Are salaries for public officials too low?

Josh Marquis, a Democrat who is the Clatsop County District Attorney, wrote an editorial in the Oregonian arguing that our state's compensation for public officials - judges, DAs, state legislators, and statewide officials - is too low to attract the best and the brightest.

The pay for our circuit (trial) and appellate judges is somewhere between 47th and 49th in the 50 states. A first-year associate lawyer at one of Portland's top law firms is paid more than the chief justice of our Supreme Court. That is beyond ridiculous, it is embarrassing.

Judges are only one example. We pay our legislators between $15,000 and $30,000 a year and yet are surprised that they don't take vows of poverty or that they hire their spouses as legislative aides. Oregon's attorney general is paid less than $80,000. The governor (who turned down a raise) makes more than $30,000 less than his chief of staff. The Oregon State Bar pins the median salary for all attorneys at about $95,000. The top prosecutor in most Oregon counties is paid about $77,000. (Some counties supplement that salary so that the elected DA doesn't make less than his or her deputies.)

The impact?

Naturally, when Oregon's median salary is less than $40,000 it may be difficult to feel sympathy towards someone who earns twice that amount. But it's simply denial to believe these low salaries don't affect our ability to attract and retain the best people. All too often we lose them to the private sector, which appropriately rewards those with the most experience and responsibility. ...

Now, I didn't become a prosecutor to be wealthy, and, of course, there are intangible rewards for public service. Those of us fortunate enough to be elected have an opportunity to shape policy, and there is great satisfaction in working to make Oregon a better place to live.

That said, it's unreasonable to continue to expect elected officials who make the most important decisions in government to come from rich families, or to marry a rich spouse or to live an ascetic lifestyle simply for the pleasures of living in Oregon and not Washington or Connecticut.

Do you support raising the salaries of our public officials? Should the attorney general's salary be tied to the median salary for all attorneys in Oregon? Should legislators be paid an annual salary tied to the median income in Oregon?

Read the rest. Discuss.

  • We Need Health Care (unverified)


  • (Show?)

    I abhor Josh Marquis and almost everything he stands for, but I am proud to agree with him on this issue. More than anything, we need a full-time, professional legislature, so that people who don't have means of their own can run for and hold office in Salem.

  • Tom Keffer (unverified)

    Culture is an even bigger problem. Innovative, get-it-done, risk taking personalities are unlikely to be attracted to government jobs whatever they might pay.

  • Marty Wilde (unverified)

    I agree with Marquis on the judges and prosecutors. Texas, where I have the misfortune to live at the moment, has a system that ties the wages of district attorneys to that of judges and compensates them all decently, if not extravagantly. The wages of assistant DAs need a boost, too. These folks are sworn to public service, not a mendicant order.

    The legislature poses a slightly different issue, but I think Marquis still has a point. You can hardly expect the legislature not to be beholden to someone when you pay them this poorly. The legislature should be paid an adequate wage to support a family. It's important to realize that their job doesn't end when the session ends. On the other hand, I doubt we want a full time legislature like California's - well paid and utterly inefficient.

  • LT (unverified)

    If we increase legislative salaries it should come with conditions. There was a joke last session that Senators deserved their paychecks but maybe some of the game-playing House members didn't.

    Perhaps if the Ways and Means process in 2007 is totally open to the public (not split and major decisions made by less than 10 people in a closed room as in '05), if every member is required to hold at least one "ask me anything " town hall meeting during session, or whatever other criteria folks could want were put into place, the argument might be there.

    There are legislators who seldom appear in public forums but still get re-elected because they raised a lot of money. Maybe there could be a tradeoff between salaries and campaign finance reform? Maybe a ban on out of state organizational money (out of state individuals would be easy to trace and banning out of state relatives from contributing is not a good idea)could be part of that reform.

    And about DA salaries. As I recall when Public Comm. on Legislature debated salaries there was a lot of debate about whether legislators and DAs should be in the same salary debate. Some discussion about their state/county role--elected in a county but part of a state system. Marquis could go to the Legislative website, click on the PCOL link, then go to Agendas and Minutes and read about that. Or, I believe, having found out what session it was, he could order at tape or DVD and watch the discussion as many times as he wished.

  • (Show?)

    What's even sadder is that Metro Councilor's salaries are pegged to be one-third that of an appellate judge. That's right -- managing the future of Oregon's most populous region is expected to be a part-time job making about $32,000/year.

    I think our judges are decently paid; our legislators probably need a different pay system, but it's hard when our Legislature meets 6 months out of every two years. Not that I think our Legislature should meet more often, just that it's hard to find jobs that give you Legislative leave like maternity leave or military leave.

