Want a better legislature? It doesn’t have to take more money

There has been a lot of talk about money in politics lately. From Hillary’s $368,000-a-person Hollywood dinners and Emily Cain’s jaunt to the Democratic megadonor gala to Harriet Tubman knocking off Andrew Jackson and underdog Republican Ande Smith beating incumbent Chellie Pingree in individual donations, discussions about dollars are everywhere.

Meanwhile, back here in Maine, we’ve seen battles around which tax dollars should go into the Clean Elections pile and a bipartisan push to pay legislators more. Eight months ago, we were told state-level elected office was unreachable for many because raising money is corrupting and arduous. Voters, rightly or wrongly, agreed to spend more tax money on elections to solve that problem. Now we hear arguments that holding elective office is untenable because it does not pay enough, leading to pay raise proposals.

To be fair, the present structure supports their argument. Legislators spend a few days a week in Augusta. If you get elected and find yourself on a busy committee like Appropriations, you can expect to spend a lot more time there. For the first year, this occurs over six months. In the second year, around four months.

Under the dome of the State House in Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Under the dome of the State House in Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

As the sessions come to a close, legislators are often on site every day rushing to finish their work. The collegial atmosphere can turn collegiate, with our elected officials finishing their work at 2 a.m. on the day it is due, or “statutory adjournment.”

What do they get for all of this? Around $25,000 for two years of service. It is not exorbitant, but if you assume 10 months of work for the two sessions, the annualized salary is $30,000. Adding in their taxpayer-paid health and dental insurance provides about an additional $8,000 value. If they spend 150 days in session and committee meetings, add another $10,000 in per diem reimbursements to help cover their costs; $70 a day.

Of course, there are also special retirement benefits for legislators. If you spent your career in the private sector, the pension is not substantial. However, if you were employed by the state or as a teacher for most of your career, legislative service can have a significant impact on your retirement income.

The simple fact is people confuse congressional benefits with state legislative ones. Unlike Bernie Sanders, Angus King, or Ted Cruz, Justin Alfond and Mike Thibodeau aren’t earning $174,000 annually from Senate service. That confusion makes it difficult to listen to cries for pay raises with a straight face.

But even with a passable argument on why more money is justified, the solution to every problem needn’t be tax dollars. Simply increasing pay does not change the massive time-drain that is legislative service. How many adults in the middle of their lives — with jobs and families — can dedicate three days a week to Augusta for six months on end? Some can, but they are often professionals who set their own schedules like lawyers and brokers or business owners.

Instead of increasing the pay for legislative service, why not rework the workload and stretch existing dollars further? Some states, like Virginia, Florida, and Kentucky, limit their legislatures to 30 or 60 calendar days. Others do not set firm deadlines, but let committees work on matters with the bodies convening occasionally to enact legislation. There are countless ways to reform the process, although it is probably the least captivating topic imaginable.

When voters decided to expand clean elections, a major argument was helping more people run for the legislature. Whether you receive $10,000 or $60,000 in taxpayer campaign funding, it doesn’t make the time commitment more viable for people with normal jobs. Before rushing to add more money to the pile for those who do get elected, let’s find out if we can do things better. More money isn’t always a solution; sometimes it is just more spending.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.