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.