Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Unpopular But Good Idea: Raising Legislative Salaries

In our last post, we talked about the upcoming battle of ideas within the conservative movement.  Along those same lines, in that post, we discussed that over the next few weeks and months, this blog would be discussing some ideas in greater detail -- 5 generally popular ideas that we think are bad ideas, as well as 5 generally unpopular ideas that we think would be good.

We have decided to start off that series by tackling an idea which would fall within the latter set -- the generally quite unpopular notion that state legislative salaries should be increased.

Yes, even in the age of cuts to state government, including state employees, we feel that it would be wise for the salaries of state legislators to be increased -- in fact, quite dramatically.  In addition, it is our opinion that state legislators, beyond leadership, should be given some degree of a budget -- or, perhaps, campaign contribution limits lifted -- in order to better maintain constituent communications. 

This issue came to our attention as a result of actions in this most recent session which included proposals to reduce the pay of state employees, including state legislators.  It also came to our attention again when as the veto session was wrapping up, there was talk of not paying legislators for days past the statutory 90-day limit.

Putting aside the notion that these proposals were symbolic in nature, with no real substance, we feel that such ideas are actually contrary to the very purpose by which the lower salaries were enacted in the first place -- to maintain a citizen legislature.  

The reasons for our proposals to increase legislative pay and also allow a staffing budget  can be summed up in three simple arguments:

1. The level and structure of pay is so low for state legislators that it discourages good people from running; and, even if they do run, it also encourages good people to leave office before they would. 

2. The level and cycle of pay also ends up creating a "false clock" where too often we have seen that the primary concern come the veto session is for legislators to get home rather than pass a good budget-- this is understandable if pay is going to be stopped and when jobs at home demand attention.   

3. Legislators are overwhelmed and unable to respond or interact with constituents in a way that should be expected.  This is partially due to the fact that for 9 months out of the year, legislators barely receive anything pay wise, and they receive no staff help beyond a legislative secretary for 3 months, unless they decide to pay for it out of pocket.  While they are free to pay for help out of campaign funds, those funds are also limited because of contribution limits.  So, most legislators do not have such help, and this limits their ability to represent their constituents.

Now, at first blush, increasing legislative pay and/or staff allowances might run contrary to the notion of limited government.  And, certainly, there is a level of pay by which such a threshold would be reached, without a doubt.  But, the truth is, we are nowhere near that in Kansas.  In fact, it is our view that having a system which incentivizes legislators to adjourn because of an artificial clock leads to bad governing, and too often bad governing leads to big government -- as it is easier to vote yes for a budget that grows than it is to vote no and delay the budget process further.   Simply put, the easiest way for a legislator to go home "on time" is to vote yes on the budget.

And, to be sure, there is a level of state legislative pay and staff assistance which would trigger a threshold which wouldn't be appropriate.  And, as seen by California's state legislative pay of $115K a year, there is no "tie" of higher salaries to better government, necessarily.  But, Kansas is nowhere near that level..but, we do feel that when quality people are discouraged from running for office -- and we, as a blog, know of several anecdotal cases where a quality individual would have ran if not for the low pay -- that is not a good system.  Most Kansas legislators receive, in real pay, only around $13,000 a year or so in pay.  Aside from leadership, they have no staff.   At $86/day, Kansas is near the bottom of state legislative salaries (though not the lowest).

The truth is the fifty states run the full spectrum of pay, from the aforementioned California on one end to Texas at the other.  In our opinion, we would favor something in the middle -- like Missouri or Minnesota, who pay their legislators 31,000 a year.  Oklahoma, another neighboring state, pays theirs $38,000 a year.  Iowa pays $25,000.  Colorado pays $30,000.  While the 25-40k range (we'd advocate around $25-30K) is not one high enough to be an incentive for someone tor run, it is high enough that it is likely not a disincentive, at least for someone who truly wanted to be a citizen legislator. 

Salaries in that range would be appropriate and not represent a major hike in the state budget either.  If each legislator, for instance, were paid $15,000, that would be a $1.875 million hike in salaries.  That would take legislator salaries near the $30,000 mark.

The concept of a staff allowance is more problematic as a result of fact you're talking about additional state employees, all of which would have a decent salary, most likely.  Current legislative staffers for leadership make in the $40-60K range.  However, we don't feel this is necessary. There is actually another solution to the issue of "staff" help -- a bit of a hybrid solution: 

One, provide each legislator a $10,000 budget for hiring staff during the session, which for all practical purposes, 90 day limit aside, lasts from January 1 to June 1, so that would amount to $2,000 a month.  In addition, the state would also raise or completely lift contribution limits to campaigns -- a concept we favor anyway, for other reasons -- and this would allow legislators to raise their own money to make up the difference. 

