Courier Q&A: Legislator Pay?
QUESTION: Vermont is one of a handful of states that has a part time citizen legislature. As you are running for office, you are also seeking a job within the state of Vermont. Although some take pride in Vermont’s citizen legislature, some say the compensation for legislators prevents a full spectrum of Vermonters from being able to run for (and hold) office.
Do you think Vermont should rethink the way legislators are compensated, and how would you like it to change?
I recently saw a McDonald’s recruitment poster showing the salary and benefits for an entry-level employee in Colchester. I was struck that the total compensation and benefits offered by McDonald’s were not that different from my salary as a Vermont State Senator. Legislators do not have a 401K. There are no school loan subsidies and there are no contributions to any medical or other benefit plan. There is no longer any provision to join a state health care plan, even at a legislator’s own expense. When legislators who live far away from Montpelier stay overnight, we are reimbursed for the room rate, but then have to treat the reimbursement as taxable income. And, unlike McDonald’s, we don’t even get a discount on hamburgers.
The huge exodus of legislators who chose not to seek reelection this year is indicative of the problem. Vermont’s two youngest senators were among the casualties. Time and time again, we are told that people in their prime earning years find it difficult to serve in a legislature that demands not just 18 weeks of full time service per year, but countless unpaid hours to attend meetings, respond to constituent inquiries and keep abreast of a myriad of issues.
Few people have jobs that allow employees to take the time off to be able to serve in the Vermont General Assembly. As a results, the demographics of our legislature do not reflect the ideal of the “citizen legislature” that we claim to have.
It’s always difficult politically to raise legislative salaries. Frugality is one of the key principles embedded in Vermont’s Constitution. But frugality also implies ensuring that we demand value for what we spend. We are now at a point where no one is willing to run for some legislative seats. Finding good candidates willing to run is challenging. And so many say they would be interested in serving, but they can’t afford to do so.
What can we do?
- Raise legislator pay to reflect the value of what we want them to do and to attract the people who can do what we expect of them.
- Reduce the time the legislature is in session. That will offset the cost of the wage increase and reduce the overhead expense. We ought to be able to do the people’s business in three months instead of five. We could all talk faster.
- Consider restructuring the legislative work week. For example, we could conduct some sessions remotely as we learned to do successfully during the pandemic. In lieu of a weekday, we could conduct some sessions on Saturdays so as to allow citizen legislators to do their primary job during the workweek.
- Structure expense reimbursement fairly so as not to penalize legislators from districts far away from Montpelier.
- Pay for documented off-session work. Consider providing an agreed-upon standard stipend to allow for off-session time and expenses incurred.
None of this is designed to enrich legislators. On the contrary, it’s to ensure that we can attract a citizen legislature composed of real citizens.