Compensation Without Representaion?
August 9, 2006 10:01 AM   Subscribe

How much does your State Legislator earn for the privilege of serving the good citizens of your fair state? Last year, state lawmakers in Pennsylvania voted themselves a pay raise, but then, they changed their minds. Constituents were not happy, have not forgotten, and a "non-partisan grassroots organization" was "started as an effort to clean house".
posted by jaronson (23 comments total)
As a PA resident, I think this is AWESOME. There were two state Supreme Court Justices up for retention, and they were the one's who were given "the message". One was retained, but barely (54%). The other, Russell Nigro, was not. This is practically unheard of in PA politics. What's disturbing to me is the Philadelpia Area (including the surrounding counties, Delaware, Chester, Bucks, Montgomery, etc.) voted as they normally do, ignoring PACleanSweep.
posted by rzklkng at 10:10 AM on August 9, 2006

I think that the problem isn't the money people make when they get into office, but what they make before they get there. I'd like to see a law that bans anyone who makes more than two standard deviations above the median US income from public office. It's along the same line of thinking the founding fathers had when they stipulated that you had to be a US-born citizen to qualify for the office of president: keep the European aristocrat class from taking over. The thing is, we need to keep the US aristocrat class from taking over, too. How many members of the Senate *aren't* millionaires? How can someone so out of touch with everyday problems for everyday people represent them?

IMHO a sufficiently paid legislator is less likely to be looking for supplimental income from lobbyists.

While I'm wishing, I'd like 100% public election financing, and instant runoff elections would be nice too. I'd also like the entire raft of incumbents to lose their seats this year. Ooh, and a pony.
posted by mullingitover at 10:14 AM on August 9, 2006

You know, they have no imagination at all. Imagine how constituents would be kissing their feet if the legislators pressed a pay cut into existence. It looks so good, and they'd still be getting all the lobbying perks, plus the obligatory CEO/board jobs after leaving office. It's funny how the PR engines never consider this.
posted by zek at 10:18 AM on August 9, 2006

As a former PA resident I do not think this is AWESOME. Legislator pay rates is not an issue compelling enough to fire everyone in the government. The Senator and Rep from my hometown's district had a lot of seniority in the houses and they were both ousted by this ludicrous campaign. They had 30+ years of service in the government between them and had served the communities very well over the years. They have been replaced by first timers now who have given no policy statements to speak of and who will not be able to serve as well.

I have to wonder who is behind this movement and how their agenda will be served by the mess they have made. "Where are the sheep?" indeed -- I'd say look at your average PA voters... they are the ones who have upended the government over such a trivial issue.
posted by n9 at 10:51 AM on August 9, 2006

This sort of movement is indicative of ways in which Americans want all sorts of contradictory things from their government, or don't know what they want at all.

Some of it is flatly unconstitutional -- anyone who meets the constitutional requirements can run for federal office anytime they bloody well please, no matter what Pennsylvania says.

Really open-access "sunshine" laws are one of those things that sound nice but depend on ordinary people taking time out of their life to go sit around in the legislature. In practice, they increase the influence of lobbyists who are then in a better position to see how people behave in committee.

Likewise, requiring all bills receive a vote just means that the most egregious special-interest legislation has a better chance of passing because now to kill it everyone has to publicly vote against farmers, or against Pittsburgh, or whatever instead of quietly letting it die through inaction.

Democracy Rising wants term limits, in order to help free legislative leaders from crass electoral politics and so that legislators can vote their conscience. But they oppose lame-duck sessions that free legislative leaders from crass electoral politics and in which legislators can vote their conscience.

Frankly, a lot of these "reform" movements remind me of parents who press for all sorts of controls on broadcasting and music and video games because they can't be arsed to actually pay any attention what their children are doing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:52 AM on August 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

mulling, the problem with the high-pay idea is that there's no possible way we could pay them enough to not make them beholden to special interests. Elections are just too expensive.

