Legislator Pay and Opening up the Process

Oregon state capitolNext month, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Karen Minnis are forming a public commission to suggest legislative changes. Discuss.

In Sunday's Oregonian, the question of lawmaker pay is raised on the front page.

Oregon legislators are paid $1,283 a month -- about the same as working 40-hour weeks at minimum wage. During legislative sessions every other year, they also get $91 a day to defray costs. ... "Oregon prides itself on having a citizen Legislature . . . ," said Sen. Alan Bates, a Democratic legislator from Ashland and a family doctor, "but the average Joe can't afford to run for the Legislature."

Over on the commentary page, former Democratic leader Deborah Kafoury reflects on her time in the capitol and offers four suggestions:

Open up the caucuses

State law prohibits such secrecy for most government bodies, especially when a majority of the members are present. Those rules apply to the Legislature, too, but lawmakers passed a special exemption for themselves allowing closed-door caucuses. Why do three of four Republican and Democratic caucuses consider themselves above the rules that apply to everyone else?

Give committees more power

Nine times out of 10, committee hearings are just for show. Usually bills get only minor tinkering. Each chamber's presiding officer makes the real decisions, well out of earshot of reporters and the public.

Priority: campaign-finance reform

First, the Legislature should refer to voters a constitutional amendment prohibiting fund raising during the session. Second, send voters a constitutional amendment limiting contributions to political campaigns, as well as campaign expenditures.

Be brave: make tough decisions

I promise your chances of being remembered after you leave Salem are far greater if you take a stand for what's right, rather than what your party wants you to do. That will take courage; some big campaign donors might disagree with you. But in the long run, the people will thank you for your integrity, and you'll sleep like a baby at night.


  • the prof (unverified)

    We don't want the "average joe" running for state legislature. We wouldn't want the average Joe repairing our car, giving medical care, or teaching our children. Why do we think the job of managing a highly complex, multi-billion dollar enterprise is something for the average Joe?

    No, we want a political system that encourages the best and brightest to enter state government. Tim Knopp says: "Because then I think you'll have people running for office just for the pay,"

    That misses the point. Having a legislative salary of $50,000 is not going to get people running "just for the pay." Legislative service is far too thankless to think that.

    Besides, what is we do make a legislative career more attractive? Isn't the obvious implication that we'll get more and better candidates for public office? This is a good thing, not a bad thing.

    In Oregon, we get the legislature that we pay for. If we want amateurs running government, we might as well pay them appropriately. If we want professionalized legislatures, we need to ramp up the pay.

  • the prof (unverified)

    Caucuses are not official governmental bodies; they are organizational units of political parties. As such, they are not subject to the same provisions.

    Why might closed caucuses be a good thing? Because somewhere, somehow, legislators must strike the bargains that seem unappealing, unprincipled, and "political" to the public, but are an essential part of the coalition building necessary for governance.

  • Rorovitz (unverified)

    I found the comments on strengthening the committee structure to be a little strange. True, many committee hearings are just for show, but at the same time, a hostile committee chair can kill a bill by refusing a hearing or a vote to move the legislation forward.

    In my mind the committees need less power, or some way for a piece of legislation to get around a committee chair.

    When people talk about the power of the lobbyists, it seems to me that a great deal of it is in the power of a lobbyist to get bills they don't like assigned to committee chairs they do like/bought off to kill the bill.

  • (Show?)

    A hear-hear to the Prof's comments. Pay alone isn't enough to encourage competent candidates, but at least it removes one barrier for them.

    The very assumptions about how our legislature functions need to re-examined. Originally, state founders wanted to encourage a citizen legislature. They wanted to create a legislative body of people who could continue in their own professions. This led both to low pay and biennial gathering.

    But the work of running a 5 billion dollar organization shouldn't be farmed out to amateur part-timers. What would Nike's board of directors say if the CEO came to work for five months ever two years? Moreover, the notion that it shouldn't be a professional class is absurd on its face. We need men and women of experience, expertise, and practice to run the state, not poorly-paid armchair politicians who meet occasionally to call each other idiots.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
    • unicameral legislature with 60 members

    • full time schedule

    • $50k salary indexed to inflation

    • publicly financed campaigns and contribution limits for those opting out

    • no closed meetings

    • committee chairs elected by the entire legislature

    • IQ test administered by Secretary of State with results printed in the Voters Pamphlet

  • Steve (unverified)

    OK, let me get this straight, we need to pay legislators a higher salary than the average Oregon family income AND sundry benefits AND full PERS (after 5 years). We also don't have enough money for schools/police. Am I missing something?

