Legislative pay can be a fraught subject. Taxpayers can object to lining the pockets of politicians, and those politicians recognize an opportunity to castigate their opponents as greedy. But we should still examine the subject, and still look at our options, if a recent report is any indication.
As Tim Carpenter wrote for The Topeka Capital-Journal, “The annual pay of $21,900 in salary and daily per diem provided members of the Kansas Legislature was lower than eight of 14 states examined by state auditors.”
Specifically, compared with our peers, “It was less than the $43,500 allocated in Colorado, $50,800 provided by Oklahoma and $48,800 paid out in Missouri, but more than Nebraska’s $21,000 allocation.”
Now, we should acknowledge the caveats first. Legislators receive other benefits as well that aren’t included in that basic calculation. And Kansas senators and representatives meet for an ostensibly 90-day session.
Yet with all of that, it’s worthwhile to have a discussion about legislative pay.
Here’s why: Kansas deserves representation that actually represents the people. Those 90 days, which in reality often stretch longer, are onerous. When combined with the relatively low pay, the burdens mean that many people who might be willing to serve simply aren’t able to. They simply don’t have the financial resources to leave their jobs for several months and listen to constituents and attend meetings the rest of the year.
What does that mean in practice? It means that the Legislature is full of people who are retired. It means that the Legislature is full of people who are relatively wealthy. It means that the Legislature is full of professionals who run their own businesses. This doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. But it means that legislating — one of the bedrock activities of our democracy — is limited to those who have the resources to do the job.
Kansas should consider what it would take to have an actual citizen legislature. What salary would actually support someone who wasn’t wealthy or retired? What kind of schedule would accommodate someone who has to work 9-5 at an office or warehouse job?
If we truly want an engaged public, we need to have governmental bodies where members of the public can see themselves. That means making the jobs open and available to those who come from nontraditional backgrounds and who might be younger. Legislative pay is an important piece of that puzzle.