Few like it when politicians raise their own wages, especially when they seem to do so little already. Thus, the news from WPRI’s Steph Machado that the Providence’s biennial Salary Commission had suggested raising councilors’ wage cap from $20,000 to $25,000 has led to a predictable level of eyerolling from our more cynical quarters.
As Machado explains in the article, this is not actually a raise in pay. It’s merely a proposal that the Council have permission to enact a raise in their wages. Councilors still only earn $18,765 a year. So to reach $25,000, they’d have to raise their wages by a third, a politically unpalatable proposal (at least all at once). As Machado points out, state legislators make even less than the council at $16,635. And every year most of them undergo the ritual of foregoing their constitutionally-mandated cost of living adjustments and giving up their state-provided health insurance lest they face media scrutiny for being someone who likes more money and healthcare.
The problem is, if you care about good government, that’s all too little to pay legislators.
I said this a year ago, but you get what you pay for in government, and Rhode Island simply doesn’t pay enough. Your average person, looking at the cost of running for office, the likelihood of victory, the amount they’d be paid versus the time they’d have to sink in, and the amount of abuse they’d have to endure… well, they simply don’t run. Thinking along these lines is often used by RI Republicans to explain recruitment problems.
A fair amount of people do, however, make the decision to run. But, by any measure, it’s not enough; the vast majority of offices in this state do not have contested races in the general election when most people vote. If you expand your view to primaries the number of contests is larger, but these are intraparty fights decided by a fraction of a fraction of voters and the quality of candidates can often be quite poor. This is not a recipe for a healthy democracy. I’m confident that for most people who entertain running for office, the juice is not worth the squeeze… unless you’re crooked.
So who ends up running? Well, you end up with a legislature where the largest groups are those who don’t have to rely on their legislative salary and/or can make it to a 4:00 PM rise: lawyers, retirees with good benefits, and (to a lesser extent) teachers. And even so, the demands of office can lead to loss of income and subsequent corruption (see; Fox, Gordon).
With upsetting frequency, legislators at both the state and city level embezzle cash from their campaign accounts. It makes sense why it happens. Some legislators raise tens (or hundreds) of thousands more than their legislative salaries, and yet are unable to touch that money except for campaign-related expenses. Legislators are, at the end of the day, human beings, and it’s extremely difficult for someone who might be struggling with their finances to not touch the giant pot of money they have ready access to.
The Board of Elections has recently gotten tougher on these infractions, a win for anti-corruption; but a win that, of course, doesn’t reduce the cost of service. If you want people with diverse socio-economic backgrounds in office to represent a variety of viewpoints, that cost remains a huge barrier. How can you ask someone who works night shifts to serve if late-night sessions would result in their termination? Is it professional if you must constantly interrupt work to take phone calls from constituents who are upset with a recent interaction with a government department?
Legislators do not work set hours. They do not say “sorry, I’m off the clock, call me tomorrow.” Legislators do not get paid overtime. If I invite my councilor over to dinner to talk city issues as her constituent, she does not earn more money for working outside of normal business hours, despite having had to do that labor. We consider all they do as “public service,” and many suggest that fair compensation for such service would go against its very definition.
But it’s not incompatible. Unsurprisingly, legislative compensation has been studied for years, and the results are pretty clear. Increased compensation for legislators attracts higher-quality candidates, who have more time to focus on legislative matters, and become more experienced legislators. You can support this with longer sessions to increase the amount of scrutiny policies get. You can then further bolster these by providing legislators with professional staff support which strengthens the legislature in respect to the executive branch (making them more effective at oversight), makes individual legislators more effective at influencing policy, and increases their satisfaction with their jobs. Legislators are less susceptible to blatant corruption and or influence from lobbyists, since higher compensation makes those less attractive.
These are good outcomes. Hastily-drafted legislation for the benefit of well-connected lobbyists’ clients voted on by unsupported legislators who have minimal ability to influence policy is currently a serious problem in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Nationally, you often see the opposition party complain that they haven’t had time to read the bill; but that’s true of pretty much every bill in Rhode Island. While some legislators brag about their ability to read all the legislation ever written, they are the exception and not the rule. It’s a problem worth solving.
Increasing legislative pay and professionalism is not a panacea. It doesn’t necessarily alter our economic situation. It doesn’t alter fundamental facts of our political environment: lack of competition, strong partisanship, gerrymandering. In fact, it may worsen issues around incumbency; effective legislators are harder to unseat because they can actually get things done for their constituents, and if your legislative salary is good compared to what you might make outside of public work you have a lot more incentive to fight to keep it. But we have other ways of addressing competition in elections (for instance we can make it easier to form political parties to increase recruitment, we can decrease the hurdles to run for office, and we can alter the method by which we elect our legislators*); and unchallenged incumbents is the situation we have now.
Fundamentally, the question for Rhode Islanders is “what value do we place on public service in our legislatures?” Because if you’re looking at Rhode Island, and you look at what we pay our legislators, the answer is clear.
* If you’re wondering why I didn’t mention term limits as a way to address incumbency and competition, it’s because they actually decrease competition and make incumbency worse.