How Much Do Your Legislators Make

How Much Do Your Legislators Make
President Lyndon Johnson (salary: $100,000) gets nose to nose with Senator Richard Russell (salary: $22,500). Source

"Bush horrified to learn Presidential salary," the October 2000 Onion article read.

"A measly couple hundred grand a year?" the soon-to-be-president was "quoted" as saying. "Not per month, even? Because I've already spent more than $60 million to get this job. I'll have to be president for 300 years just to break even."

President George W. Bush did, in fact, get a pay raise. In 2001, Congress doubled the President's salary from $200,000 to $400,000 per year, where it is to this day.

But let's talk about a more modest number: $16,245.12.

That's how much a Maine State legislator makes in a year, which nets out to about $8/hour. By comparison, entry-level Chipotle employees make $11/hour.

For those who love to run the numbers, there are about 2,080 working hours/year (assuming a 40-hour work week). Subtract 88 hours for federal holidays and you get 1,992. Divide that into $16,245.12 and Bob's your uncle.

To be fair, most state legislators aren't in session all the time; the majority of state legislatures are part-time. But legislators have constituents all the time.

So even if legislators aren't in session, they may be hearing from voters, businesses, special interest, navigating infrastructure projects that go through their district. They may be at state fairs, visiting classrooms, cutting ribbons. Or dealing with district power outages, flooding, fires.

Some time ago, America became quite taken with the idea of a citizen legislature, a part-time body made up of folks who aren't professional politicians: the farmer, small business owner, family doctor, the real folks who understand the issues on the ground and spend most of their time working amidst those issues, not legislating on them. It's government "of the people."

And theoretically, a citizen legislature is a gem of an idea, isn't it? But when theory hits the pavement, things look a little different. Because it's hard to live on $8/hour in Maine, which is why the state minimum wage is $14.15. So who can afford to do this job?

Folks who are retired or wealthy or have job flexibility or don't have kids or some combo of those. (Check out the demographics of your state legislature here.) And you can probably see where this is going: that doesn't quite reflect the majority of Americans.

As journalist Jamelle Bouie highlights, about 50% of this country is in the working class. But fewer than 2% of our country's state legislators are. Which doesn't smell like representative democracy to me.

What's the fix? A popular answer is often campaign finance reform, make it less expensive to run. But an answer I think is just as important is to pay legislators more, especially part-time legislators, which the majority of state legislators are.

So why don't they do it?


Politicians have a bad rep - and sometimes a well-earned one - from the jump. And few constituents vote for a politician because he gave himself a pay raise.

But now, let us talk about New Jersey, where they bumped legislators' pay from $49,000 to $82,000; they also included raises for the governor (the bill won't go into effect until after current Gov. Phil Murphy leaves office), state department heads, and legislators' staff allowances.

"It has been more than 20 years since legislators have had their pay increased, which makes it harder for people who are not independently wealthy to run for office," said now-former Senator Dick Codey, who sponsored the bill and got it signed into law before his retirement. (In other words, he won't benefit from the pay raise.)

Not everyone loves pay hikes. Regular folks can't just up and vote to give themselves a raise, opponents say. Bum politicians don't deserve any money, let alone more, they say.

Yes, there are definitely politicians who phone it in. And it might not be a bad idea to vote these lazy bones out so we can get good folks in who deserve the office, and decent pay to go with it.

But let's go back to Maine: the legislature has two-year sessions; the first year is a longer session (six-ish months), for which legislators get $16,245.12. The second year is a shorter session (four-ish months) and legislator pay is $11,668.32, about $6/hour. Comparatively, the federal minimum wage is $7.25. (Find out how much your state legislators make here.) And we haven't even discussed local electeds, where the pay can be even slimmer.

So if we want a government of the people and for the people, it's worth asking which people can afford to serve.

And to close out, let us "quote" President Bush from The Onion: "I spent 10 years running my dad's oil company at $14 million a year. Now they tell me that, for running the U.S.–which, you realize, includes my dad's oil company, as well as lots of other profitable businesses–I'd receive a lousy $200,000. Before taxes. If you ask me, the American people are getting away with highway robbery here."

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