When Arnie Arnesen was elected to the New Hampshire state House of Representatives in 1984, she was 31 years old and pregnant. “I couldn’t afford infant daycare,” she remembers, “so I showed up and breastfed on the floor of the House.”
Her district was well northwest of the state capitol, so the combination of the commute and her legislative duties kept her more than a little busy: “How do you have a job where you’re traveling down to Concord — an hour and a half each way, three days a week — and think you could have a life? I took it as an opportunity even though it was a financial liability.”
For her hard work, Arnesen received a $100 salary from the state’s treasury — per year.
The state’s lawmakers have never gotten a pay raise. Since 1889, the New Hampshire constitution has set the salary for its state legislators at $200 per two-year term (about $5,500 in today’s money). “When they put the $200 in the constitution,” Arnesen said, “that was half the average wage of a New Hampshire worker. It reflected a reasonable salary, but that’s never changed. And the question is why not? They don’t want young people [or] diversity.” The result, she says, is that over her four terms in the House and in the decades since, the state legislature has been almost exclusively “made up of the rich, the retired, and the remunerated — because they don’t need the cash.”
Last month, after becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) opened up to the New York Times about the financial challenges she was facing as a newly-elected but not-yet-sworn-in lawmaker. With meager savings and no income until January, she found she was unable to even rent an apartment in Washington, D.C. “There are many little ways in which our electoral system isn’t even designed (nor prepared) for working-class people to lead,” she tweeted. For her transparency, she faced a firestorm of conservative mockery.
With a median net-worth of at least $511,000, the people serving in Congress are typically fairly rich. If they aren’t wealthy, the annual Congressional salary of $174,000 will make it a little easier for electeds once they are sworn in. Not all lawmakers are so lucky.
ThinkProgress spoke with an array of current and former state and local elected officials in “part-time” positions about the challenges of being a public servant and also trying to make enough money to live on. They painted a picture of a system that, as Ocasio-Cortez observed, makes it challenging and sometimes impossible for working-class people to participate.
No salary in New Mexico
The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a comprehensive list of state legislatures and how much their members get paid for their service. A few states treat their legislatures as full-time jobs with a real salary. California, for example, currently pays its elected legislators $107,241 annually, and Pennsylvania lawmakers receive $87,180. Some provide by-the-day or by-the-week salaries and/or a per diem for the legislative sessions.
While New Mexico gives its state representatives and state senators a pension plan and $161 per diem for expenses during session, it is the only state in the country with an otherwise completely un-salaried legislature. Many states provide salaries that fall short of a livable wage. In states like Idaho, Maine, Rhode Island, the Carolinas, and Virginia, this means compensation in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. In South Dakota and Texas, a legislator’s salary is just four figures.
One current legislator from a state with a part-time legislature (who asked to remain anonymous) told ThinkProgress of the challenges the low wage presents. “Many of my colleagues have spouses who do well or are retired,” while others are realtors or lawyers with partners who can pick up the slack during session. But barring these circumstances, this lawmaker observed, consulting jobs have been the only way to augment the small salary enough to make ends meet.
Even though it’s a part-time legislature, “it doesn’t feel like a part-time job,” they told ThinkProgress. As in many states, that legislature meets daily during its annual “legislative session,” plus occasional special sessions. Committee hearings and various meetings also frequently require members to travel to the state capitol on other days, plus meetings with constituents, community organizations, and local governments take up much of the rest of the year. These obligations make it nearly impossible to find a full-time job.
“One job told me they thought it’d be fine for me to take off, but when the legislative session got close, they realized they couldn’t do without me so we agreed to part ways. Another time, I had an interview for a job that was a perfect use of my skills. [During the interview] the person asked, ‘So you need to take off a day a week?’ I said during legislative session, I’d need Monday through Friday.” The interviewer ended things there with an “I don’t think it would work.”
While this lawmaker enjoys serving, the economics have been tough. “If I knew then what was going to happen to my savings and investment and my real estate, I would have hoped that I’d have had the brains to not run in the first place… I never had credit card debt ’til I was in the legislature. Now I have a lot of it. I owned a home before I was in the legislature, now I don’t. I had a really significant amount of savings before I was elected, and now I don’t.”
Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (D) was recently re-elected to her second term in the Rhode Island General Assembly, where legislators receive a $15,630 annual salary with no per diem. A mom of four and an educator, she too finds herself stretched thin. “Balancing my full-time teaching job, raising a family, and helping to take care of and offer support to my 90-year-old mother is hard. However, I have never been one to shy away from hard work,” she explained. “Quite frankly I am doing what many of my own constituents and Rhode Islanders are doing every single day, every single week. Many are working one or more jobs up to 80 hours per week and are still not able to make ends meet.”
“Legislators like myself do have more financial stress because we are not born into wealth or, in some cases, we haven’t been afforded the opportunities to acquire enough wealth to take care of our competing needs,” Ranglin-Vassell said, noting that she is still repaying her student loans, while supplementing student loans for her sons’ education. But she believes that struggle makes her a better representative of her Providence-based district. “I carry the voices and pain inflicted upon my community by the lack of intentional and sustained investment in our core urban areas. I think many legislators who don’t come from communities like mine, while generally good-hearted, do not fully grasp just how much people are struggling.”
A Jeffersonian view of elected officials
Joel McDonald is the vice chair of the Virginia Beach City School Board in southeastern Virginia — another “part-time” position for which members get a $12,000 annual stipend to oversee a nearly $800 million-a-year operation. At times, he said, it’s a juggling act to do his full-time job, run a part-time business, and devote several hours a week to the school board. “There have been occasions where I’ve had to say ‘I just can’t do that’…” he explained. “Usually, I’m with my laptop in tow to make sure I’m available, or trying to multitask to stay on top of what I need to stay on top of.”
“In Virginia, we have a very Jeffersonian view of elected officials,” McDonald observed. “You go, do your public service, and return to the fields. And that’s how it should be. But on the flip side, if your elected officials aren’t being compensated well for their time, it’s hard for people to serve in those positions who aren’t independently wealthy or in a position with the flexibility that allows them to serve.” This means large swaths of the community are excluded from government, those who “could be good public servants, who can’t afford or don’t have the flexibility to serve.”
Dave Norris, a former city council member and former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, said he earned $12,000 a year on the council and $14,000 a year as mayor, even though the latter job was “easily a 40- to 60-hour-a-week job.” He agreed that the Jeffersonian tradition is anachronistic and problematic in the modern age.
“We have this notion… that our elected officials are supposed to be ‘citizen legislators.’ That probably made a whole lot of sense back in the day, when the only people who were allowed to serve in office or vote were essentially the landed gentry,” Norris said. “We’ve been steadily, over 200-plus years, democratizing our democracy… but there are still barriers to people serving in office who are not [people] of means. And we’ve got to work on addressing some of those barriers.”
Government of the rich, for the rich, by the rich
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, it costs about $2 million to get elected to the U.S. House and about $5 million to get elected to the Senate. Even state legislative races now often cost seven figures. This can be a big barrier to getting elected. With low salaries and long hours even in so-called “part-time” positions, the finances of serving can be another huge sticking point.
Pat Hynes, a teacher and a second-term member of the Fairfax County School Board in northern Virginia, estimates that her “part-time” elected office takes up about 30 hours per week. When she joined the board in 2012, the salary was just $20,000 a year, though it was raised to $32,000 four years ago (still well below the cost of living in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and Hynes says they “took a lot of heat” for the raise). She and her 11 colleagues oversee a $2.9 billion annual budget for the tenth-largest school division in the nation.
Hynes plans to retire at the end of her current term next year rather than continue to juggle both teaching and school board jobs (she doesn’t want to give up teaching, she says). “There’s no way to serve effectively in public office and be a teacher. And that’s a shame to me. Teachers have so much to give, but I’ve had a terrible time convincing teachers to even think about being a school board member,” she lamented.
Because there are “many people who might represent the average person in your community [currently] foreclosed from even thinking about it,” Hynes observed, “you get a very narrow view on policy. You get people on the board who tend to be of higher income [and are] pretty high on that spectrum of privilege. And it’s really hard for people to see the world through other people’s perspective.”
One of her colleagues, Fairfax County School Board member Dalia Palchik, was also a teacher when she was elected in 2015, but gave up her job when she found it impossible to do both well. She now supplements her “part-time” school board income by working in an “actual part-time job at a restaurant.” The only Latinx member of the board and one of just two millennials, she notes that the salary — “a little more than half of a first-year teacher salary” — makes serving a financial burden. “Our very diverse county needs to be more represented” in public service, she said. “That’s one of the challenges: Who are you able to attract? Who’s about to make the sacrifice?”