    Please save me from professional politicians. Right now, with low pay they have some motivation to do things quickly. Once it is a full-time job I can see multiple special interest (i.e. unnecessary) laws and even worse infighting.

    Then again, besides budget (which they can't do in a time-effective manner), name me something in the past 10 years that we needed that the lesgislature has done?

  • Jon (unverified)

    I agree with Steve. They need an incentive to get in, get crap done, and get the hell back home. Why should they get $50k for a job they work every other year?

    And right now they can work in this job for less than 5 years and have a bigger retirement income than my dad after 20 years in the Navy?

    That makes sense.

  • the prof (unverified)


    I don't believe that a legislator's pension after 5 year's of service will exceed a typical military pension after 20 years of service.

    Please cite your evidence for this claim, because it strains credulity.

    Jon and Steve,

    Why do you think quick and dirty legislating is better than slow, careful, and deliberate lawmaking? Do you really want legislators to have an incentive to get the job over with and get the hell out?

    Are you comfortable ceding authority to the executive branch and unelected civil servants?

  • (Show?)

    ....and professional lobbyists?

  • Steve (unverified)

    Your assumption professional legislators will do a better job is flawed. It really will not attract better people, I mean look at where I live, Portland.

    We pay City Council guys something like $85K each and the mayor $90K and amongst all of them we do not have one person with any budget experience and 5 people with a personal cause to push through at the expense of the population of the city.

    As far as quick/dirty vs. slow/careful, you miss the point. If they slowly and deliberately take two years to argue over a biennial budget what difference does it make? Getting a working budget really has nothing to do with how much you pay these people.

    I think the last lowly paid legislature took forever to grind out a budget which basically depends on people pulling slot machine levers to fund the state.

  • Brian Grisham (unverified)

    How about just doubling the salary to almost 30K and having annual sessions? The first year could be used for the budget while the second coulc be used for oversight instead of combining the two now in a tight political crucible. I think the points made are good. We don't want things too amateur or professional. I think the committees, other than Ways and Means, are unnecessarily weak but I agree I don't want them so strong as to block good legislation. As for Tom's points, Tom I can't agree with you. If they had performed IQ tests, I wouldn't have been able to run. Maybe a polygraph test instead-then I would have been unopposed.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I would like legislators to read the bills they vote on, visit the agencies they fund, investigate the effects of their decisions. I think that would be worth $50k annually.

    Brian, you could run despite you IQ. The question would be whether the voters would want you to represent them. Given the apparent voting in the last presidential election, intelligence might not be a major impediment to getting elected.

  • (Show?)

    My guess is that Steve will not be convinced on this point, which is fine. It's a democracy, and on issues like this, our legislators decide. I think it's patently absurd to argue that you should have inexperienced part-timers running a $5-billion-a-year organization, but the GOP has made a religion of that very point. They've oddly swung so far right on that point that they're now curving back toward the left, reaching almost the no-government anarchic utopians.

    It's one view.

  • (Show?)

    Tom Civiletti,

    Has anyone proposed a Measure with similar detail as you have prescribed?

    I'm not one to think that pay will automatically produce better candidates, but any good manager will tell you that pay is a key incentive to getting employees to work harder.

    During the last tall hall meeting, I looked at the representatives that were there and the questions posed to them and I asked: "Why would anyone want to subject themselves to this?"

    It is necessary for representatives to connect with their constituents despite the absurdity of some of their constituents' concerns (namely my own). But if we proposed a Measure that had certain contract requirements, say 5 town hall meetings or perfect attendance at committees, or something that forced these legislatures to work their butts off, then I think higher pay could be rationalized.

    But I do agree that higher pay by itself won't get us the candidates we need. But the candidates we do have can be incentivized to work harder by bonus benchmarks. It's what drives any corporate human resource policy on pay. And isn't government the biggest employer we have in the state.

    Oh yeah, research the pay changes being made at the Department of Homeland Security if you want to see how the Bush Administration is moving to incentive pay versus the old practice of getting raises every X Y, or Z years. I hate George Bush, but this is a long needed change that should be made throughout government, especially the schools.

