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Full-time pay perverts LA's citizen-legislator ideal

As bills wend their way through the Louisiana Legislature to increase salaries of staff and elected members, the lack of appropriateness of the increase cannot be understood unless remuneration issues and the concept of a state legislature are first grasped.

One common misunderstanding, sometimes purposively maintained by the legislators themselves, is that except for a very few (leaders, who are paid much higher) they “only” making $16,800 a year ($1,400 per month). This figure ignores the per diem legislators receive for every day the Legislature is in session for which they are not declared absent, as well as for any interim meetings or activities (even convention attendance), this year at $143, meaning the base pay of all but the most negligent legislators will be, including special sessions, this year over $32,000. In fact, this is not much below the $36,729 median household income figure for Louisiana in 2005; throw in enough interim committee meetings and they’ll get there.

That this with no base increase represents a full-time salary is troubling because the guiding conceptualization behind most state legislatures, including Louisiana’s is that they are to be part-time institutions. (The above amounts do not include other benefits such as office supplements.) These officials are not supposed to be full-timers precisely because, with the Legislature in session only two or three moths of the year regularly, they are to circulate among and live as common citizens at least three-quarters of the year. It’s bad enough that the generous amounts already given permit many to avoid that status; it would be catastrophic to jack base pay to the levels paid in all but a couple of states in separating legislators from their constituents.

Some try to defend the final detachment of legislators from their roots as ordinary citizens courtesy of this increase by arguing the nature of the job is such that they should be considered full-timers. This has the relationship exactly backwards and perverts the original intent: if legislators seem now to have full-time jobs, it is because by their own actions they have expanded government beyond its genuine, essential functions to make enough work for themselves to justify presenting themselves as full-timers. The solution is not to acquiesce to this corruption of the true mission of government by declaring legislators full-timers, but by paring the size of government to make it easier for legislators to fulfill the role of citizen-legislator. If they choose not to, it is illegitimate to force the taxpayer to subsidize this conceit.

Finally, there simply can be no justification to pay ordinary legislators around $70,000 a year when at most they work full-time from 75-100 days a year. Unless the state wants to abandon the citizen-legislator model and create a professional legislature, at best this is egocentric; at worst, wasteful. Legislators must understand it is an honor and privilege to serve and compensation should not even be a consideration. If it is, nobody is putting a gun to their heads and making them serve, they are free to resign their offices and make way for those who have a better, correct attitude about the role of legislator.

There’s also no evidence that full-time legislators can do any better in governance. There are plenty of examples of legislatures in the U.S. that seem to do a far better job than Louisiana’s for much less pay. Neighboring Texas, for example, has its legislature meet only every other year, paying $600 monthly and a per diem the size of Louisiana’s – and Texas state senators have districts as populated and as geographically sprawling as U.S. House districts, yet there seems to be no shortage of people willing to serve in an institution whose policy output historically has been much better than Louisiana’s.

Simply, no justification exists for making Louisiana legislators full-timers, except for its elements of self-service and ego boost of existing legislators.


James H said...

I guess I diagree with on this a tad.

The flip side of this from my experience down there is the low pay causes pretty much just the very rich to be able to be legislators

Also in reality this is a pretty full time job. I suppose that we can cut back on the office offices for people to be able to call and get a hold of their legislature. Perhaps just have them open on Friday at their home offices. That would be part time but I have a feeling the voters would not like that

Anonymous said...

And just who are these full-time pay perverts? And why are they the ideal? That's sick!

Jeff Sadow said...

In the final analysis, I think there are enough committed citizens who arent' wealthy who will do this. I read an interesting book years ago, The United States of Ambition, by Alan Ehrenhalt. It was about ordinary citizens, almost all of them of very modest means, who get elected to offices with low pay. But they love being elective officials so much they willingly spend an obsessive number of hours devoted to their offices for nest to nothing. I'll take these people for these local and state legisaltive jobs over "professionals," and I think we'll always have enough of them.

Anonymous said...

Wow, have you hit the nail on the head or what? Another huge problem is that the vast majority of our elected officials are not there to serve anyone but themselves and their inner circles. They have an agenda long before being elected and it's usually to advance their own careers. How many contractors and lawyers do we have in our legislature? Why are those the only people who are "qualified?" The lawyers that I know that are down there (Chris Roy, Jr.) have made a fortune swindling people with frivolous personal injury suits and now want to triple their public service pay. We should all be outraged. How many legislators have gotten government contracts for their own businesses or for their friends and family's businesses? When is Louisiana going to wake up?! I, for one, am tired of paying exorbitant taxes, just to continually fund raise throughout the school year because my son's school can't afford textbooks. And I don't know about you, but I'm tired of having to replace vehicles every few years because the roads and driveways are so CRAPPY! Why do we have to jump the curb every time we turn into a parking lot? Shouldn't a driveway be smooth and easy to enter without tearing up the underside of your car? Just a few thoughts...