Politics & Other Mistakes: You get what you pay for

6 mins read
Al Diamon
Al Diamon

Maine legislators earn about $22,000 for a two-year term, somewhat less than the going rate for freelance political columnists. This seems fair, because state senators and representatives are only funny unintentionally.

Nevertheless, there are frequent calls to raise legislative salaries, with proponents arguing that such minuscule compensation prevents average working folks from serving. As a consequence, the Legislature is overrun with retirees, lawyers, rich people and teachers (who have a special legal exemption that preserves their jobs while they’re off in Augusta voting for higher pay for teachers). People living paycheck to paycheck (call-center employees, wait staff, factory workers, drug dealers, political columnists) can’t afford to take unpaid leave to spend nine of the next 24 months under the State House dome.

The result is a governing body that doesn’t reflect the state’s population. The fishing industry is underrepresented, as are forest products, agriculture, janitors, panhandlers and political columnists, while the educated, wealthy and old have a disproportionate role in setting state policies. The Maine Legislature looks too much like Cape Elizabeth and not enough like Caratunk.

Several proposals have been floated for correcting this misalignment. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Paul LePage called for cutting the size of the Legislature and using the savings to increase compensation for the remaining members. As with most LePage ideas, this one was accompanied by a spittle storm of insults and accusations of incompetence, guaranteeing that the legislative targets of his verbal assault would treat his plan with all the respect due a dog poop deposited on the front lawn.

There are, however, other proposals on how best to set the level of legislative pay. As University of Missouri political science Professor Peverill Squire (I am not making up that name) told the FiveThirtyEight blog, “The question of salaries has haunted American legislatures since the 1640s. It has been a chronic issue where lawmakers generally ask for more pay and the public is almost always resistant.”

The public has good reason. As Squire and others have pointed out, high pay bears only the slightest correlation to high quality. States providing the most generous legislative compensation – New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania, for instance – sport above average rates of corruption and idiocy. But Squire also noted that reasonable pay rates (a term that’s as squishy as “reasonable Donald Trump statements on race and religion”) do seem to be necessary to produce orderly governance (although that’s skewed by a couple of other factors I’ll get to in a moment).

By national standards, Maine’s legislative pay, which averages about $11,000 per year, is on the low side. Research by Squire and Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief shows the median annual wage for all legislators in 2014 was $20,833. But that doesn’t include per diems that can add as much as 10 grand per year to paychecks, although in Maine they’re only worth an extra $4,800.

Even with that perk, FiveThirtyEight found just 12 states pay their senators and representatives as much as that state’s median household income, and Maine isn’t close to being one of them. Our state’s median in 2014 was $49,462, while legislators’ pay plus per diem totaled a mere $15,852.

Before we rush to close that gap, consider that researchers have discovered that the quality of legislating isn’t necessarily elevated by fatter paychecks. Of more importance is how long legislatures are in session and the size of the legislative staff (no anatomy jokes, please). The studies found that longer sessions and more staffers greatly enhanced (ahem) the efficiency and professionalism of state legislatures.

Maine is on the short side in terms of the duration of sessions (although anyone who’s actually sat through one will tell you they last longer than the average ice age), at about six months in odd numbered years and three months in even ones. And according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, we have one of the smallest staffs in the country relative to the size of the Legislature, with little more than three-quarters of a staffer per legislator.

I hope the part that’s missing isn’t the head.

Better state government is expensive. Like better political columns.

Oh, wait.

I don’t get paid enough to read your emails sent to aldiamon@herniahill.net. But I do it anyway.

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