Grow the pool of potential legislators

By Chuck Butcher of Baker City, Oregon. Chuck is a small construction contractor and a Democrat.

The current situation in the Oregon Legislature is that two types of people can afford to serve if they are elected, these are the retired and the wealthy.

This state of affairs grows out of the "salary" paid our legislators, anyone who actually works for a living simply cannot afford the economic hit involved in going to Salem. In the process of trying to persuade a friend to run for state rep, I was horrified to find that my simple lifestyle would end in bankruptcy if I had to live on what we pay legislators.

This is absurd.

I'm not talking about the cost of running an election campaign, I'm talking about the cost of serving. Most Oregonians could not afford to be elected. If that is the case, then who is it that represents most Oregonians? Certainly not people representative of most Oregonians.

Median income for an Oregon family of four, for the purposes of US Dept Health & Human Services, is $61,000. I don't think paying our legislators that much would be an inducement to make a career of it, but it might allow for a much broader pool of candidates.

That might be really good for Oregonians; it certainly couldn't make for a bigger disaster than we've managed in recent history and certainly isn't a budget breaker.

I'd really like some feedback on this, I can feel myself warming up to another project and these things work best when they are inclusive.

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    I agree! we also should change to an annual schedule. The state has grown beyond the biannual legislature and it is obvious by the results the current schedule doesn't work.

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    I couldn't agree more. The public already believes that the legislators are paid a lot of money. I know one legislator who was criticised at a public forum for spending too much on themselves. He asked the audience what they thought he should get paid and the most outspoken person said, not a penny more than $70,000.

    The question is always how to raise the wages without the legislators being attacked as self serving. Setting the wage as the median of Oregonians is a good idea, although I believe it is lowere than you quoted. Pegging it to some other standard may also work. However, it will have to come from the public and be bi-partisan for it to happen.

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    John, Chuck is right about the median income for a family of four in Oregon. The U.S. census data is right here.

  • Marcello (unverified)

    Given the fact that during session being a legislator is a full time job, the current pay comes up to $8.62 per hour. Which is a whole $1.37 more than minimum wage. No wonder it is so hard to convince ordinary people to run.

  • djk (unverified)

    I'd set legislative per diem at a multiple of the hourly minimum wage. Say, 25 times the hourly minimum wage for each day the legislature is in session. With current minimum wage at $7.25, that comes to $181.25 per day. That's not a whole lot of money, but it comes to almost $4,000 per month while they're in session, assuming they work every weekday -- not quite $48,000 per year in annualized pay. If they have benefits (health insurance), that's enough to support a family, even if they have to "step down" a bit from whatever they earned in their private sector job.

    Since minimum wage in Oregon now rises automatically, legislative compensation would rise right along with it. This would eliminate the need for legislators to vote to raise their own pay, and would also discourage them from cutting the state minimum wage.

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    And that's assuming a 40-hour workweek, which is often not the case. I know of many legislators who have easily worked an average of 50-60 hours every week.

    And how many people all the way out in John Day, Pendleton, Albany, etc. would take a job all the way in Salem for just over minimum wage? They'd think you were crazy if you offered them a job that far away from their homes at that pay.

    I really think we need to raise legislator salaries to at least $40,000. It would really be nice to see it higher than that, but I think that should be at least the minimum.

    I guess because members of Congress make well over $100K that people just assume that their state legislators must make well over $50K. This is one of those areas where we need to do major voter education so that they understand that they're making a pittance.

    I understand what Chuck said about going bankrupt just to serve. One of the reasons why I won't even consider running for state rep yet is that we simply cannot afford to do so. My husband works evenings (typically 2:30-11) as a manager in a retail store. We have a three-year-old child. For me to be in Salem, we'd have to pay someone to watch her from the time my husband went to work until I got home each day. Just the cost of childcare for her and the cost of driving to Salem each day from Gresham makes the job prohibitive.

    We have to raise the amount we're paying our legislators if we ever hope to get more variety in the people who serve-- people from a variety of professions as well as those who are stay at home moms/dads, different ages, and different economic backgrounds.

  • LT (unverified)

    I think it should be a combination. Annual sessions would be more predictable than special sessions, although I agree with what one old timer said to the Legislative Commission that if the budget session were to be given a mandated amount of days it should be no less than 150, the traditional average of how long it normally takes the Ways and Means process to pass budgets.

    Pay increase/ per diem increase would have to be part of a reform package. Here is an example.

    1) Raise per diem with the condition that it is not paid for any unexcused absence. Sick days, attending a funeral, etc. would be excused. Just not being there without an excuse [rolling recesses, going fishing, Kropf at KXL, etc] would be unexcused. I think they already have that system in place--vote counts are so many yes, so many no, so many excused for business of the House/ Senate (like being in a committee meeting) and so many excused.

