Part-Time Lawmakers Wrestle With Low Pay, Inconvenience
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ Steve Wiard faced one of the toughest choices of his life in April 1990: whether to continue teaching government to high school students or participate by seeking re-election to the Legislature.
When Wiard first won his House seat, the Council Grove School Board accommodated him by hiring a substitute for when he was gone. But when his two-year term neared its end, Wiard was told he’d get no more time off.
″I was frustrated personally and professionally,″ said Wiard, 42, who chose the Statehouse over the schoolhouse but got a new job as a hospital spokesman. ″If people of the state indeed want a citizen legislature, they must find ways and avenues for them to serve.″
Around the country, ″citizen legislators″ like Wiard in states with part- time legislatures are finding the demands high and the pay low.
In most states, serving in the legislature is considered a part-time job performed by public-spirited men and women for little pay.
The 1988 National Conference of State Legislatures found only eight states have full-time legislatures: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The criteria for a full-time legislature included duration of session, pay and benefits and member turnover.
Kansas lawmakers, for instance, earn $60 a day plus $69 for expenses during the 90-day annual session and special wrap-up sessions. Legislative leaders, the speaker of the House and Senate president receive an extra $9,556.
Yet many lawmakers said it’s better this way.
″The citizen legislature, meeting for a short time, living in your community and having to make a living in your community, is preferable to having a full-time legislature entirely employed at legislating,″ said Montana Rep. Mike Kadas, 34, a carpenter and Democrat from Missoula.
Nancy Rhyme, senior policy specialist for the NCSL, said the job of state legislator is far more demanding than ever before. She cited the growing complexity of state budgets and the expansion of state bureaucracies as states provide more services once performed by the federal government.
″The complexity of administering all that and coming up with budgets in times of fiscal constraint is very difficult,″ Rhyme said.
The meaning of ″part-time legislature″ varies widely. Pay ranges from $5 in Rhode Island to $71,885 per year in the District of Columbia, the NCSL said.
The Rhode Island General Assembly has no limit on the duration of its sessions, but members receive their daily $5 for just 60 days. After that, they work for free.
Yet the biggest complaint Rhode Island lawmakers have is their lack of staff and consequent reliance on lobbyists for information. ″A legislator almost has to go to them,″ said former Sen. Sean O. Coffey of Providence.
The Alabama Legislature gave itself a 19.6 percent pay raise in May, boosting its annual basic compensation to $30,600.
Alabama lawmakers officially meet 15 weeks a year. But if the state budget isn’t passed by the 15th week, the governor can order a 30-day wrap-up session. As many as four wrap-up sessions have been held in a single year.
Alabama legislators who live far from the Capitol in Montgomery have an added complaint.
Rep. Albert Hall has to drive 215 miles from his Tennessee Valley district. After his first election in 1978, he found he couldn’t look after his auto parts store and sold it. He makes ends meet with some farming and his wife’s salary as a nurse.
Hall said he’d be better off if the state paid him minimum wage based on the hours he works as a legislator.
During the 90-day Montana biennial session, the daily pay for lawmakers is $56.44, plus $50 for expenses.
So if the pay is bad and the choices troubling, why do it?
John Vincent served in the Montana Legislature for 16 years before retiring in 1990 to consider a run for governor. Lawmakers, he said, serve because they ″have a sincere commitment to public service.″ And, he added, ″politics is addictive.″