Low Legislative Pay and The Creative Use of Campaign Funds

The Deseret News ran a story yesterday detailing how legislators are spending their leftover campaign funds. Unlike many other states, campaign contributions can be spent in pretty much any way a candidate chooses. Many candidates do things that are normal no matter where you go: give it to other candidates, donate it to charities or reimburse yourself for campaign expenses.

Some of the costs, though, can end up looking very dodgy. Many of the candidates pay amounts to family members for work done on the campaign or cut themselves a check. Some was spent on recreation, babysitters or travel to other states and countries. In all of this, there are some legitimate expenses. Many candidates expensed cell phone use, in-state travel (my condolences to Rep. Mike Noel and his 600-mile round-trip to the capitol), clothing costs (including laundering) or additional lodging in the city. Rep. Todd Kiser of Sandy bought an HOV pass so he wouldn’t miss legislative meetings. (Any bets that he voted more money for transit projects?)

The varied use means that campaign accounts are little more than a personal piggybank. If you have a legislator who’s on the up-and-up, they’ll spend the money to defray legitimate costs of taking care of the state’s business. I won’t grief anyone who brings their family downtown to avoid being away from them for weeks at a time. I don’t fault someone for expanding their work wardrobe just a bit. I don’t mind if someone buys a dual-use item (like a cell phone or laptop computer) if the primary use is getting the state’s business done.

We should, however, be terribly concerned at the possible implications that this raises for buying a legislator. Even with full disclosure of revenues and expenditures, we still have doubts as to how that money might affect our elected officials’ votes. It seems like a dangerous thing to co-mingle campaign expenses and job expenses into one account.

What we should be asking is why legislators do this. I’m sure some of them may be opportunistic, though I like to believe that, at the core, most people are good and well-intentioned though sometimes need correcting. I think we can trace it back to the considerably low rate of legislative compensation in relation to the job they are doing.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think legislators should be able to turn into career politicos. It’s important that they live under the laws they create. Low pay for a powerful job, however, has winnowed down the list of who’s willing to be a legislator. As I’ve noted previously, about 30% of our legislature consists of current and former government employees. About another third are developers or involved in real estate. This seems to be far from representative of the electorate as a whole. What they have in common is either a large salary or generous time off benefits that allow them to take months away from work to focus on doing state business. I don’t know about you, but I would only be so lucky to have that kind of job.

The average Joe isn’t so lucky. Legislative compensation is about $18,000 per year, presuming no special sessions. This requires taking off about 6-7 weeks from work for the legislative session, working very long days and many weekends. That doesn’t include all of the hours you’ll need to put in before the session preparing bills and out-of-session meeting with constituents. It’s very disruptive to both professional and personal life. At the end of the day, you’re probably taking a huge pay cut by doing the job well. This all presumes that you also have an employer willing to give you a couple of months work of time off, paid or unpaid, to accomplish this Herculean task. Average members of society simply can’t afford to be legislators.

This keeps a lot of people from mainstream professions from entering the political arena that is now so thoroughly dominated by civil servants, lawyers, real estate agents and developers, is important to have all of these services at hand from lawyers in Florence sc to real state agents and other developers. The Chicago real estate attorney scene is especially tough. When was the last time you got to vote for a software developer? How about a middle manager or a bank teller? Have you recently seen a nurse on your ballot? We’ve ended up creating a ruling class consisting solely of those who can afford to be elected.

I’d love to take a shot at running for the House someday. That I would be taking a substantial cut in pay and putting my day job at risk, however, gives me serious pause from doing so. I place a high value on being involved in the political process, but not higher than paying my mortgage on time and providing for this family. How many other people like me want to get more involved but can’t make the sacrifice involved in doing so? I’d imagine we are legion.

I don’t know what level of legislative pay is “enough”. What I do know is that at the current levels, we’d better get used to picking between Bob the Tax Lawyer and Harry the Assistant Principal for our state senator.

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2 Responses to Low Legislative Pay and The Creative Use of Campaign Funds

  1. Reach Upward says:

    This topic has often crossed my mind. To be a legislator you do have to put in a lot of “love time” (you only do it because you love it) outside of the regular session, while getting paid only for the time spent in session. But $18,000 for 7 weeks of work is not exactly chump change. That’s an annual rate of more than $133,000.

    The real problem is the ability to take a leave of absence from one’s regular job. Thankfully, many employers are very good about doing this for National Guard and reservists. But few are willing to do it for politicians. I suppose folks don’t see it in the same patriotic light as supporting the military. Also, most businesses probably see little potential benefit from such a policy. Any legislation that appeared to favor them would be suspect and might earn them bad publicity.

    One popular alternative is to go to a full-time legislature. Instead of civil servants, developers, and lawyers, we would then have a cadre of professional politicians, like they do in California. Studies show (controlling for other significant factors) that states with full-time legislatures have higher effective tax rates and substantially more government spending per capita than states with part-time legislatures. So, I would oppose going the full-time politician route.

  2. Jesse says:

    Some things to consider about the compensation is that much of it will end up being spent on work-related items. This includes travel to and from the capitol, some hotel stays, eating out and so forth. That kind of stuff adds up quickly, even when you budget well. (A week of living out of a business-class hotel easily runs about $800 even when eating on the cheap, but that beats traveling to and from the capitol after 12-14 hour days.) If you figure that you’re doing that for at least 8 weeks, you can kiss about a third of your compensation goodbye. That doesn’t even factor in things like taking a suit to the cleaners, keeping a cell phone dedicated to professional use and the dozens of other little expenses that go along with the territory. After factoring in income replacement and the countless hours you’ll spend out-of-session taking care of business, a professional earning $50K a year *might* manage to break even, presuming they can keep their job.

    As I recall, employers are required by law to allow time off for military service, though you are correct that taking a leave of absence for such service is viewed favorably whereas taking time to be a legislator… not so much. It’s only compounded by the unpredictability of special sessions. You are correct that with such a public position, it can make an employer very uneasy, another difficulty in getting the required leave.

    I used to think that a full-time legislature might be a good idea until I ran across some of the compelling arguments against it (yours included). All that time with nothing to do means everyone’s gotta make some more bills to eat up that time. We don’t need more time: we need more effective use of that time. That’s why we end up with so many special sessions.

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