The Seattle Times editorialized yesterday that a citizens commission used sound logic in freezing the pay of Washington state elected officials over the next two years, a sentiment with which I can’t argue in light of our current budgetary woes. But at the same time I think it needs to be pointed out that at only $42,000 a year, we don’t pay our state legislators nearly enough to attract a large pool of qualified candidates.
Yes, that’s right… those same legislators at whom I’m still more than a little pissed off for their collective lack of creativity and courage during the past session… I’m arguing we need to pay them more, perhaps even double. In fact, I’d argue that the body’s lack of effectiveness is at least partially due to the low pay, and the sort of candidates who can afford to accept it.
What we get now are basically two groups of candidates: the very wealthy, who don’t need the money, or the kinda candidate who looks at $42K and thinks “Hey… I’ll be living large!” There’s also a third group in the middle, who accepts the job and the huge cut in standard of living that comes with it, out of a sense of public service or narcissism or both, but those sort of legislators become fewer and fewer as the gap between what legislators could earn and what they do earn grows ever larger.
Now I know some of you will retort that $42K ain’t bad for a part-time legislature that only meets in session for six months out of every two years, but I’d argue that the job is only part-time if you’re doing it wrong. The best, most effective legislators are the ones who make themselves available to citizens, interest groups and their colleagues year round, providing constituent services while seeking community input and expert opinions as they prepare legislation and strategies for our artificially condensed sessions. And for state reps, hell, running for office every two years is a full time job in itself.
So if we insist on maintaining the fiction that this is a part-time job, and continue to compensate accordingly, well, if I remember my Adam Smith correctly, you get what you pay for. The wealthy legislators (think Eastside Dems), however pure their intentions, can’t help but lose touch with the struggles of average Washingtonians, while the pool of less affluent, highly qualified candidates, willing and able to make the financial sacrifices necessary to serve, grows ever smaller. And, more compromised, for we’ve virtually designed a system that requires many legislators to leverage their political expertise and position to earn outside income.
The shrinking size and power of the legislative middle class is reflected in a body whose politics and priorities have increasingly come to resemble a caricature of economic reality, where thoughtful policy debates have been replaced by B-movie showdowns between evil industrialists and union bosses. Or so it often seems. What’s lost in all this are passionate, effective voices who not only understand the needs and aspirations of the vast majority of Washingtonians, but who live this life every day. Oh, we have plenty of legislators who walk the walk, and plenty more who talk the talk. What we’re sorely lacking are knowledgeable, competent, and courageous legislators who are able to do both.
This hollowing out of the political class—this increasing dominance of amateurs and hobbyists—can only lead to the election of legislators who are less capable of representing the needs of their constituents, or who lack the empathy to do so. For example, much has been made year after year about how Washington state consistently lags well behind the national average in teacher pay, but you gotta wonder how much sympathy this earns the profession in Olympia, when the average teacher still makes several thousand dollars a year more than the legislators who sign their paychecks? Perhaps this partially explains a Legislature that could pat itself on the back for passing landmark education reform, while obstinately refusing to even entertain the notion of honestly debating the kind of tax restructuring that would be necessary to make full funding of these reforms even a remote possibility?
So yeah, sure… now’s the wrong time to increase legislative pay. Not during this recession, in the midst of this outsized budget crisis. But if we want a Legislature better capable of handling the next budget crisis—or perhaps even avoiding it entirely—it’s past time to start thinking about paying a wage that might attract a more capable class of legislators.