  • LT (unverified)

    Ineresting comment: I would like legislators to read the bills they vote on, visit the agencies they fund, investigate the effects of their decisions. I think that would be worth $50k annually.

    Seems to me that I recall hearing at Gov. Straub's memorial service that he was once on a board or something tasked with visiting state institutions and he was the only one who did the job they were supposed to do and really looked at the institutions visited. As I recall, the former supt. of one of those institutions talked about that in his eulogy.

    It seems that is a level of quality shown only by a small number of legislators in recent sessions.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    There are some folks, I've heard, with an initiative for a unicameral legislature.

    Higher pay is no guarantee of better legislators, but I think it would raise the general quality. Now we get folks who fall into the following categories, for the most part:

    • representatives of a well moneyed interest that will bankroll the campaign and often, the income of the legislator.

    • folks who see the legislature as a rung in the career ladder.

    • people who want attention and/or power.

    • angels.

    The last is not common enough, given that even angels need to eat. The first three are not necessarily who I would want making our laws and and deciding on revenue and expenditures.

    Unless someone is independently wealthy, bankrolled by some group, or, at least, retired with a decent pension, how can she put the time into the job to make truly informed decisions?

    I may be a pro-government Democrat, for the most part, but if I were in the legislature, being as cheap as I am, I would want to know that every dollar appropriated is providing a dollar's worth of public good. That would take a lot of time and effort. Given that $50k is probably less than the average management pay at the state, I think it would be a good investment for the people who decide on how to spend several $billion to have the time to research their decisions. We don't expect physicians, firefighters, lawyers, or plumbers to work cheap. Why should we expect legislators to? Is it because we think any dufus can do the job as a part time sideline? Is it because we don't mind if legislators are subsidized by some interest group? Is it because Oregonians like lobbyists running the show?

  • Ernest Delma (unverified)

    At $15,396 annually and $91 diem per day when in session, you greatly limit who is willing or able to serve. Many current legislators can't hold down a regular job because it's full-time for about 6 months on odd-numbered years. Adding to the problem are special sessions and a year like 2003 when it went eight months. When you check on legislator's professions, you see many are consultants. That breeds a situation where their financial success the other 18 months can be determined by their legislative actions. Regular constituents don't get the representation they need. Instead, the special interests/lobbyist have the power.

    I'd like to see wages at the $30,000-35,000 yearly range; annual sessions (perhaps 120 days on odd years, 60 days on even years; public financing of legislative races; term limits again (constitutional this time); a fully funded Ethics Commission; real-time campaign C&E reporting (in the works); and strong conflict of interest laws, something missing in Oregon Revised Statutes and Administrative Rules.

    I also agree with many of Tom Civiletti's suggestions.

  • Ernest Delmazzo (unverified)

    I forgot two things. They are: a $125 daily diem when in session and an annual staff and admistrative budget of $75,000-85,000. If the job became full-time, I think $55,000-65,000 is appropriate.

  • LT (unverified)

    Before we reward legislators with higher salaries, there should be some accountability measures. Are they capable of discussing budget priorities (as in some Senate statements this session, not to mention Senators last session who were more willing to discuss the budget details with constituents than House members)or just the lame rhetoric about how taxes are bad and ordinary families know how much money they have before they go to the grocery store?

    To listen to some of the rhetoric (esp. Speaker Minnis saying there would be no House budget hearings until the Senate proved they were "serious") you'd think there were no budget proposals or changes in how the legislature does things which have been reduced to bill form rather than just rhetoric. But in a rather short search of the legislative website, I found several such bills already in bill form with bill numbers. Budget related bills: HJR 2 House Bill 2345 Senate Bill 5515 House Bill 2385 House Bill 2541 Senate Bill 765 House Bill 2534 Senate Bill 577 Senate Bill 5515 Senate Bill 5534 Senate Bill 5539

     Senate Bill 841

    Here is the link to that site: legislative website

  • Steve (unverified)

    One last comment, in the California legislature, I think they are paid well and I guess qualify as "professional" politicians. When Mr Davis was in, they seemed to have run up a $35B deficit pretty easily. I am open if you can show me a "professional" legislature that does a measurably better job than "non-professional" legislators.

    I grudgingly use the term professional only to denote higher pay and not skill level. Like in the private sector or sports, higher pay is no guarantee of better performance. Based on the current budget situation, I don't think we can afford it. Moreover, at least with lower pay, you don't have people whose only motivation is to keep a death grip on their seat for the paycheck.

