Opinion

BIDLACK | Pay public servants more — or only those who can afford to serve, will

Author: Hal Bidlack - August 17, 2018 - Updated: August 16, 2018

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Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

Regular readers of my columns (hi Mom!) will recall that I do, from time to time, say things that are a tad inflammatory. And so, today’s column will assert something that should be an equal-opportunity offender for both the left and the right. Simply put, we pay our elected representatives way too little.

Few things unite those across the ideological landscape like hating those we elect to represent us. Nationally, approval of those we elect to Congress get only about a 17% favorable rating, which is actually up a few ticks from where the rating has been hovering in recent years. It’s very American, it seems, to really hate our government.

So perhaps that explains why we pay them so little, especially on the state level. But there is a danger in this, in that all too often, we get what we pay for, fielding only candidates who can afford, for various reasons, to run for office and serve. I’ve written on this issue before, pertaining to governors. But here in Colorado, it’s even worse for those we elect to represent us in the state legislature.

In Colorado, a person elected to serve, represent, and work on behalf of his or her fellow citizens in the state legislature pulls in a base salary of $30,000 per year, plus a per diem during the actual legislative session of $183 per day for those more than 50 miles from Denver, and $45 per day for those within 50 miles. Factor in the costs of living in Denver during the session and you’ll see that those we elect are not making much money. And on both sides of the aisle, those elected nearly all work hard all year round, and not just during the few months the legislature is in session. The pay is, frankly, very low given the responsibilities of those who serve.

Compared to other states, Colorado legislators are somewhere toward the bottom, but we’re not the worst. While a state rep in Pennsylvania earns a salary of $85,339, pity the poor public servant in Maine who is paid a scant $14,100, which must seem like the dreams of Midas for the reps in nearby New Hampshire, who pull down the paltry sum of $100 per year.

Now, I’m guessing that some of you, dear readers, are thinking to themselves that perhaps Maine and New Hampshire have it right – you shouldn’t pay state legislators much. After all, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia there was a serious proposal put forward to ban any payment at all to those elected to office. The notion was that people should serve out of a sense of duty and most certainly they most certainly should not be in it for the money.

Nonsense.

A recent Colorado Politics article noted that the state GOP had to replace one of their candidates on the ballot due to financial concerns. It seems current state Rep. Tim Leonard of Evergreen was forced to drop his re-election bid because of the low salary. His court-ordered family support was more than he could afford on his state salary of $30k. The judge ruled his low pay to be a function of “voluntary underemployment” and thus Mr. Leonard returned to the private sector. Now, to be clear, I’m guessing Mr. Leonard and I don’t agree on too much, and people should most definitely support their families.

That said, shouldn’t we want our elected officials to be able to afford to serve and take care of their families? I know several state legislators, on both sides of the aisle, and they are a hard-working bunch. Long after the formal term is over they continue to work on behalf of those who elected them.

If we don’t pay our legislators properly, we inevitably end up electing only those who can afford to serve – a dangerous concept. We end up with retired folks (like me) or independently wealthy folks (not me) or those working multiple jobs, with the nearly-inherent conflicts of interest therein. And so I say, raise the salaries of those who serve, so that they can better serve us all.

And if after all of this, you still think we overpay our legislators and that they are all a bunch of crooks, I have a very simple solution. Run for office. If it’s that easy, anyone can do it. So, quit your job and file the paperwork to become a candidate. If you can afford it.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.