If the $10,000 allowance proposal plus the $15,000 hike in legislative pay were both enacted, you'd have an annual increase of $3 million a year, approximately, which we believe can surely be found in a $6 billion budget.

Of course, some will question the wisdom of combat those arguments, we will address the three points we made before in further detail:

1. A citizen legislature is indeed a good notion, but a citizen legislature doesn't mean an unpaid or poorly paid citizen legislature.    Right now, the current system basically restricts those who will seek office to independent businesspeople who have an ongoing source of income, retired individuals, lawyers, or ranchers/farmers...and while there is nothing wrong with any of these, it would be nice to broaden it.   Certainly, to some degree, state legislatures will always somewhat be limited talent-wise due to the time-factor as well as the modest pay factor (even in a system in which salaries were higher)  -- a system in which a legislator was paid $25-40,000 would be high enough not to discourage someone who is in a modest job from seeking office, and furthermore, for entrepreneurs who would have the time flexibility, it wouldn't discourage them either, as $25-40,000 would be high enough to offset some of the income loss, whereas the current figure is too low to do so. 

2. If we were to get rid of the 90 day limit and generally increase pay, state legislators wouldn't pay as much attention to the legislative clock and the need to get home, and likely be willing to stick out tough battles such as we saw this year over the budget.   For example, a wavering conservative state legislator who would like to vote no on a bad budget might be more likely to do so if he had the peace of mind in knowing he didn't have to get home soon to get back to work in his normal paid job.  While that is indeed a good thing -- we believe the current system places too much emphasis on it, making "getting home" the paramount concern over good legislating. 

Related to this is the whole notion of the 90-day calendar anyway, something we feel should be explored as well.  We believe that coupled with any pay hike should be more sessions in other parts of the year.  Too often committee chairmen who don't want to hear bills will essentially pocket veto them by using the short legislative calendar as a weapon.  This is tied to the issue of legislative pay, obviously, but we believe that a legislature which doesn't operate 9 months of the year, including seven months straight sets itself up for a system where good legislation will be delayed without a good reason...yes, special sessions are always possible, but they are quite rare.  We believe a system should be explored where there would be both a summer and fall session -- at least in non-election years.  That way, pocket vetoing legislation would be put to an end,  and we could get more year round reviews of agency and school budgets, which would be a very good thing.

3. As we noted before, the state deals with a number of important issues, from education to taxation to regulations, all of which have a profound impact on the lives of Kansans.  As such, citizens have a great deal of input that deserves to be heard and responded to by state legislators.  However, it is nearly impossible for legislators to handle this on their own, and as such, often times the level of representation is less than it should be.  The tasks done by a legislative office are tasks which require human assistance, and such human assistance would not only help the legislators in office, it would also encourage more individuals to become more interested and more involved in the operation of state government. 

Such human assistance, which would be acting in the best interest of the legislator and that legislator's constituents, would also help legislators rely less upon lobbyists who by definition, representing some kind of an agenda.   Let's keep in mind that most state agencies have staffers which are, of course, looking for reasons to increase funds to their agency -- perhaps more legislative staff would help root out money that could be saved, given the legislature, by definition, is the oversight agency of executive agencies.  And, this concept is not foreign -- in other states, such as Florida, State Reps have district offices, even.  And while some would say 'well, yes, that's Florida -- a big state -- are the lives of Floridians somehow more important than those of Kansans?  In our view, the only difference is that in Florida, there would need to be more staffers due to the size of the state, but that doesn't mean Kansans should have none.

Of course, enacting this reform will be difficult, even if most legislators felt it was a good idea.  Reason being, most Kansans simply don't realize how low legislative pay is, nor do they realize they don't have staff.  All the voter sees is a "legislature hikes salaries" headline, and candidates are afraid their opponents will use it against them. 

We have two answers to this:

1. Legislative pay hikes do not take effect for an individual legislator until that person is re-elected.  So, a legislator must pass an election cycle in order for a salary hike.  This is a built in protection.