  • the prof (unverified)


    You choose one state with a current deficit and use that as evidence? How about California in the 1970s or 1980s (before Prop 13)?

    How about NY? How about NC? How about ...?

    Think harder about the logic of motivations and incentives. You say you don't want a legislator motivated to get reelected. Why is that a problem? One would hope the equation looks something like this:

    Want to get reelected = Do a good job as representative = Get relected

    So what is a legislator to be motivated by? Getting a good job with a lobbying firm after the term? Doing favors for friends?

    If you say "the public good" then OK -- but why would you purposely underpay someone who you want working for the public good? Isn't the pressure of re-election precisely what we think keeps legislators attuned to the public good?

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    I'd like to see slightly better legislator pay (maybe $40k for the session, $10k for the interregnum) a redistricting process that is politically independent (preferrably a computer program using census data), user-friendly online C&E reporting (require updates weekly), reasonable term limits and the removal of all legislators from future PERS benefits.

    I agree that legislators should be adequately paid for the time they serve and we need to watch their campaign activities more closely. We should consider the value of countering the institutional advantages of incumbency that generally diminish competitive elections.

    We should also get rid of the obvious conflict of interest that allowed legislators to design and qualify for a disastrously unstable public employee retirement program (and back it with the state's credit).

    Oregon's constitution was designed to encourage citizen legislators rather than professionals (biennial sessions and low pay). I think Oregonians are willing to tinker with the structure as long as the goal of a vibrant citizen legislature remains (i.e., a system that encourages competitive elections between competent citizens who don't consider politics to be their career).

  • (Show?)

    How about linking legislator pay to the average household wage in Oregon, currently about $42,000, according to 2004 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

    Legislators need to make a decent wage in order to not be overly tempted by campaign cash, job offers, bribes, etc, and also to attract regular people who are not independently wealthy or retired.

    I would rather see a more professionalized legislature where they read the bills and visit government agencies, and do more than just a quick and dirty job every other year.

    I really do not understand people who want a low paid, amateur legislature that "gets in and gets out" quickly, while still expecting them to do a top notch professional job. You can't have it both ways.

  • (Show?)

    In trying to find solutions with what people have deemed are problems irregardless of pay, what if we did set up a bonus system where:

    Additional pay for attendance Additional pay for making X% of votes Additional pay for balanced budget (like with a corporation) Additional pay for X town hall meetings Additional pay for whatever else we can imagine

    In essence, just don't give them more money, make them earn it and make them earn it by fairly representing their constituents.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)


    I think you'll find many more Oregonians that fear the damage that a body of professional legislators could inflict. (See: City of Portland, Metro, etc.).

    Any change will need to find acceptance in both Oregons. I have met quite a few Rural Oregonians who have told me that they fear greater threats to their way of life while the legislature is in session than when it is out.

    To many, your clamoring for professional politicians is akin asking for a stronger Don to run the Mafia. There is a strong contingent of Oregonians who think we are overgoverned already. They don't worry that Metro Oregon regards their legislators as "amateur politicians". They worry that the legislature already has too many "professional politicians" from Metro Oregon.

  • Steve (unverified)

    To the Prof - Again, no one has shown pay has anything to do with integrity or "professionalism" of legislators.

    Alternatively, would more pay to Rep Vickie Walker (whom I respect) give her any more integrity? I'll spare you the examples of poor judgment in the legislature since they abound. More pay would not change their behavior either.

    By my examples, I was trying to show higher paid legislators screw up just as much as our poor underpaid Oregon lawmakers. You can find examples all over the place of good/bad performance, however, this reinforces that pay has nothing to do with skill level or integrity.

    My suspicion is you would create a new job class of legislator more isolated from the populace and working more at accreting benefits to the position than what their constituents want.

    I am open to proof you have that correlates higher pay to better governance. Just like in sports and private business merely paying more does not guarantee any more performance.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Higher pay would not necessarily mean more integrity among legislators. That is what campaign finance reform is for.

    Higher pay would enlarge the pool of qualified folks who would consider running. It would also mean that legislators could devote more time to being legislators.

