Low pay drives some state lawmakers to resign
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — In trying to decide whether to run for a fourth term in the Connecticut House of Representatives, Rep. Joe de la Cruz posed the question to his wife, whom he jokingly calls his lawyer and financial adviser.
Although Tammy de la Cruz isn’t keen to discourage her 51-year-old husband from quitting the part-time job he’s come to love, she admitted it didn’t make financial sense for him to run again in November. .
“The retirement planner in her didn’t even have to use a calculator to do the math,” Joe de la Cruz, a Democrat, told fellow House members when he announced in February that he was not seeking re-election. “The $30,000 a year we earn doing this illustrious job, the one we all really care about, is really not enough to live on. It’s really not enough to retire.
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Lawmakers in other states, often those with part-time “citizen” legislatures, have raised similar complaints. In Oregon, where the base salary is around $33,000 a year, three female state representatives announced in March that they were not seeking reelection because they could not afford to support their families on a part-time salary for what really is a full-time job. They called the situation “unsustainable” in a joint resignation letter.
Connecticut lawmakers haven’t seen a $28,000 base salary increase in 21 years.
While how legislative salaries are adjusted varies by state, bills increasing legislators’ pay have been proposed in several states this year, including Connecticut, Georgia, Oregon and New Mexico, which is the only non-salaried legislature in the country. So far, the bills have failed as some lawmakers fear upsetting voters by approving their own pay raises.
It’s also unclear whether higher salaries ultimately lead to more diverse legislatures, which proponents of pay increases say are in jeopardy. A 2016 study published in the American Political Science Review determined that there was “surprisingly little empirical evidence” that increasing politicians’ salaries would encourage more workers to run for office. The study found that higher wages “do not appear to make political office more attractive to workers; they seem to make it more attractive to professionals who already earn high salaries.
Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed, said he believes the low salaries, coupled with threats and picketing that some lawmakers and their families have received on issues such as COVID-19 rules , will discourage people with modest means of racing. And that often means people of color.
“It makes it more difficult for people who don’t have a lot of free time and have to rely on their income to be able to perform their public service,” he said. “And that makes it an occupation that is becoming more restricted to the wealthy. And the wealthy in this country tend to be whiter than people of color.
In Washington, Democratic Senator Mona Das, a child of Indian immigrants elected for the first time in 2018, recently announced on Facebook that she was not seeking re-election. Part of the reason, she said, is the difficulty she had in meeting her financial obligations on a state senate salary. Washington senators earn $56,881 a year plus a per diem to offset living expenses when the legislature is in session. This per diem has increased from $120 per day to $185 per day this year, while the salary is expected to increase to $57,876 on July 1.
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This year, about 71% of state legislators are white, 9% black, 6% Hispanic and 2% Asian or Hawaiian, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislative chambers remain on average dominated by men. Nationally, about 29% of state legislators are women, up from about 25% five years ago.
There are about 1,600 millennials and Gen Zers serving in state legislatures and Congress nationwide, and the Millennial Action Project said that number has increased in recent years. Reggie Paros, program director of the nonpartisan organization that supports lawmakers and congressmen born after 1980, said younger lawmakers haven’t been in the workforce long enough to establish the financial stability needed to compensate for poorly paid legislative work.
“This financial barrier is one of the biggest difficulties in accessing the civil service,” Paros said.
Political polarization is another potential deterrent to new entrants.
“I think it’s getting harder to make the case for a lot of people that they should put themselves in the political maelstrom at what could be a huge cost to their families,” said Peverill Squire, professor of political science at the ‘University of Missouri. .
His research on how and why legislatures change over time found “greater diversity across a range of different dimensions” in recent years. In Oregon, for example, women held a majority of seats in the state House of Representatives for the first time in 2021.
“But this change,” he said, “may be more difficult to achieve in the future if, in fact, the compensation that is often offered for legislative services lags behind what the most people during their working years would need to support themselves and their families.
When De la Cruz, a union sheet metal worker, leaves his job, he said there will be no construction workers employed in the Connecticut General Assembly, let alone anyone who works as a cashier at Walmart or a cashier. A gas station. He argues that it’s important that these “lay” voices be represented in the state capitol.
“It’s a huge concern for me,” de la Cruz said. “Ordinary people, like ordinary workers, they don’t see the value of other workers up there to them…They don’t understand that my voice…is about as close to a voice as they’re going to get.”
Connecticut Rep. Bob Godfrey, a 17-term Democrat from Danbury who has proposed wage-raising legislation for at least five years, recalled a plumber, assembly line worker and meter reader who had served with him in the House in his early days. Godfrey, who relies on his statutory salary and Social Security to pay his bills, said he worries the lack of blue-collar workers “is skewing policymaking toward the wealthy” in Connecticut.
“We don’t look like the state,” he said.
In New Mexico, a Senate panel this year approved a proposed constitutional amendment to pay legislators who currently receive a daily allowance of about $165 during legislative sessions and for travel. Democratic Senator Katie Duhigg of Albuquerque argued that a salary would “really expand the universe of people who can serve,” noting that the legislature is “largely wealthy and retired.” But action on the proposal has been postponed indefinitely.
Earlier this year in Alaska, lawmakers rejected a plan that would have raised their annual base salary from $50,400 to $64,000. It hasn’t changed since 2010. But the same proposal would have capped their daily allowance of $307 for expenses like food and lodging to $100 and receipts required for claims. Some lawmakers complained that $100 wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of living in Juneau, the state capital, during the session.
Sen. Mike Shower, a Republican from Wasilla, Alaska, raised concerns about the ramifications of low pay in a letter to the State Employees Compensation Board, which proposed the revised salary plan and daily allowances.
“If there is no good compensation plan,” he wrote, “how can we get decent civil servants who are not rich, retired, or have the luxury of having a spouse with a job good enough to help someone become a legislator?”
Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon; and Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska contributed to this report.