  • (Show?)
    Posted by: Evan Manvel | Nov 17, 2006 11:11:42 AM ...Not that I think our Legislature should meet more often


    I find it strange to think the legislature can fully address the vast range of issues in a competent manner for some 150 days every two years.

  • (Show?)

    As to the question of this posting, the short answer is yes. I think pegging it to the relevant median income(s) make sense.

  • zoidberg (unverified)

    Screw this. Why don't we just get all of the thousands of computer programmers together and have them write a computer program to run the state? Forget all this election BS and partisanship, just imagine: we could all be united under a benevolent dictatorship of an all-powerful AI, thanks to our software community!

    Just imagine how much money it would save by not having to hire politicians and their ilk.

    Open hunting seasonal permits of Constitutional and Green party members could help fund the state's bureaucracy!

  • Behind the Scenes (unverified)

    It does not appear to me that the Metro Council lacks the best and brightest. Quite the contrary, the overall intelligence at Metro is considerably higher than has been on display at Multnomah County the last couple years. Pay does not seem to be an issue. And if you look at the county, the commission's biggest problem is its brightest member, Serena Cruz Walsh. The guy who has done the best job representing his constituents, Lonnie Roberts, is probably the least bright of the group. Character and good judgment are not functions of how smart people are.

    And good government is not really a function of how bright elected officials are. I think the same is likely true for judges. And Josh Marquis is a perfect example of how lack of character is more important than lack of brains, even when you have both working against you. He is overpaid if anything. If his salary were cut, where would he find another job?

    As for making Metro a full time job, I have to ask why? The importance of the decisions has nothing to do with it. Metro would be better off if its council members had real world jobs instead of living their lives going to meetings.

    One of the problems at Multnomah County was you had four members who all thought they could do the job of chair and all had the time to do it as well given their actual duties as commissioners. Unfortunately only one of them was elected to the job and the other three had nothing else to occupy their time than plot against her. Rather than making metro councilor a full time job, people ought to look at making the county commissioners part time.

    If anything, they should reduce the salaries of all these theoretically part time legislative positions and force them to get real jobs.

  • Jason (unverified)

    Funny thing about this guy's column is that he did not mention public defenders--the lawyers responsible for much of the justice that our system delivers--as underpaid public servants. Lawyers in the public defender's office make much less than a DA, but provide a service just as, if not more, important than the DA.

    However, he is right in that we tend to get the legislature we pay for. This coming session, however, promises to be a delightful exception.

  • Mike (unverified)

    I think everyone is expecting to much from the turn of events that happened during this past election. Sure the people in office changed but I am willing to wager that will be the only real change that took place. Remember, the people who won still have private interests that will weigh more on their decisions than the thoughts and wants of the people they are suppoused to represent.

    Mike Hollows

  • Josh (unverified)

    I did not address public defenders because they are not ELECTED. This column dealt with the poor pay of elected officials, particularly judges.

  • (Show?)

    Bear WN wrote: I abhor Josh Marquis and almost everything he stands for

    Really? You know that he was the leading force pushing the District Attorneys to endorse Ted Kulongoski, right?

    One friend recently referred to Marquis as a "hang 'em high Democrat". I'm pretty sure I disagree with a lot of his crime and justice positions, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't "abhor everything he stands for" -- since, as a Democrat, he likely shares a bunch of my values. (Though, obviously, not all.)

  • anonymous (unverified)

    since, as a Democrat, he likely shares a bunch of my values.

    Marquis was first elected in a heavily Democratic county, albeit a conservative one. Did Strom Thurmond share a "bunch" your values when he was a Democrat? His values didn't change when he became a Republican, what changed is that he could get elected without the Democrat label.

  • (Show?)

    I would tend to agree that our representatives and senators need to be paid a regular salary. They are "hired" to do a job even when they are not in session. The make-up of the legislative body could be different and better represent all Oregonians (anybody see a teacher, a truck driver, a grocery shop employee in the legislature?)

  • anonymous (unverified)

    anybody see a teacher, a truck driver, a grocery shop employee in the legislature?

    No. They are all professional politicians. I guarantee you its not the pay that is keeping the local grocery clerk from running for office.

    They are "hired" to do a job even when they are not in session.

    I am not sure that is true. I think they have collectively turned what was intended to be a part time citizen-legislator's job into a full time professional politician's job. There are not many legislators who actually spend the bulk of their lives while legislators doing some other job.

  • keyfur (unverified)

    evan manvel says: That's right -- managing the future of Oregon's most populous region is expected to be a part-time job making about $32,000/year.

    if you think that $32k is a part time job then you had better stay away from teaching. managing oregon's future in portland can pay as low as $33,651.