    What Oregonians believe about full-time, part-time, professional, citizen, and other sorts of legislators is not necessarily correct. Political discussion should be about informing public opinion, not kowtowing to it.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    Tom wrote:

    "What Oregonians believe about full-time, part-time, professional, citizen, and other sorts of legislators is not necessarily correct. Political discussion should be about informing public opinion, not kowtowing to it."


    The peasant citizens of Oregon will, no doubt, express enormous gratitude for your demonstration political noblesse oblige.

  • Steve (unverified)

    Mr PanchoPDX - I would interpret "Political discussion should be about informing public opinion, not kowtowing to it" to mean that when Mr Bush decided to go into Iraq, he should go, inform the public and not kowtow to those who disagree about going into Iraq.

    There, I feel much better now. I am waiting to be informed of my next opinion.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    I'm a strong supporter of democracy. I'm also convinced that effective democracy relies on an informed electorate. I have spoken with enough Oregonians to know that we are not well informed on the workings of the legislature. I think it would be good if the voters were better informed.

    I think my position is not is not aristocratic [if that is what your use of "noblesse oblige" suggests. I think your position may represent a rebrith of the Know-Nothing movement of the nineteenth century.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    The Know-Nothings were so named because they operated secretly and would not identify their leaders. When asked about leadership, their members would reply "I know nothing".

    They were opposed to slavery and immigration and were politically relevant for about a decade until they threw their lot in with the Republican Party. Contrary to your suggestion, many of the Know-Nothings would have been considered politically well-informed by 19th Century standards.

    In regards to our debate:

    Like you, I fully support having well-informed voters.

    Unlike you, I think professional politicians are more apt and capable of complicating and obscuring the nature of our political system, to the point where becoming a "well-informed voter" is a full time job.

  • Steve (unverified)

    "I have spoken with enough Oregonians to know that we are not well informed on the workings of the legislature. I think it would be good if the voters were better informed."

    How they do it is not as important as the end result which is more important. From what I see, well-paid or not, politicians are the same as far as output goes which is pretty much execrable. Especially when it comes to the more popular things (like M37 and no light rail) people want.

    To simplify, when I drive a car I only want to get from A to B. I don't need to know how to overhaul it.

  • LT (unverified)

    Well informed voter works both ways. If someone calls a legislative office and doesn't get a straight answer (questions like "how widespread is the problem your bill was written to solve" or "why does the legislature do things this way?") the caller is less well informed than if a staffer says "they do it that way because it is in ORS".

    Of course, in response to the latter answer, someone can ask "Well isn't it the legislature's job to change what is in ORS if it isn't working?"

    Legislators owe us more concrete information than some are willing to give us. And there are other members who are willing to answer concrete questions and research partial information a citizen has.

    That is why I think we should look at individual legislators, not "all legislators are...".

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    You're correct about the Know-Nothings. I was playing on the name, not their issue positions.

    I don't think getting paid to do a job is a deterrent to doing that job well. I'm not talking about $200k, like some of the lobbyists running around Salem.

    Whatever the pay, I still think campaign finance is the greatest impediment to good government.

  • (Show?)


    The conclusion of political science is clear: you get what you pay for with politicians of all sorts (school boards, legislatures, etc). If we underpay or don't pay at all, we generally see higher turnover, lower quality of work, and empowerment of bureaucrats and executives.

    I can't point to a precise correlation between pay and quality. I can point to a consensus among political science that most professionalized legislatures tend to perform their tasks far better than less professionalized legislatures; and that amateurs in legislatures of all types tend to be less productive, less informed, and often do flat out foolish things (see the Canon below).

    In the citations below, "professionalism" is measured by such things as efficiency, ability to pass budgets on time, pass legislation, and otherwise perform the functions most political scientists expect of legislatures.

    Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism; Thad Kousser; University of California, San Diego. Kousser shows that the term limit movement has harmed professionalism among 6 state legislatures.

    Schlesinger, Joseph. 1966. Ambition and Politics: Political Careers in the United States. Perhaps the classic statement of the political science case that political ambition is a good thing and that better career opportunities produce better legislators.

    Canon, David. 1990. Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts. Canon discusses the unique career structure in American politics, which allows "lateral" entry at higher levels of the political career ladder than in most systems. Most importantly for us, he shows how amateurs are less effective by all measures than "professionals".

    Bazar, Beth. 1987. State Legislators Occupations: A Decade of Change. Discusses the changing career paths in state legislatures in the 1980s.

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