I like the government-paid elections idea, but in a country with free speech, telling candidates for office that they can't spend their own money to share their ideas is rather noxious. And, you just _know_ they'd come up with a way to game it. Politicians have never been great, but the sleazebags we have now are essentially psychotic. They're nearly invunerable to election loss via the miracle of redistricting, they know it, and they really don't care too much what we think anymore.
posted by Malor at 10:57 AM on August 9, 2006

I'd like to see a law that bans anyone who makes more than two standard deviations above the median US income from public office.
I get where you're coming from, but there's better ways to achieve what you want (I think), although they aren't as simple to formulate.

For the record, the current median income in the US as of 2003 is $44,389^ (the mean is $60,528^.

According to my wife -- who is also not a statisitican -- income is well known as being a highly skelwed distribution, since the outlying high incomes make the standard deviations fairly large. This means that the use of standard deviations is complicated because the large numbers on the top end make the standard deviations unusually large.

At any rate, two standard deviations would encompass almost all US residents (97% approximately) and there's the problem.

A law that bans a minority for running from office has huge political, philosophical and constitutional problems and would never make it through our system. I mean, first of all there's no way the law would ever make it through the house and senate (since by your own reasoning, the current members are the ones the law seeks to curtail) -- and even if it did, I'm guessing it would have to be a constitutional amendment which would require ratification in 2/3s of the states.

It's better, to my thinking, to persue election and campaign laws that limit the amount that a candidate's personal finances can affect the outcome - in my mind it should be impossible for a billionaire to fund their own campaign. In addition, there need to be much tighter regulations on lobbyists and the ability for rich individuals and institutions to buy influence with Government.
posted by illovich at 11:33 AM on August 9, 2006

I've never understood the huge outcry over politicians voting themselves pay raises. The proper response is to push pay raises into some bureaucratic process so that no one has to vote in what is an obvious conflict of interest. Not to fire them all.

But politicians deserve raises just like anyone else - I mean, if you didn't give them raises, the free market says you'd just get less and less competent politicians. Who wants that?
posted by GuyZero at 12:06 PM on August 9, 2006

The problem itself isn't the pay raises; it's what they're doing to earn it in the first place. Have they improved the state's condition? Helped to keep a balanced budget or utilize money wisely?

If you need to see this a bit more starkly, check out the average number of days the U.S. Congress is in session this year versus even two decades ago. One could retort by saying that "they get things done more efficiently", but that also assumes they've been reading the bills they pass to begin with -- which in many cases (including the obvious PATRIOT Act reference) they haven't.
posted by vanadium at 12:38 PM on August 9, 2006

Or, a more pointed and recent critique over the Congress' proclivity for taking time away from office.

It'd be a good metric to find out for state legislatures, then compare to actual productivity and results.
posted by vanadium at 12:41 PM on August 9, 2006

n9 - the pay raises weren't the issue as much as how it was done: because there is a law that states that a sitting legislature cannot vote to raise salaries for itself, they instead used a loophole and voted to raise the amount of free spending money -- money for which they have to offer no accounting whatsoever except that it has been spent -- instead. It wasn't a pay raise, it just had the effect of one: one that gave each legislator 32% more in his/her pocket. And it happened quite literally in the middle of the night when there was nobody else in the capitol; staffers and media, (especially media) were all long gone when the vote was taken.

After that, there was a segment of legislators who tripped all over themselves to justify what had happened. They ran to every media outlet that would hear from them, and talked about why they allegedly deserved this money, and tried to spin the highly unusual wee hours voting as just something that happened. These are the ones who were ousted in the subsequent election -- it was their unrepentant stance which poisoned public opinion against them.

These men and women lost their jobs because they abrogated the public trust, acting solely in their personal best interest and not that of the commonwealth at large or their constituents in particular. They feathered their own nests in the same year that human services, public transportation, libraries and other "direct to the people" segments of the state budget were cut up to 40%. If that's not worth losing your job over, as an elected official, what is?