  • Robert Harris (unverified)

    Recent study by some MBA students regarding compensation of public employees in Oregon shows that while Judges may have a relatively low salary, their total compensation package is quite good, and higher than Washington (who pays its trial court Judges about $124k as compared to about $96k for Oregon), or Idaho. Surely at least in the middle of the pack nationally.

    Why? Because the retirement for an Oregon judge is worth something like $35,000/year, compared to Washington's about $12,000 year and insurance benefits are worth over $1,000 month compared to Washingtons about $850/month. WOW.

    This is a common theme for Oregon public employee compensation. Low average or even good wages and extraordinary benefits means mediocre hiring pool and no incentive for the burnt out employees (which are present in all organizations) to move on. People look at salary and medical insruance much more than retirement benefits when making employment choices.

    INterestingly PERS Retirement obligations were just announced. It appears that public agencies are going to contribute an amount averaging about 20% of payroll. If retirement obligations were..say...10% of payroll (which would be closer to the national average) we could hire 10% more public employees. Can you imagine, 10% more teachers in our schools, 10% more police officers, DHS workers, Probation officers, etc etc etc etc.

  • (Show?)

    There is a lot of work that legislators should be doing while not in session, such as holding town halls and listening sessions in their districts to see what people think on the issues. Working on bills that need to come up the next session. Holding hearings on topics. Working on our tax system, which is so badly flawed.

    There is a ton of work that needs to get done when legislators aren't busy with the session.

    Not to mention that our sessions should be longer than they are. I'd like to see a session each year that is as long as a regular session now. That would allow them to have more time to work on things that need a lengthier time, such as the tax system.

    And yes, it is the salary that scares a lot of good people off. Having worked to locate potential candidates in my own house district, I've run into that with a number of people. It's not enough to scare me off, though.

  • LT (unverified)

    Robert, where do you live and where do you work? Do you know for a fact that in every Oregon jurisdiction that retirement takes 20% of payroll? If that is a statewide average, doesn't that mean there are places where it takes a lot less? And what sort of retirement plan do you have, or is that something we shouldn't ask about?

    INterestingly PERS Retirement obligations were just announced. It appears that public agencies are going to contribute an amount averaging about 20% of payroll. If retirement obligations were..say...10% of payroll (which would be closer to the national average) we could hire 10% more public employees.

    In order to change employment contracts, they must be re-negotiated, not just some government group saying "we've decided the conditions of your employment must change and we're going to do it". As I recall, there is court precedent about that. Something Saxton failed to understand is that there are those who recall not seeing him in Salem when the PERS reforms of 2003 were happening, or even saying publicly which bill he supported--the one that passed or the other one. Changing such complex things as public employee pay packages takes a lot of work. It requires attention to detail, not just slogans and talking points.

    And there are some people who think public administrators are overpaid and their job descriptions and pay packages deserve more scrutiny than the "if only there was no union we'd have enough funding" folks have given them.

    There was a topic here awhile back titled "Backstage with Karen Minnis" where the idea was discussed whether she was trying to solve a budget dispute or just trying to starve a union. Was that what the budget impasse of 2005 was all about?

    You might want to read

    which begins

    Lower PERS rates mean most public agencies will see savings

    STEVE LAW Statesman Journal

    November 18, 2006

    TIGARD -- Falling pension costs should free up money in state agencies and most local governments in Oregon next year.

    The Public Employees Retirement System board approved lower employer rates for pension benefits Friday, to take effect next July.

    New PERS benefits rates for 2007-09 will shave millions of dollars from what dozens of public agencies such as Marion County Fire District, the city of Keizer and Chemeketa Community College otherwise would have to pay. Each state agency can budget less for pension benefits as well.

    For many governments, it's as if they saved the equivalent of 1 to 3 percent of all employees' salary for the coming two-year period.

  • anonymous (unverified)

    There is a lot of work that legislators should be doing while not in session, such as holding town halls and listening sessions in their districts to see what people think on the issues

    That used to be called campaigning. Unless someone calls a special session, once the session is over the legislator's job is done until after the next election. At least for members of the House. Why pay them to campaign, incumbents have enough advantages as it is?

    I think there are good arguments for a full time, professional legislature. But people who want to raise salaries ought to make the case for that, not for paying part time legislators more.

  • mrfearless47 (unverified)

    Oregon pays embarassingly low salaries for public officials - elected and appointed - at the same rate it pays low salaries for higher education faculty. Higher ed salaries are in the lowest quintile nationally, while PSU salaries, in particular, sit in the lowest decile. If we're going to raise judicial salaries, legislative salaries, and the salaries of various elected officials, we also ought to raise faculty salaries too.

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