Analysis: Pay Legislators More for Better Representation

A cracked piggy bank with loose coins that have the Florida, Georgia, and Texas state seals printed on them, mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

If there’s one thing Americans can agree on, it’s rejecting pay increases for politicians. In 2014, 68% of Arizona voters rejected a ballot referendum to give legislators a raise. Likewise, in Colorado, legislators voted to reject a scheduled pay increase in response to public criticism. But as it turns out, paying legislators more isn’t such a bad idea after all. In today’s Data Dive, we’re taking a look at state legislator pay and how it impacts representation. The nonprofit group New American Leaders, which focuses on electing Americans with immigrant backgrounds to political office, examined this exact question. Their report, “How State Legislator Salaries Contribute to Poor Representation,” found that states with higher legislator salaries generally have better representation, especially when it comes to economic and professional representation.

Here are the key takeaways:

State legislatures vary widely in legislative pay, time commitment and staffing.

The National Council Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) breaks down state legislatures into three basic categories:

  • Full-time legislatures with a large number of staff members, like New York and Michigan.
  • Two-thirds time with an intermediate number of staff members.
  • Part-time with a small number of staff members.

Compensation for lawmakers varies widely across these categories, ranging from $110,000 salaries in New York to none at all in New Mexico. According to the report, only four states have adequate compensation for lawmakers: California, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania. As a result, in most other states, lawmakers must have another source of income to be able to serve in office. Usually, this other source of income also has to have a flexible work schedule so lawmakers can juggle both responsibilities. 

Part-time and low-compensation legislatures are less professionally diverse and provide worse representation to constituents.

Additionally, the study makes clear that states with part-time legislatures are less professionally diverse. In Georgia, a state with a part-time legislature, nearly 85% of representatives report earning income from another job — most commonly owning a business, working as a consultant or practicing law. There are no lawmakers representing top Georgia industries like agriculture, film, manufacturing or hospitality. The legislature also doesn’t reflect the demographics of the state, with men and white Americans overrepresented compared to women, Asian and Black Americans.

By contrast, the Michigan legislature is full time and legislators earn the fourth-highest salary in the nation. While the Legislature does not require lawmakers to report other sources of income, members anecdotally report that most legislators do not have other jobs and come from a diverse array of professions like farming, education, finance, law enforcement, government, health, law and nonprofits. Similarly, over 60% of New York lawmakers report no other income besides their compensation from serving.

Apart from professional diversity, part-time and lower-paying legislatures also provide worse representation to constituents. Legislatures that meet for longer sessions, have higher pay and more staff pass a greater percentage of bills overall and enact more bills per legislative day. They also have more contact with constituents and are often more responsive to their needs and concerns. In Georgia, for instance, legislators are only given $7,000 to hire staff — meaning they are only able to retain support for the 40-day legislative session even though constituent service is a year-round job.

Low pay hinders professional diversity in legislatures.

While most legislatures have made gains in terms of gender parity and racial representation, they are not making advances in terms of professional diversity. The low pay and corresponding need to seek outside employment is a major barrier for more economic diversity among lawmakers. When legislators need outside income, they have to seek employment that is flexible enough to accommodate the needs of serving in the legislature and campaigning. Industries like hospitality, administration, social services and education usually cannot provide this flexibility. As a result, representation in the legislature skews to wealthier, white-collar professions like attorneys, doctors and consultants who can take time off to legislate and campaign. 

Having an economically and professionally diverse legislature matter. In the absence of working-class perspectives, policymaking will fail to take into account the nuance and needs of the entire population. Additionally, legislatures that are not professionally diverse will lack first-hand industry expertise beneficial to enacting legislation impacting those industries.

The report includes several recommendations to improve representation in state legislatures.

1. Make state legislatures full time.

Meeting the needs of citizens is a full-time job, so there’s no reason why legislatures shouldn’t work full time as well. Not only are full-time legislatures more productive and more responsive to constituents, but lawmakers in full-time legislatures do not have to seek outside income and can therefore come from a greater variety of professional and economic backgrounds.

2. Create independent compensation commissions.

By recognizing the unpopularity of legislative pay increases, the report also recommends that compensation for legislators should instead be the purview of independent committees that will objectively review legislator compensation and recommend increases when necessary, as opposed to the current structure, which requires lawmakers in many states to approve their own pay raises.

3. Provide adequate funds for full-time staff.

Lacking the resources to adequately pay staff is a major obstacle for lawmakers in carrying out their duties. Without the support of a well-funded staff, lawmakers may need to turn to outside interests or lobbyists for legislative analysis or other critical tasks. Investing in staff improves lawmaker performance and the ability to serve all constituents and communities.

4. Address the need for childcare.

The lack of affordable and reliable childcare is a major barrier to women interested in running for office. Allowing candidates to use campaign funds to pay for childcare is an important step to overcoming this obstacle. States should then follow Alaska’s example by offering childcare for parents and caregivers once they are in office. Additionally, although not included in the report, it seems only logical that access to affordable and reliable childcare is a major barrier to not only candidates but staff members as well. By that logic, we might expect that expanding access to childcare would benefit all working parents in the legislature, not just the elected members.

5. Invest in candidate recruitment and training.

Finally, organizations and political parties need to invest in building a diverse bench of candidates. While changes to compensation will help reduce barriers to elected office, diverse candidates still need training and fundraising support to win office and enact change. In particular, groups need to invest more in recruiting candidates from working-class backgrounds and industry diversity should be just as prioritized as gender or racial diversity.

Adequate pay remains a significant barrier for many Americans who might want to seek office, especially from underrepresented professions. Increasing legislative pay and making legislatures full time, along with the other solutions New American Leaders recommends, will go a long way toward making sure state legislatures accurately reflect the populations they represent.