It should be noted, by the way, that PA Clean Sweep filed for dissolution of their corporation status. How this will affect the organization as it goes forward remains to be seen.
posted by Dreama at 12:49 PM on August 9, 2006


Only 13 of the 51 listed salaries are even above the median US wage ($44,389) mentioned. And ALL of them are less than I earn in a low-rung computer systems consulting job. Even California and DC, by healthy double-digit percentages! That's not because I'm anything special, it's because these salaries are a travesty for an increadably visible and high-responsibility position!

By setting these so low, we're saying that we want our representative government to be composed of:

a) The idle rich, whose income does not stem from current work. (not *always* bad, but a very limited class)
b) The self-aggrandizing or egomaniacal, who seek office primarily for personal power
c) The corrupt, who seek to get rich through graft, cronyism, and crass manipulation of our government.

or, perhaps worst of all,

d) The below average, incapable, or purely socially unsuited to any other line of work. Hmmn.

Of course many state legislatures are not full time jobs, but in those states 'citizen legislators' are regularly paid per-diems that make jury duty look generous. But even 'part-time' in the context of this job means a huge commitment of time and effort... a distinctly 'full-time' job for months in a row, with signifigant off-time duties for their home districts.

It's the basis of representative government that we elect capable people in our stead, to keep track of, understand, and judge issues and conflicts that affect all of us. These people would ideally be the cream of the crop, able to make informed decisions... not just act as meat puppets for the whim of the day or the neraest lobbyist. And in the US, highly capable people often earn good (well above average) livings in the private sector.
posted by zeypher at 1:05 PM on August 9, 2006

The voting themselves a raise thing is difficult. How else should they get a raise? Should they never get a raise and still be making the salaries of 100 years ago?

One suggestion I've heard is to make it an automatic indexing to inflation. Link it to the Consumer Price Index or something comparable. To me this seems reasonable. But then minimum wage and public servant's wages should be pegged to some measure as well.
posted by raedyn at 1:17 PM on August 9, 2006

If you need to see this a bit more starkly, check out the average number of days the U.S. Congress is in session this year versus even two decades ago.

The number of days a legislative house sits per year is not a good measure of what legislators should be paid. Many work, to one degree or another, nearly 365 days per year under overwhelming public scrutiny. I wouldn't wish the job on my worst enemy.

Legislators are underpaid by a factor of ten. At least.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:47 PM on August 9, 2006

The state of Texas, though the second largest state in population, inexplicably still has a part-time legislature whose members are paid $7500 dollars a year (plus per diem).
As much as I happen to dislike the present leadership of the TX state legislature (these are the guys who drew that infamous gerrymander) they obviously should be working full-time on the administration of a state that large.

I haven't seen any studies on this but there seems to be a correlation between the level of conservatism of the state and the way legislators are paid. The more liberal the state, it seems, the better the remuneration.

BTW, Raedyn,
Several states have compensation boards. The reccomendations of the one here is MI used to take effect without legislative action (they had to vote it down to stop it) that was changed when the peasants nearly revolted after a particularly large increase. Now there has to be an affirmative vote and it doesn't take effect until after an election.
Basically, ROU_Xenophobe is right, the people are confused about what we want from government (term limits are another example of this).
posted by Octaviuz at 2:45 PM on August 9, 2006

May I please second, third, and fourth what zeypher said above?

My father was a state legislator in California for much of my youth, and my parents were unable to put myself or any of my siblings through college, we all had to find / are finding our own ways to do it. To boot, my parents are now nearing their 60's with precious little to speak to in the retirement savings area, because back then they didn't have generous 401k's and other benefits that most people in normal corporate jobs get. So I get that burden too - caring for my parents, right about when I finish paying off all my education loans. Great.

There is one other kind of person that might sneak into office, despite the 4 types zeypher pointed out that we are encouraging: those who really want to make a positive difference for the state, like my father did both want to make and did in fact make. These are the kind of people we want in that office, and they are rare. Paying them a rate on par with what the best people in corporate America is paid just plain makes sense. And we will have to pay more to get them.

