a money pinch, as most of us do at one point or another in our lives. It seems like every election cycle the issue of metro legislators taking per diem payments is brought up as some kind of quasi-scandal, with some people arguing that regular working folk have to pay for their own transportation and meals so why shouldn’t our legislators? For anyone willing to view that as a reasonable argument, it should be taken to its fullest extent. The fact that many metro legislators feel drawn to take per diem payments to supplement their annual salary, which is perfectly legal, should serve as a warning. The next step to counter insufficiency is to take money that isn’t perfectly legal. Minnesota is known across the country for having clean government. What price do we want to put on that? Are we willing to risk degenerating into another New York or New Jersey?
Not on my dollar.
Finally, it bothers me that underpaying our legislators is a dirty little secret that is so little talked about that widespread ignorance about legislator compensation prevails. At a town hall, I overheard a comment from directly behind me complaining that not one of the candidates for the state house was worth “… eighty- or ninety-thousand a year.” I turned around and said, “It’s thirty-one thousand a year.” It can’t be that low, I was told. “Well, it is. It’s public information. You should Google it.”
Just so you know that I count myself among the ignorant: I was equally misinformed about how much state senators make. For years I thought that because their territory was twice as large and their constituency is twice as large, state senators received nearly twice the salary of state reps, or about $56,000 a year. A few weeks ago I was shocked to learn that senators get paid the same amount as representatives: $31,140 a year.
That’s only $6890 above the federal poverty rate for a family of four. No wonder it’s hard to get younger folks interested in running for the state house. The first thing anyone with a brain would do is look at what the job pays. For the vast majority of high-caliber candidates, the A-players who help drive any organization to its greatest successes, I’d guess that the economic hit they’d have to suffer to serve in the state house would be far too prohibitive.
For the future benefit of all Minnesotans, this is a problem desperately in need of a fix.
From Eric Ferguson:
The puny pay means that the only people who can run for legislature are those who have extremely understanding employers, a business they can just pick up and drop, a working spouse, independent wealth, or a pension. That sounds like a lot of categories, but that actually excludes almost everyone. How could it not affect the quality of legislating? We have the same attitude we had back when the reason for ending the legislative by a certain date was legislators had to dash down to the landing to catch the steamboat home to the farm. Going with a full-time legislature would be a recognition that the 19th century is over.
From Dan: In addition to all the constituent work, you have to also spend a ton of time raising money and campaigning. That’s fulltime and unpaid work.