2. To prevent the political question, Democrats and Republicans should vote as a unit -- 125-0 and 40-0 -- for the above proposals, as they are not partisan in nature -- everyone would benefit, as the principles we have expressed would apply equally.  While there would be a story and perhaps a little pushback towards any such pay hike, we believe if done unanimously, the shelf life would be limited and end up having limited impact at the election, even if an opponent tried to use it.

At the end of the day, our goal is what most envision in a state legislature -- a citizen legislature -- and we feel that the reforms mentioned here will help achieve that aim.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Coming Battle of Ideas

Last week, the 2012 Presidential Campaign began with the first presidential debate among some of the prospects for the Republican nomination. On the stage were Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson. Absent were Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, as well as possible candidates Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin.

What struck us was not the debate or the candidates themselves, but what they represented, which was perhaps the widest divergence of views within the conservative movement we have ever seen.

In the past 23 years, there have been four cycles -- 1988, 1996, 2000, 2008 -- when there was a contested Republican primary field. In the other two years -- 1992 and 2004 -- we had an incumbent President, both named Bush. However, it's worth noting that in 1992, Pat Buchanan challenged President George Bush.

In the other four years with contested primaries, the makeup was very similar -- all were hawkish on the military, all but maybe one was pro-life, all but one or two were socially conservative (though all claimed to be somewhat), and all were for somewhat limited government and lower taxes. In some cases, you might have someone very socially conservative (like Robertson in 1988 and Quayle in 2000), or someone more protectionist (like Buchanan in 1992, 1996 and 2000), or someone more focused on economics (Gramm in 1996 or Forbes in 2000), but largely the candidates were the same. Two candidates who were somewhat moderate on social issues -- Arlen Specter in 1996 and Rudy Guiliani in 2008 -- went nowhere.

Even in the last cycle, 2008 -- the candidates all pretty much preached similar messages. Fred Thompson was perhaps the most honest of the bunch, speaking boldly about the need to reform entitlements. But, Fred, Huckabee, Romney, Rudy, McCain -- all were the same -- hawkish on defense, generally fiscally conservative, generally socially conservative (Rudy less so). The exception was Ron Paul, who with his small but intense army, stayed in the race til the end, offering a different view on almost every subject -- end the wars overseas, social libertarianism, and economic libertarianism, going much further than most conservatives are willing to go. But largely, Paul was a distraction.

The end result of all four cycles was also the same -- the establishment "next choice" won out -- Bush in 1988, Dole in 1996, Bush in 2000, and McCain in 2008. We went 2-2 in those four, by the way.

However, this year -- in 2012, we are beginning to see the emergence of a conservative movement -- and as such, a Republican party -- with a wide variety of views that are now playing themselves out on the presidential stage.

Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are anti-drug war, anti-war, fiscal conservatives who are increasingly arguing for social libertarianism as well -- essentially, they are arguing for a "get the government out of everything" message.

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, brings a message of pro-life, socially conservative views that he is not afraid to express, perhaps less afraid than any major presidential candidate since Pat Robertson, even more so than Mike Huckabee. Rick Santorum has made a point of saying that if the conservative movement, and the country as well, lose their social values, then we aren't really a movement anymore. Santorum, however, is in favor of limited government fiscally and is a traditional hawk on foreign policy.

Herman Cain is a social conservative, but less so than Santorum, seems to be somewhat hawkish on the military, but offers a new viewpoint on tax policy -- advocating very strongly for the Fair Tax. He's not the first to do so -- Huckabee did in 2008 and one wonders if Huckabee and Cain can't go very far if they are both in the same field - and Cain also offers a persona appealing to tea party types -- he makes a big deal about never holding elected office, something that really we've not heard from a serious candidate since perhaps Steve Forbes, and in our view, Cain is more appealing personally than Forbes ever was, even though this blog prefers Forbes' flat tax to Cain's Fair Tax.

Finally there is Tim Pawlenty, who represents the Lamar Alexander/George W. Bush message of past cycles. He would be what Republican nominees for most officers are -- decent fiscal conservative, decent social conservative, hawkish on the military -- but not a passionate advocate for any, with a bit more of a moderate tone that might appeal to swing voters.

Looking beyond the five that participated -- you have the queen of the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann, the darling of conservatives in 2008 in Sarah Palin, the establishment king Mitt Romney, the intellectual Newt Gingrich, whose personal "issues" would have (and may still) disqualified him from past fields, and the interesting, and perhaps eventual compromise choice in Mitch Daniels, who on one hand, called for a "truce" on social issues, yet on the other, signed a major pro-life bill just a couple of weeks ago. Of course, you also have Donald Trump, who is a wild card of views and personality all his own...yet one who is in the Top 2 or 3 of most early polls among the GOP field.