It blows my mind when people's jaws drop in angry disbelief that some of the highest ranking individuals in their state governments actually want to be recompensed for the level of work they do. We aren't talking about your average state worker here - a tenured highway repairman or income tax processor or state trooper or whatever (I might point out that most of those positions get raises with time, while seniority and length of service in most state legislators is NEVER rewarded) - we're talking about the people who run the show, much like the CEO's and Board of Directors for the companies that set up shop in these very states. No one's angry that those guys make exponentially more than their baseline employees. But still state legislators make a small % more than most public school district managers.

All that said, this is a moot conversation anyway. There is already a corrective measure in place for ANY state legislators that would see fit to grant themselves higher pay than the market would bear. Its called the next election. The voters will speak at the end of the day, if legislators are getting paid too much, the only people who will be elected are those who run on the grounds of reducing legislator pay back to normal levels.

Shit, people. Seriously.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:02 PM on August 9, 2006

I haven't seen any studies on this but there seems to be a correlation between the level of conservatism of the state and the way legislators are paid.

With some data I have sitting around (I study state legislatures), they're only correlated at 0.34.

From a simple regression, there's a solid relationship, but it's very noisy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:02 PM on August 9, 2006

To boot, my parents are now nearing their 60's with precious little to speak to in the retirement savings area, because back then they didn't have generous 401k's and other benefits that most people in normal corporate jobs get.

California's legislature used to have a pension, but 1990's prop 140 put in term limits, reduced staff support, and stripped legislators of their pensions.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:11 PM on August 9, 2006

Yeah. My dad was in office in the 90's. Props are voted for by the people, not the legislators. Thanks, citizens - take away basic benefits from the guys in charge of running the rules for the 5th biggest economy in the world. That makes a bunch of sense to me.

Hell from that point of view the term limits were a blessing, don't let well meaning people stay in office and forgoe pensions any longer than they should.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:26 PM on August 9, 2006

Oh, and try "representation without compensation", for a change.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:29 PM on August 9, 2006

we're talking about the people who run the show, much like the CEO's and Board of Directors for the companies that set up shop in these very states. No one's angry that those guys make exponentially more than their baseline employees. - allkindsoftime

Not true. There are people bothered by the huge disparities. There are shareholders that question compensation awarded to CEOs. It's just that there isn't as straightforward a mechanism for change as there is in the democratic arena.
posted by raedyn at 3:45 PM on August 9, 2006

In my (non-US) state, they simply tied politicians pay rates to the rates of judges, and outsourced that to a statutory board. Politicians were sick of TOTAL FUCKING MORON WHINGERS WITH NO CLUE WHATSOEVER complaining about them getting a pay raise, and have now circumvented it.
posted by wilful at 5:30 PM on August 9, 2006

allkindsoftime: I'm glad to hear legislators like your dad (theoretically the other type you mention) exist, who campaigned and were elected to the job to help do the right thing, and I'm sure he's not unique... but likely uncommon.

We've clearly set up the system to strongly favor the type of results I mention.

raedyn: Comparing paying legislators a fair wage to the excesses of C*O compensation is a red herring. If lawmakers voted to pay themselves a percentage bonus of any increase in state tax revenue (what? It's returning 'shareholder' value...), or a bonus for cutting taxes (again.. it's like paying out a dividend, right?)... then you'd have a point. And a reason to march on your relevant capital building.

But offering, say... 150-200K/year, depending on the state and cost of living... this is not the road to idle wealth. It's not an inconsequental amount of money, but it's still probably less (sometimes substantially) than most talented people of that caliber would earn elsewhere.

I'm not sure why people believe that it's perfectly reasonable to put your government in the hands of someone who could or world work for $24,000 per anum. Maybe it's jealously, or a false sense of economy... or as often as not, maybe it's an astroturfed fit of feigned outrage injected into the press by those who would rather control the flow of money themselves.

What do you think?
posted by zeypher at 5:50 PM on August 9, 2006

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