Why Aren’t State Legislators Paid a Living Wage?

The statutory $600-a-month salary can make it difficult for some lawmakers to stay afloat financially during the legislative session. Others say that the low pay keeps the focus on public service, rather than profit.

By Jen Rice July 21, 2017 1:39 pm, , , ,

From Houston Public Media:

Some states have a full-time legislature, while others pay their lawmakers almost nothing. In Texas, we’re somewhere in between.

Before today’s listener question, here’s a question for readers:

Do you know how much Texas lawmakers get paid? Would you believe it’s $600 per month? When Tyson from Austin first learned that, he was surprised.

He asked, “Why is it legal for state legislators to not get paid a living wage? It seems like built-in class discrimination, where you have to be rich to do it.”

Some background: Members of the U.S. Congress all have the same base salary, but for state lawmakers, the pay can be wildly different. In Texas, there’s a long tradition of the concept of the “citizen legislature,” which basically means lawmaking isn’t supposed to be a full-time job.

Judge Katie Kennedy is a Houstonian who serves on the state’s Ethics Commission.

“The Texas Constitution addresses both legislators’ salary and per-diem payments during a legislative session,” she says. “That’s Article 3, Section 24 and 24A of the Texas Constitution.”

So it’s legal because it’s in the state’s constitution. $600 a month may not pay the bills, but in Texas it’s not supposed to.

Compare that to California: There the state legislature works full time all year, every year and the lawmakers make $104,000 annually. However, in New Hampshire, they’ve been paying their lawmakers just $100 a year since 1889. That’s why voters in California may expect more from their legislators than folks do in New Hampshire. In Texas, we’re in the middle. What we expect from lawmakers isn’t as clear.

As Tyson’s question points out, not everyone can afford to be a Texas lawmaker. Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson was a public school teacher before she was elected to the Texas House. But she had some help: “I was married,” she says. “I had a husband.”

Thompson says Yes, more people would run for office in Texas if they had the money, but that we shouldn’t expect changes anytime soon. “The support is not there, because the majority of the people that I work with, they don’t need a salary increase,” she says.

When the legislature is in session, lawmakers also get a daily per diem of $190 for expenses, like if they need to rent an apartment while they’re in Austin. Sarah Davis is a House Republican representing Houston’s 134th District. She says the per diem is important, but she would eliminate the salary.

“If I were designing the system, I probably wouldn’t even give the legislators $7,200 a year,” she says. “Because I really believe that it is about community service.”

Davis says being a lawmaker should be a sacrifice, and if people were paid higher salaries, they might be there for the wrong reasons. Still, she admits it’s expensive. “We say we’re a part-time legislature, but I literally have to take six months out of my job to go to Austin,” she says.

Some representatives point out that Texas is better off having perspectives from all sorts of professionals on the floor. Leticia Van de Putte represented part of San Antonio for almost 25 years, first in the House, then in the Senate. She says, Take, for instance, Senator Donna Campbell: “She’ll work a 24-hour shift and come off and come to the Capitol, change out of her scrubs, and put on high heels and a dress and go to the Senate floor.”

Van de Putte says it’s not easy making $600 a month — some reps can’t put their primary jobs on hold. When Van de Putte first ran for office, she was a pharmacist with her own business and six kids under the age of 10. “Our family calculated that every time we had a legislative session, it would cost our family around $50,000 or more because I wasn’t working,” she says.

Even when they’re not in session, lawmakers are expected to juggle committee hearings, interim reports, constituent services, plus a constant parade of parades.

So this is where we get back to our question-asker, Tyson. Katie Kennedy, who serves on the Ethics Commission, says state lawmakers can’t change how much they make; a request would have to come from a member of the public.

“Well, they would have to come to the Texas Ethics Commission, which they’re welcome to do,” she says. “We have open meetings. They can ask to speak at our meetings and put that idea forward.”

From there, the commission could make a recommendation, and then, it would go to the voters. The next meeting of the Ethics Commission is in September.