How Legislative Pay Limits Who Can Serve in Office and Inhibits Reflective Democracy
As state legislatures across the country come back into session this month, members remain overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. Women make up just 30.8% of state legislators and women of color just 7.5%. For women, who are paid less than men and on average have half the net worth of men, the low pay for state legislators is an additional barrier from running for office. For women of color, the wealth and wage gap are even more dramatic. If we want more women, more mothers, more caretakers, more underrepresented groups to reach positions of power, states must fairly compensate their state legislators.
State legislative pay varies vastly, ranging from $100 a year in New Hampshire to over $100,000 a year in California and New York. The average base salary for a state legislator is $38,370, though this excludes the seven states that do not provide any. Ten legislatures are full-time and meet throughout the year, while the other 40 states hold legislative sessions ranging from 30 days to six months in length. In addition to time spent in session, lawmakers also participate in interim committee meetings, convene for special sessions, and spend time in their home district engaging with their constituents. In most part-time legislatures, legislators often spend more than 40 hours a week on their official duties and are uncompensated for work like constituent services, attending community meetings, or conducting policy research.
State Legislative Salary by State
Source: National Conference of State Legislators
Washington state representatives are paid just $56,881 a year, and in 2017, were in session for a record 192 days, far more than the scheduled 105 days. Representative Eileen Cody of Seattle works as a part-time nurse when the Washington legislature is not in session for additional income while fulfilling her legislative duties. She says although the lawmaking body should be made up of all types of citizens,
“It [is] set up so it’s only retirees who serve, or people who have enough money.”
Legislatures were originally designed to allow members to hold jobs outside of government to maintain natural connections to the communities they serve. The demanding schedule of state legislatures, even those that are part-time or only convene for a portion of the year, makes it difficult or impossible to maintain regular employment. This system makes state legislative offices inaccessible for most Americans and results in retirees, people with private businesses, and the independently wealthy having far more access to the role.
Research has found that better-paid legislatures tend to be more effective and efficient, but many states have not raised the pay for state legislators for years, fearing public blowback and opposition as state legislators must vote on their own pay increases. In 2009, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana vetoed a bill that would have raised legislative pay from $16,800 to $37,500 annually because of public opposition. The result of not paying legislators fairly, however, hurts the public as it makes office inaccessible, government unrepresentative, and quality candidates cannot afford to serve.
This structure also lends itself to cultivating a homogenous group of leaders. In 2018, more than 70% of the members of Congress worked in law, medicine, or business prior to their terms in office, and 80% held public office at some level prior to their Congressional term – 46% having served in state legislatures. While the clearest pathway to Congress is through state and local office, this pathway is most often only accessible to those able to support themselves and their families without relying on a state legislative salary, a group which leans heavily white and male.
“One of the first things women think about when considering running for the state legislature is the salary. Being a state representative is a full-time job, but it only comes with part-time pay. This is the number one barrier keeping women from running for office. This results in narrowing the field of candidates by gender; by occupation; income levels and ethnicity.” - Kansas State Representative Susan Ruiz
To address the needs of all Americans, elected officials need to reflect the people they represent. When government is only accessible to the wealthiest among us, the issues that working class Americans face are far less likely to be addressed.
In addition to helping to diversify the legislative bodies, higher salaries make it more likely that qualified and skilled candidates throw their hat in the ring. If compensation is not a major deterrent, candidates from various professional backgrounds are able to serve in state legislatures, bringing much needed perspectives to the office and ensuring that not only wealthy or retired people are able to serve.
“Part-time legislatures with stipends below the minimum wage are a relic of our past, when only wealthy white men served in office. In today's America, legislators should earn full-time pay for representing their constituents year-round. This systemic reform will shift who can run and serve in state legislatures, opening the doors wider for working class women of color.” – Sayu Bhojwani, New American Leaders and Women’s Democracy Lab
Some organizations have implemented fellowship programs to provide elected officials with professional development opportunities, peer support, and additional income. Lead 2030, a project of New American Leaders, pairs a state legislator serving in a part-time legislature with a nonprofit, to work for part of the year for a stipend. Progressive Governance Academy is a partnership between State Innovation Exchange (SiX), Local Progress, and re:Power dedicated to increasing the governing power of progressive elected officials by offering professional development opportunities on a flexible schedule. Programming like this is vitally important for those in office now, but deeper systemic change is needed for a long-term solution.
As with employees in other sectors, compensating legislators fairly and providing them with adequate resources to do their job well will yield a more diverse workforce. Compensating “part-time” legislators as the full-time jobs they truly are, will make running for office more accessible and attainable to all Americans.