    2) ALL meetings are in public, no behind the scenes negotiations like this last session when legislators were using phrases like "in the negotiation room".

    3)Legislators can't hold negotiation sessions in private but they are encouraged to socialize together in a bipartisan fashion like having dinner together, because it is harder to demonize someone you know well.

    4)Ways and Means can never be broken up--been there, done that, doesn't work. All Ways and Means hearings required (unless it has been posted on bulletin boards in the capitol, and published elsewhere that Sine Die is expected within weeks) to have agenda posted on the website AND to have meeting publicly advertised for a particular time and place which can't be changed at the last minute without MAJOR announcement.

    5)Codify into the rules that no leader of one party is allowed to lean on a member of the opposite party, and call it the Wayne Scott Memorial Rules Change. If legislators can't act like adults, impose rules on them to force them to do so.

    Whether the above is practical or not, it should start a discussion.

    Too many people think the system is broken and are open to the One Ballot Initiative, which really would change things, to insist "we've always done it that way" is good enough.

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    Great ideas.

    Allowing a personal day or two, like many employers do, would be good as well. That allows for the opportunity to miss a day for one of those things that don't fall under an illness or whatever, but still punishes those who miss lots of days.

    Bringing the legislature back into the public eye is a great idea. This limiting the number of hours for notice down so low so that people can't reasonably have enough time to plan to be there, or just not holding discussions in the public at all, is just plain wrong.

  • dmrusso (unverified)

    My two cents: While there has been a lot of negative opinons about creating "career politicians" the need to widen the pool of prospective candidates far outweighs this concern.

    I was shocked to find out that NH does not pay their legislature. Not sure if this is still true, but if so, it is a horrible. Legislators deserve a fair wage for their work.

    I also think that Oregon has outgrown its bi-annual sessions. It seems like last year everything was rushed. Frankly, I want my legislators to take time thinking about important issues rather than rushing to meet the end of a session.

    Equally, I think that we need true campaign finance reform; where the public pays for elections, giving each candidate that comes through the primaries a set amount and that is IT. This would also do wonders to open up the field for many others to run for office and it would limit special interests. Maybe, this is just a dream... but seems like a good idea to me.

  • paul (unverified)

    Hope the Oregonian's editorial staff reads this blog.

    They wrote an unsigned edit on Sunday that argued that annual sessions and increased pay are the last reform we should consider, not the first.

    As this entry points out, if we want a better, more professionalized, and yes, possibly less partisan legislature, the FIRST thing we need to do is increase the quality of the candidate pool.

  • David (unverified)

    Having worked in the legislature for someone whom I believe is certainly one of the hardest working Oregon Legislators (Rep. Nolan), I couldn't agree more about paying them well. I would also add, however, that if you are going to do this, you should also set a standard wage rate for LAs/personal staff as well. I have no problem with people who have worked multiple sessions being paid more, but it should be on a standard scale (say $1800-2000/mo. for a first session LA, 3-5% more for each session worked, etc.). This would increase transperancy.

    That being said, Oregon generally gets better legislators than it deserves given the low pay and high demands it places on them, but I think higher pay will solve a bunch of problems and get us a lot closer to having a truly effective legislature than any other single reform.

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    I agree about the standard scale for staff members. I think we should do that for state legislatures as well as Congress.

    It not only provides a level of transparency, as everyone on a certain level are all on the same pay scale, but also compensates staff adequately. When you give an elected official a budget they can spend in any way they like, it often leads to underpaid workers.

    I've known people who worked in Congressional or legislative offices full time and qualified for food stamps-- I worked in a Congressional office for nearly two years, so I met a lot of legislative and Congressional staff along the way. That is wrong, as well, as staff members are often working just as hard as the elected official.

  • C Butcher (unverified)

    Really good comments, I hope it keeps up. I am serious about trying to do something about this, though I don't want to try to address too many issues at one time. I chose the median income family of four for a reason, which is that it changes over time. A different median income could be used to adjust the compensation level, but it would have 2 benefits, changing over time and pegging the compensation to something voters can easily understand and see as "just."

    I believe that partisanship might be reduced for a couple reasons, one it takes representation out of the "hobby" catagory and while hobbies are supposed to be interesting and exciting, I could do with less in this area and the other is that having a more representative group would tend to bring more common interests together. Quite frankly people who work for a living have things in common, despite political differences. I don't know how we can claim to have open elections when a huge percentage of the population are automatically disqualified by economics.

    Again, thanks and keep 'em coming, input increases knowledge and thoughtfulness and to make something like this work, all that is required.

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