Monday, October 26, 2009

The Real Scandal of Legislative Pay

The recent talk about which state legislators are giving up part of their salaries to match state employee furlough days obscures a much, much larger issue with legislative pay. The real scandal of legislative pay is:

It’s way too low.

During this term, state legislators are paid $43,500 while the presiding officers (the Senate President and Speaker of the House) make $56,500. Here is how those salaries compare to a few other occupations in Maryland as of 2008 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Dentists: $145,060
Lawyers: $125,980
Management Occupations: $105,450
Civil Engineers: $80,540
Architects: $79,800
Registered Nurses: $74,370
Senate President/Speaker: $56,500
Electricians: $50,040
Paralegals: $48,490
Chefs and Head Cooks: $44,130
Correctional Officers: $43,890
State Legislators: $43,500
Truck Drivers, Heavy: $39,770
Hairdressers: $30,690
Security Guards: $30,430
Construction Laborers: $30,290
Retail Salespersons: $25,140
Janitors: $23,130

So state legislators are paid about as much as prison guards. And paralegals are actually paid more than the people who pass the state’s laws!

But wait – aren’t legislators part-time officials? Not really. While it’s true that the General Assembly is only in session for three months every year, many legislators spend lots of time answering emails, attending community events and holding large and small meetings all year round. Maryland’s legislators estimate that they spend 70% of the time they would devote to a full-time job to their state duties, about 30 hours per week. But because they earn pennies from the state, many of them are forced to seek outside employment to pay the bills. Those legislators have to hold down two jobs, not an easy feat when an employer has to give up three months to satisfy the demands of the General Assembly. Many bosses will not give up those months, further shrinking the employment options of legislators.

And so smart people with families and successful careers are actually deterred from seeking office. Who has the time to raise staggering amounts of political contributions, perform two demanding jobs at a high level and deal with the spouse and kids? Think about the pool of people who don’t face those sorts of constraints: the independently wealthy, the self-employed, retirees, the unemployable and the self-obsessed. Is it in our interest to give these folks an advantage over everyone else?

We do not write this essay from the perspective of coddling the politicians. Lord knows we have zapped them many, many times on this blog. But legislative pay is important for citizens who require high quality public service. It is high time that we act like employers, which is exactly what we are in relationship to our elected officials. Smart employers pay competitive salaries, have high expectations, give their workers the tools they need to perform their jobs and fire them when they don’t work out. Our current system for employing state legislators, which features low pay, low expectations and low accountability, bears no resemblance to that model.

Take it from a building trades guy: when it comes to labor, you get what you pay for. If you underpay the roofers, you’ll get a wet attic. If you underpay the plumbers, you’ll get a wet basement. If you underpay the electricians, you might get an electrical fire. And if you underpay state legislators, you will get a statehouse dominated by leadership, lobbyists and bureaucrats, which is pretty much what we have in Maryland.

And so we have not previously pressed the issue of legislators’ giving up pay to match the state employees’ furlough days. When people who are expected to sort out complicated issues, write legislation, debate it, cast informed votes, perform constituent service and put up with rogue bloggers are paid as much as prison guards, they are clearly not compensated in line with their job duties. But we are not going to let them all off the hook.

You see, there is a sub-class of legislators who are independently wealthy and don’t need their state pay at all. Three of them have spent over $50,000 of their own money on their political campaigns but don’t see fit to give back any part of their state salaries when the budget, and the state’s workforce, are in dire trouble. If anyone can afford to give up some pay, it’s these people. Tomorrow, we will reveal who they are.