I have a modest proposal: let’s pay for a professional full-time legislature and then expect to get one.
It is politically and, in many cases, ideologically difficult for our legislature to raise their own pay to a livable wage. Currently the job pays a mere 24,000 a year, plus per diem, which I understand can be about $100 a day while the legislature is in session. Retiring legislator Marion McClure estimates that after rent for a small apartment in a dodgy Phoenix neighborhood and other expenses, her job over the past 8 years has paid about $100 per year. Not a lot of folks can afford such a sacrifice.
The job is considered part-time because of the limited length of the regular session, but more and more, special sessions are the rule rather than the exception. When you add in travel time, constituent contact, planning and drafting legislation (yes, some legislators do that, rather than having it handed to them by lobbyists or downloading it from ALEC’s website) and community leadership duties, the job is more than full-time.
The current system ensures that most legislators, if not of independent means, have to pursue a separate vocation to make ends meet. This almost insures conflicts of interest in their duties and distracts them from the job we’re paying them for.
Almost every move to raise legislator’s pay has met with rejection by the voters when put to them, or failed to even make it out of the legislators, as if they were ashamed to even bother the voters with the issue of their penury. There is a good reason for this: the legislature is considered by many to be something of joke: why pay more for an obviously dysfunctional organization?
The counter-argument is that you get what you pay for. An investment in a professionally-paid legislature may reward morons in the short-term, but will breed a better class of legislators in the long term. More citizens with good qualifications for office will be attracted to service if the job doesn’t require major financial sacrifices. And there will be less room for those who have business interests, such as usurious loansharking, charter-school fraud, and hawking worthless private curriculum materials, which they seek to further using their offices.
As you can see from this chart, Arizona is far from the worst in compensating its legislators. But considering the time demands we put on legislators, we pay part-time and expect full-time performance. I think that this study under-estimates the time demands on Arizona’s legislators. We are surely outliers, along with Florida and Alaska, in making large time demands on legislators while paying a paltry salary.
I don’t think there is a figure that one could name that would have any hopes of being approved. So instead, legislators should be paid a decent wage by reference to a solid, independently collected metric that strongly reflects the well-being of the state’s residents: Median Family Income. This year, the legislature would have been paid $58,206, pre-tax, by such a measure.
There are many virtues of such a method of payment; it obviously is enough to support a family, by definition half the families in the state exist on less; it incentivizes legislators properly to work to lift all boats in order to lift their own (in contrast to AVERAGE income which would allow them to raise their pay by vastly enriching a small minority in order to move the average disproportionate to the benefit accruing to most Arizonans); it is an objective measure collected by the federal government that state officials cannot jigger with, and; when couched in terms of ‘pay equal to the median income of an Arizona family,’ it just might be acceptable to the majority of voters.
There may be better ways to achieve these ends, but it is time that Arizona gave itself the gift of professional, uncompromised, full-time governance. We could hardly do worse than we do now. We have a lot of gifted, self-sacrificing, and dedicated legislators – but we have far too many of the other kind, as well. I fear the only way we are ever going to shift that balance is to demand a higher level of professionalism and pay accordingly. It won’t happen overnight, but with Clean Elections opening the way to office to anyone who is sincerely interested and able to attract a broad base of serious support, reasonable compensation could enable quality of people to give the public affairs of Arizona the full-time attention that we need and deserve, and that will enable us to move ahead into the 21st century, instead of languishing at the bottom of heap in so many metric, even as we are consistently at the top in growth.