Adam Carranza serves on a “part-time” school board in California, receiving a gross payment of $3,600 per year and putting in at least 10 hours per week. “[Most constituents] are shocked to find out that school board members are not full-time positions and have to hold another job,” he said. “I know a lot of great people that would make great elected leaders, but they have families to support and they would find it hard to do both their employment and elected position well.” Instead, he sees most people in elected office are retired or “independently wealthy.”
Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, told ThinkProgress that there are real policy implications from having a system that excludes working-class people from public offices. “If only the wealthy are able to run for and win elected offices at the local, state, or federal levels, that significantly changes the types of policies that those legislature will consider or debate and pass,” he said. He noted that a member of Congress had once remarked that when he talked to wealthy donors, the top three issues he heard about were “carried interest, property taxes, and the estate tax.” On the other hand, poll after poll at the time showed the rest of the country cared most about “healthcare, corruption, and improving the economy.”
“By only having elected officials who are wealthy in office, it distorts the policies that are debated,” Scherb said.
The ethical ramifications
Scherb points out another real concern about part-time positions that don’t pay well: the opportunity for corruption. State and local lawmakers who have to do other jobs to supplement their meager salary as an elected official may encounter conflicts of interest, as well. “The especially serious concern is when those other jobs potentially conflict with the role of being a legislator and whether decisions that elected officials make are in the private interest of whatever job they have or the interest of their constituents who are elected to serve,” he said. Many states lack clear recusal guidelines or simply leave it up to legislators’ own judgment when and if to recuse themselves on votes that impact their employers. Last year, ThinkProgress wrote about a Minnesota legislator who apparently violated no rules as she repeatedly pushed legislation governing her own industry.
Overworked “part-time legislators” with few or no staffers are often forced to rely on lobbyists to bring them up to speed on complicated legislation. Unfortunately, Scherb said, “special interests fill the void by providing ‘expertise’ and by becoming issue experts, the de facto staff.”
Fairfax County’s Hynes said she relies heavily on the school system’s staff who “bend over backwards and belt-and-suspenders everything so we have the information we need.” But with only a half-time administrative aide each and a teaching job that takes up 40-plus hours a week, she says it leaves her “probably not as independent of staff” as ideally she should be. Hynes trusts the school system employees to tell her and other board members what they need to know, she said, “but their focus is on doing their jobs” while the board’s focus should be oversight.
Virginia Beach’s McDonald noted that in recent years, two former state legislators from his part of the state demonstrated another risk: susceptibility to bribes. Cash-strapped former Virginia Beach-area state legislator turned Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) was indicted in 2014 on federal corruption charges after he and his wife accepted lavish gifts from a businessman seeking help from the state (his conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on a technicality). Another longtime member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Phil Hamilton (R), is currently serving a 114-month prison sentence after he was convicted of using his position to coerce a public university into giving him a job.
“You have to ask yourself, if our elected officials are compensated better, would that alleviate the pressure?” McDonald asked.
The politics of pay raises
Jim Moran was a Democratic U.S. Representative from 1991 to 2015. When his young daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1994, his family amassed significant personal debt to afford her treatment. Even with a Congressional salary, it took years to climb out of the financial hole.
In 2014, after announcing he would not seek re-election, Moran made national news for saying that the $174,000 Congressional salary was not enough to attract and keep top talent in Congress. He launched what he called a “wholly quixotic” effort to raise salaries — and was widely mocked by those on the left and right. His proposal went nowhere.
Around the country, part-time lawmakers also fear the wrath of critics and constituents if they even broach the topic of pay raises. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, for example, when Louisiana lawmakers proposed raising their annual salary from $16,800 to $37,500, a major newspaper called it “greedy and shameless” and livid constituents “sent thousands of letters and emails demanding they kill the bill.”
The current part-time state legislator who asked to remain anonymous told ThinkProgress that the state’s legislature has rejected recent efforts to boost salaries to a livable level, out of fear that voters will retaliate. “One colleague suggested we put in legislation to earn $1 more than our legislative aides, who are paid more than we are, significantly.” But with a large number of independently wealthy colleagues, the status quo seems likely to prevail for the foreseeable future. And that means federal, state, and local government will likely continue to be havens for the rich, the retired, and a few others who try to get by on low incomes.
“When I first was elected,” the lawmaker remembered, “people said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Even though it was hard, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Now I think, ‘Damn right, I’m sacrificing.’ I don’t say it. But I think it.”