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Legislative Pay: Decrease it, Don’t Increase it

July 24, 2014

This year we get another “opportunity” to vote on legislative pay. Whenever legislative pay is discussed you hear arguments like “The low pay and huge time commitments of serving as a state lawmaker keep many people from running for the Legislature.” Conventional wisdom says working more hours is better and being paid more is better but, with respect to legislative pay, conventional wisdom is wrong. We shouldn’t want our legislators to work more. We already have too many laws. Why would we want to do anything that would tend to make legislators work longer hours?

You will also hear comments with respect to the pay issue like “you get what you pay for.” The people making these comments are often the people who, at the same time, will talk about legislators as public servants. Where is the “public service” if all we are getting is “what we pay for?” Will Rogers told us years ago, “you ought to be glad you don’t get all the government you pay for.” As point of comparison, there are hundreds of Arizona citizens who volunteer countless hours on boards and commissions, all without any pay, except for expenses such as mileage reimbursement. This is far less than the per diem which Arizona legislators get……in addition to their salary. And, if you divide the length of the legislative session (the goal is 100 days and many of these days are not full days) by the current yearly salary of $24,000, you get a daily compensation of $240 (plus expenses). How many Arizona taxpayers earn that much?

Another argument you will hear is the concern about all the people who can’t afford to serve because the pay is too low. We do not need every person in Arizona to serve in the legislature. We only need 90 people. The rest of us (Arizona’s four million adults minus the 90 legislators) have to work at regular jobs to make a living and pay taxes. Besides, we don’t want legislating to be a “career.” We want people to serve a short time and then rejoin the ranks of ordinary citizens.

As someone who has been active in politics for many years, I respond to the “good people can’t run” notion by asking anyone who uses this phrase to cite one legislative race where there were an insufficient number of candidates and the problem was the low pay. I have yet to have anyone come up with a single race. Furthermore, no matter what pay level you set, there will always be those who earn so much above that amount that it will be economically foolish for them to give up their day job. And it probably would also not be good for the rest of society if these people gave up their day jobs because, the fact that they are so highly compensated, probably means that they are very productive. Why should we want them to give up that productivity if there are others who will serve? An alternate approach to this dilemma would be to have the legislature meet at night and on weekends so more people could serve as legislators. That would also allow more regular working citizens to participate in the process.

The supporting comments you always see that advocate higher pay frequently come from lobbyists attempting to curry favor from legislators and from people who like big government and who want to generate more jobs and higher-paying jobs in government. If legislators are paid more, then they will likely work more, which means they will probably pass more laws, which will cause government agencies to employ more people. It will also likely mean that other government employees will be paid more. It is a vicious cycle that is counterproductive to the cause of liberty. Actually what we should do is reduce the pay to where we cover only their expenses. It will reduce the amount of legislation to only the amount we really need and will result in legislators truly being—–public servants.

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