Without getting into too much more detail about the candidates themselves, what is striking is how what is playing out here is an emerging battle of ideas within the conservative movement, where we will be debating the following four key broad policy questions:

1. Are we hawkish on defense and terrorism or do we want to pull back? Though most candidates seem to continue to push for a hawkish viewpoint, there seems to be an ever-growing call within certain sections of the tea party and conservative movement, people who are now beyond Ron Paul types, who are advocating for getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, no intervention in Libya, and even pulling back foreign aid from countries that were previously considered vital national security interests. Some of this stems from views of limited government, some of it is Pat Buchanan protectionism, while some of it is simply saying "its none of our business".

2. Beyond the pro-life issue, are we going to be socially conservative? Will we defend the family? The abortion issue continues to be front and center within the conservative movement, as even libertarians are often pro-life, arguing (justifiably) that the individual unborn child has liberty. So, in our view, the pro-life movement is still going strong, as evidenced here in Kansas and also in Indiana, as well as other states, by the passage of fetal pain legislation. Though slow moving battle, it seems that the country is certainly moving in the direction of upholding life.

However, beyond the life issue, it is an open question whether the country, and even the conservative movement, is moving away from social conservatism on issues like marriage, acceptance or non-acceptance of alternative lifestyles, religion, and even the family unit itself. Ron Paul argued for the government getting out of the marriage business entirely last week, a concept that would have gotten him booed off the stage in past cycles, but one that drew applause this time. Here in Kansas, the Republican dominated state legislature didn't pass the Community Defense Act, which would have restricted sex shops. Nationally, the marriage issue is losing some ground -- marriage laws continue to be passed, but concepts like civil unions are gaining more favor. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed. Family units other than the nuclear family are being accepted as mainstream for reasons other than necessity, but rather, by choice. It is also the observation of this blog that churches, though large in numbers, are more luke warm than ever before, talking more exclusively about broad concepts of spirituality and salvation (both essential, of course) and less willing to engage the culture -- for example, in 2008, the Pastor at the very large Church of the Resurrection didn't come out against the Missouri ballot initiative to allow funding for embryonic stem cell research.

So, it remains an open question as to whether or not traditional values will be part of the conservative movement or not, and whether the government will have any role in defining certain moral parameters, which of course, are largely a reflection in which the government is in. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and others will argue it should. Others will either call for a truce or say it shouldn't.

3. What is the role of government? This goes beyond issues of social conservatism, but even economics and government assistance. Should we have a war on drugs? Should substances like marijuana be banned? What's the role of government in education, even at the state and local level? Should there be consumer protections? Even if we all agree many environmental laws go too far, should we have environmental laws at all? Should there be a safety net, at all? Should we even have things like unemployment insurance? This doesn't even get into issues like funding for the arts, etc, where conservatives are largely moving against. On this front, it could very well depend on the issue, but some certainly argue for either none or extremely limited government -- and increasingly, it's harder to find conservatives willing to make a case for at least some government.

4. What is our tax policy going to be? There seems to be an increasing push/acceptance of the Fair Tax, almost to the point where other viewpoints are ostracized, even though there might be good arguments why we shouldn't have the federal government involved in transactions between individuals and businesses, and why taxing services might be problematic, and why a system of prebates might be a road to hell paved with good intentions. What about the flat tax? Should we have any kind of tax on businesses or property?

It seems that in the wake of the tea party movement, the conservative movement is in a phase of what coaches in sports often refer to as "finding ourselves". This is, by the way, in our view, a healthy and productive task, as debate is very healthy as even those who hold firmly to certain viewpoints within those four areas would be wise to have their thoughts challenged from time to time, before running full steam ahead.

Related to this, in the next several weeks and even months, we at Kaw & Border will be exploring these questions in more detail -- including reviewing two lists -- one of five items we think are terrible, but popular ideas -- and one list of five items that are worthy, but unpopular ideas.

Our analysis on the details aside, it is our view that how the conservative movement addresses these questions will have a lasting impact for the next decade and perhaps even the next generation. The answer to these questions could very well decide if certain issues even remain in the mainstream public debate, which in our view, depending on the issue, could be a very good or a very bad thing for the country.

And as these debates play themselves out politically, particularly in the presidential campaign, they could very well have an impact sooner rather than later.