Revive the Citizen Legislature: Pay Lawmakers More
It’s no secret that the 2018 midterms brought an unprecedented wave of youth to the federal legislature. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abby Finkenauer became the two youngest women to be elected to the House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez in particular has recently drawn attention from pundits for having less than $7,000 in savings and needing “to wait for her Congressional salary to kick in before she can rent an apartment in D.C.” However, once she begins her work in January, Ocasio-Cortez will receive the customary $174,000 salary for a Member of Congress, meaning the financial troubles she currently faces will likely be resolved.
Elections for North Carolina’s state legislature may not have involved the same age demographics, but there was certainly a rush of first-time Democratic candidates elected to office — from Sydney Batch and Julie von Haefen in the Wake County suburbs to Natasha Marcus outside of Charlotte. These candidates have backgrounds different from your typical legislator, and they have prevailed in spite of obstacles put in their path. The largest obstacle? While a Member of Congress receives $174,000, a rank-and-file state legislator in North Carolina receives under $14,000 in base pay.
In 2015, the legislative session stretched on for eight months, so members were eligible for additional compensation in the form of subsistence pay and travel expenses. State congresspersons ended up taking home anywhere from around $21,000 to just under $60,000 for eight months of work. While some are justifiably unsatisfied with the work of our legislature, and raising salaries for lawmakers has never been a politically feasible agenda item, perhaps it is time to think about the politically unfeasible. Only a certain type of person — typically someone who is retired or has a high level of financial stability — can get by on a base salary of $14,000. If we want to see more young and working-class lawmakers, and if we want to have more lawmakers who understand the difficulties North Carolinians deal with, a salary increase is essential. Candidates should be able to run for office without worrying about the financial stress associated with a job that’s already taxing in numerous other ways.
In Louisiana in 2009, after four hurricanes and an oil spill led to incredibly long work weeks for legislators, some state public servants, including Rep. Joe Harrison (R), proposed and helped pass a 123% salary increase for a legislature that had not received a raise since 1980. Due to citizen and media pressure, then-Governor Bobby Jindal (R) vetoed the bill. Louisiana legislators, many of whom work for their constituents year-round, continue to make a measly $16,800. That $16,800 is still nearly $3,000 more per year than the base pay of a North Carolina legislator. After the bill failed, Harrison was quoted saying, ”Eventually our legislature will consist of only the very wealthy or retired people. We will have eliminated the citizen legislature as we know it.”
Legislators’ base pay in North Carolina is more than $20,000 below the national average, which was $35,592 in 2017 and has not increased in more than two decades. Perhaps it is time for the North Carolina legislature to do the politically infeasible thing and move past concerns about challengers portraying them as lining their own pockets. Unpopular as it often sounds, a substantial salary increase for those who represent us might be the only way to save the citizen legislature.