We repeal your initiatives, ignore sexual harassment, and now we want you to raise our pay.
Such is the pitch the Legislature’s Executive Board wants to make to use voters. At yesterday’s meeting, the E-Board unanimously endorsed a constitutional amendment to raise legislator pay from the current $6,000 dollars a year, a salary unchanged for twenty years, to “one-fifth of the most recent South Dakota median household income as provided by law, which by 2015 figures would mean $10,191 a year. Legislators could just raise their pay statutorily, but given their poor track record, they understandably lack the courage to make that case to their constituents. Thus, the E-Board wants to write the 20%-median-household-income standard into the state constitution, which would require a public vote.
I want very much to look at Legislature’s IM22 repeal, its attempted youth-minimum-wage repeal, its transgender bathroom bills, its failure to get serious about corruption, and its lunatic fringers’ falling for online hoaxes about Sharia law and say, “More money for you guys? Not a chance!”
But I have to put on my free-market hat and agree with Speaker and E-Board chairman G. Mark Mickelson—we have to pay for talent:
If you’re not going to pay the folks very much, then you’re going to limit the pool of those who can serve to those who are retired or self-employed [G. Mark Mickelson, to Dana Ferguson, “State Panel Advances Request for 70 Percent Legislator Raise,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2017.11.13].
Mickelson’s market assessment is spot on. The Legislature is dominated by people who can take nine weeks off every winter, plus a scattering of days throughout the year for interim committee hearings, without suffering severe financial hardship. That means retirees and (mostly well-off) self-employed folks. And in recent years, that pool of applicants hasn’t been putting forward great statespeople or great results.
A 2016 FiveThirtyEight analysis agrees that low pay limits who serves, making legislatures less representative of the people and more reliant on lobbyists:
Low pay also puts limits on who can realistically serve in a legislature. In states like New Mexico that have short legislative sessions, lawmakers must leave their day jobs for one or two months every year and travel to the state capital — in addition to dealing with year-round demands from constituents. Many lawmakers must be independently wealthy or have flexible jobs that allow them to juggle politics and everyday work. Part-time legislators are also more likely than full-time legislators to be retirees, Moncrief said. It’s no surprise, then, that state lawmakers tend to be olderthan their constituents.
Lawmakers with less time to spare and no staff to guide them may rely more heavily on lobbyists to advise them about legislation, Squire said. A lawmaker in Missouri, a hybrid state, recently got into hot water when he declared that he sees lobbyists as “unpaid staff” [Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, “How Much Should State Legislators Get Paid?” FiveThirtyEight, 2016.04.07].
If we want better legislators, we need to expand the candidate pool. One sure way to do that is make it more affordable for more people to serve in the Legislature.
The 70% pay raise, as Ferguson headlines it, seems drastic in raw dollar terms. But, as with teacher pay, what we pay legislators doesn’t reflect what the market in other states says this public service is worth. Thomson-DeVeaux’s analysis found that, by 2014 figures including $4,400 of per diem payments, South Dakota ranked 45th in the nation for legislator compensation as a percentage of state median household income. The E-Board’s proposed bump would leave us at 45th, still behind North Dakota. It would place us at about the median pay among the fourteen states with part-time legislatures.
And might we get from more pay? Maybe better government?
Using the U.S. Congress as a benchmark, Squire created a scale to assess professionalism. With this scale, he and other political scientists found that the state legislatures that meet for longer and give their legislators more resources (both in terms of staff and salary) are more efficient, passing a greater percentage of bills overall and enacting more bills per legislative day. They have more contact with constituents and are more attentive to their concerns. They are also more independent, both from party leadership and the governor, and more likely to take on government reforms and enact complex and innovative policies. “When you compensate a legislator well and give them a staff, they’re able to put more time into their work and actually develop some knowledge around different policies,” Squire said [Thomson-DeVeaux, 2016.04.07].
Note that DeVeaux’s source says a longer session may need to go hand in hand with more resources for legislators. I won’t try saddling legislators with a longer Session yet (although I remain open to discussion of alternative calendars that stretch out the Session, make it easier for full-time workers to serve, and give the Legislature as a whole more time to gather information and consider complicated legislation). Right now, I’m willing to accept the Legislature’s invitation to us voters to discuss their compensation. Place that amendment on the ballot, and let us talk about how much lawmakers are worth. Give us the chance to vote for higher pay for legislators right alongside the chance 2018 gives us to elect all new legislators to earn that higher pay.
p.s.: Even the SDGOP spin blog agrees that low pay limits the legislative talent pool and that a Capitol pay raise is worth public discussion. Dang it.