Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, they’ve got a fascinating article entitled, How Much Should State Legislators Get Paid? Here are a few highlights, with my comments about how Virginia’s General Assembly stacks up.
- “Lawmaker salaries vary wildly across the country, from California, where legislators make nearly $100,000 a year, to New Hampshire, where they are compensated with $100 annually and no per diem.” Virginia House of Delegates members get $24,100, while Virginia State Senators get $24,840, in salary plus per diem. That’s super low in absolute terms, but more importantly it’s extremely low (37%-38%) relative to median household income in Virginia. Pathetic, in other words.
- “The researchers concluded that the best way to test the efficacy of a state legislature is through a concept called professionalism, which includes three components: salary, the number of days in a legislative session, and the size of the legislature’s staff.” Virginia doesn’t do very well on any of these three components — low salaries, a legislature that meets just 45 or 60 days per year, and small staffs.
- “…state legislatures that meet for longer and give their legislators more resources (both in terms of staff and salary) are more efficient, passing a greater percentage of bills overall and enacting more bills per legislative day. They have more contact with constituents and are more attentive to their concerns. They are also more independent, both from party leadership and the governor, and more likely to take on government reforms and enact complex and innovative policies.” Now, think about Virginia’s General Assembly and how it does on these criteria, particularly the last ones — independent? more likely to enact government reforms and/or “complex and innovative policies?” Puh-leeze, you must be kidding!
- “Low pay also puts limits on who can realistically serve in a legislature…Many lawmakers must be independently wealthy or have flexible jobs that allow them to juggle politics and everyday work.” Again, major #FAIL on the part of the Virginia General Assembly. That is, if you want a legislature that reflects the socioeconomic diversity of the state, which it most certainly does not do now!
- “Lawmakers with less time to spare and no staff to guide them may rely more heavily on lobbyists to advise them about legislation…” Ding ding ding ding ding! I’d add that with part-time legislators and small staffs, combined with hundreds of bills to deal with in just a few weeks every year, our legislators are almost inevitably going to end up relying on friendly advice from the fine folks at major corporations (e.g., Dominion Power, payday lenders, Altria, coal companies, you name it). Remember, these guys are “experts” in their specific subject areas, many of which are highly technical. The problem is that they’re also heavily biased in favor of their own interests, of course, not necessarily the interests of the general public.
So, yeah, Virginia’s legislature should be professionalized – not to mention overhauled from top to bottom, from ethics to campaign finance to redistricting to everything mentioned above. But, of course, it won’t be. And on that cheery note…